That cautionary note comes from Pamela Colloff, whose justice system reporting for Texas Monthly, and now ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine, has garnered a long list of awards. She is a six-time National Magazine Award finalist, and won in 2013 for “The Innocent Man,” about a man wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. Her 2010 story, “Innocence Lost,” was credited with freeing another man who was on death row.
Earlier this month, at the 2019 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, Colloff shared lessons from her experience covering justice issues in a conversation with Laura Beil, an award-winning medical journalist who hosts the Dr. Death podcast.
Colloff said the best justice stories are told with a thoughtful blend of care and sensitivity. As an example, she cited “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning narrative by Christian Miller of ProPublica and Ken Armstrong of The Marshall Project, which is told from the perspective of the victim.
Colloff prefaced her Mayborn remarks with an admission about her own work: “I don’t always get this right.” When embarking on a project, she sets out to form a relationship with the subject of her story, who could be a survivor of a sexual assault, an inmate or a family member of a victim. That process typically begins with a letter of introduction and explanation of her intent to explore a story.
During interviews, she tries to be a sympathetic listener. She lets her subject guide the flow of the interview, how much is shared and when. This approach gives her story subjects a sense of control and trust that can be so strong that they sometimes confide details to her that they’ve only shared with few, if any, others.
…if you’re going to do the enterprise stuff, you have to learn to be more of a storyteller.
Colloff stays in touch with her subjects through the writing and editing process and goes over sensitive material before publication “so they can prepare themselves for the public attention.” That also helps with fact-checking, she said.
Overall, she is guided by one overriding thought: “It’s the tremendous pressure I feel to do a story justice. A real obligation to do good work.”
After her Mayborn talk, I got a little one-on-one time with Colloff to learn more about her process, from conception to research and reporting and through the editing and revising process. Here is a recap of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Where do your ideas come from? As you’ve become better known, especially for your stories about wrongful convictions, are people sending you ideas?
It’s different with every story. I do have more people sending me stuff now, which is great. One of the things that’s hard about a wrongful conviction case is that even just evaluating if it’s worth writing about can take months because they’re so complicated.
- She uses Google alerts: I have upwards of 80 Google alerts going at all times, and I’m sure that one is going to pan out one of these days. The Google alerts are usually set to a state I’m interested in writing about plus some criminal justice issue I’m looking at. So it could be Arkansas and Montana on the death penalty — something like that.
- She talks to a lot of lawyers: The story idea they have in mind might not necessarily be the idea. But I’ll ask them about some other things and find stories that way.
- She finds ideas all around her: You know, your Uber driver, or whomever. I wrote a story in 2015 called “The Witness,” about a woman I knew who was the public information officer for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. She witnessed 278 executions, and she had been there when I was covering various other things that had to do with the criminal justice department or the death penalty.
How do you pitch a story to your editors?
I’m not good with pitching stuff in person. I always do a really detailed memo. The memo for the story I’m writing right now was three pages, single-spaced. And I should add that I’m pitching to my employers. If I were doing a freelance pitch, it would be different.
I usually start with a narrative top and lay out the characters and the story arc and then get to why it’s important.
What is your process for research and reporting?
Larry Wright has his famous index card system. I wish I had something like that. I read a ton, especially if I’m writing about a criminal case. Trial transcripts. Warrants. News coverage at the time. I’ll make a list of those people I think are most likely to talk to me on down to the least likely. Then I start at the top. For the people who don’t want to talk, I’ll try to talk to their friends, so their friends will tell them I’m not as scary as they think I am.
Especially in a small town, and this happens to me all the time, I don’t know all of the different rivalries and friendships. Sometimes that can work to your advantage because they’ll say, ‘Oh, you talked to Dave? All right, I’ll talk to you, because everything that comes out of his mouth is a lie.’ So, sometimes it doesn’t have to be talking to their friends that helps. It can be talking to their enemies.
How do you know when you’re ready to write?
I always feel like I’m getting really close to the writing process when people start asking me about what I know. Or when I get to person No. 28, and they start telling me what happened that day, and I’m barely writing anything down because I already know it. So I get to a point where I think if I keep reporting without getting some of this down, I’m going to lose it. The deadline pressure definitely factors in. That pressure can be really tough. Some of these projects take a long time, so they better be good.
Do you start writing while you’re still reporting, or not?
No. I know I’m ready to write when I know what the end of the story is. Then I feel like the rest of the story is trying to get to the end. I can’t conceptualize it until I’m pretty far down the road of reporting. I do take really extensive notes that go into this monster outline. I’m not even sure an outline is the right word because I basically put everything into one monster document that I can word-search; it’ll be my notes from each interview and quotes that I want to use.
Do you have any set time for writing or a place where you write? How do you deal with the stress of writing, especially as you get closer to deadline?
It’s best if there’s some way that I can just start first thing in the morning and not plunge into email, not get distracted by stuff that’s going on. Unless I’ve just finished a story, I don’t have lunch with people. I don’t go out for coffee. I go into work and just try to get as many words out during the day as possible. And sometimes I like to go to a coffee shop where I don’t get onto the Wifi, and I put my phone away and just kind of try to get into the zone.
I go into work and just try to get as many words out during the day as possible.
There’s one coffee shop in my neighborhood that is so loud and filled with tech bros; it’s not a pleasant environment. I get so much done there because I just want to be done. I put my earplugs in, and I can’t leave until I write however many words.
The other thing is going to Barton Springs and swimming and just the coldness of that water. It’s like clearing my head completely. There’s something about jumping into freezing water to help with whatever that thing is, where you think, Oh, you’re never going to write another good story. You can’t do this. You’re going to fail. I have a lot of that in my head, and then I get into this frigid water and I’m good.
I imagine you do a lot of revising. What does that editing look like?
So the mandate of this job, a combination of really vivid, immersive narrative writing with public interest, accountability reporting — I’m still learning how to fuse those two things and make it feel like a seamless narrative. Draw you in with the narrative and keep you with the accountability stuff. It’s not intuitive to me yet.
I’ll give it my best shot. We’ll see what works and what doesn’t. We move things around and then the editors give me specific directions as to what they want me to do. One of the things I love about this job is that I feel like I’m learning every day. It’s a different kind of storytelling. So we, we go through a lot of revisions. The thing that’s great is my editors are so smart and we have good, trusting relationships. I’m able to show them things that maybe aren’t quite ready, and I’m able to hear them say to me this isn’t working and we need to do this differently.
One of the things I love about this job is that I feel like I’m learning every day.
Jake Silverstein (former editor of Texas Monthly and now editor of The New York Times Magazine) is my editor again. he’s wonderful. And my immediate editors are brilliant: Tracy Weber at ProPublica and Ilene Silverman at the magazine.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve gotten?
Skip Hollandsworth once told me to rewrite a draft taking all the quotes out. He said ‘Just stop relying on your quotes to do the work. And don’t be afraid to say what the guy was thinking or what was motivating him to do something in your words because it’s going to be better writing.’ And it was so true. Once you take the quotes out, you have to take ownership of the story.
It’s the main thing I tell younger reporters, because especially if you’re training in a newspaper, you might have a quote almost every paragraph, right? But if you’re going to do the enterprise stuff, you have to learn to be more of a storyteller.