Let me tell you a story about Pamela Colloff. In the mid-nineties, fresh out of college, she was working in Austin as a writer for a law enforcement trade magazine. But what she really wanted was an assignment from Texas Monthly. So she sent in a pitch, only to receive a rejection letter. Undaunted, she sent another and another and another, and each time she was turned down. I have no doubt that I’ve exaggerated the details of this story over the years, particularly when I tell it to aspiring young journalists, but the essence is true enough. Finally, after collecting yet another rejection letter, Pam sent in a query to a different editor, and she struck gold on her first try. One freelance assignment led to another, and she was hired as a staff writer in 1997. (A note about those editors: the first one left the magazine a short time later; the other became the editor in chief a few years after that.)
Today Pam is an executive editor at Texas Monthly who has won our industry’s highest honor, a National Magazine Award. Over the years, she has built a reputation for telling complicated, emotional stories about crime and punishment with painstakingly precise reporting, and in this issue she has produced a stunning feature called “The Witness.” The piece is about Michelle Lyons, who, as a reporter for the Huntsville Item and later as an employee for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, watched the executions of 278 condemned prisoners. In telling this story, Pam does not lean in favor of the death penalty, and she doesn’t advocate against it. She simply tells the story of an average Texan who held a not-so-average job. What I particularly like about this piece is that it wasn’t pulled from the headlines—if Pam hadn’t decided to spend four months working on it, no one would have missed it in our pages. But the final product confirms the power of a journalist to reveal a world the rest of us would not have considered and to connect us with a character we otherwise would not have known. I won’t give anything away, but I will never forget the scene involving an inmate’s request for catfish as his last meal.
The moment I finished reading the story—all 9,500 words of it—I thought to myself, “I can’t wait to see what Pam does next.”