During his college days at the University of Dallas, our features director, J. K. Nickell, played point guard on the varsity basketball squad, where his approach to the game foreshadowed his career in journalism. J. K. routinely gave up shooting opportunities in favor of deft passes that helped his teammates score. He was more likely to lead the team in assists than in points. His quiet, unselfish manner sometimes frustrated his coaches—but it has endeared him to colleagues here at Texas Monthly, where his editing elevates tales like this month’s cover story on pioneering Black lawman Bass Reeves.
The author of that article, associate editor Christian Wallace, typically pitches stories to our editors. But this time J. K. brought the idea to him. He had become intrigued by the debate over whether Reeves, reared in Texas, had served as the real-life model for the fictional Lone Ranger. When J. K. broached the topic, he said, Christian “knew all about Bass Reeves” but wasn’t sure how he might advance the story. J. K. urged him to drive up to Arkansas and Oklahoma to poke around. “I was very hesitant,” Christian says, “but I trust J. K.’s instincts.”
J. K. gave Christian some reporting leads, and a link to an award-winning New York Times Magazine story about Michelangelo’s statue of the Biblical David, which he offered as inspiration for how one might bring alive a legendary figure. After navigating slick roads during the February ice storm, Christian found fresh elements to the Reeves story. And as he and J. K. traded multiple drafts, they honed and polished it into a narrative I think you’ll find enlightening and entertaining.
Even as he leads our crack team of feature editors, J. K. keeps developing new skills. He and Christian, along with colleagues Megan Creydt and Brian Standefer, crafted our Boomtown podcast about the Permian oil patch. It rose to number one in the Apple ranking for documentary podcasts and has been optioned in Hollywood as a possible streaming TV series. J. K. later worked for nearly a year with executive editor Skip Hollandsworth on a cover story, web series, and podcast called Tom Brown’s Body, about the mysterious disappearance of a popular high school senior in the Panhandle town of Canadian. That tale also has been optioned for television. Podcast work, J. K. says, is “so different from magazine editing because you have to build the aural story around your interviews, rather than just using quotes to enliven your narrative. You have to ask a lot of open-ended questions. And you have to write and edit to a different, spoken cadence.”
Luckily for us, J. K. is a quick study. After graduation from UD, he taught middle school and coached basketball in Melissa, northeast of Dallas. He later earned an MPhil in human-rights law at the University of Cape Town, in South Africa, and a master’s in journalism at the University of North Texas. That’s where he met Skip, who spoke to a writing conference there. He recalls that J. K. had “an infectious laugh and a great nose for bullshit.” J. K. then worked as a freelance writer, and as executive editor for the in-flight magazine of Southwest Airlines. We lured him away from there in 2017. Says senior editor Lauren Larson, herself no slouch at feature editing: “J. K. quickly and clearly sees the big ideas driving a story—and the issues holding it back.”
J. K. and his wife, Kat, a pediatric physician assistant, are the proud, frazzled parents of a three-year-old son and six-month-old daughter. I tease him that with one more child, they’d have themselves a basketball squad—and it would be exceptionally well-coached.