Q&A: Pamela Colloff on her new gig with NYT Mag and ProPublica

Photo by Jeff Wilson.

Since its sale in October, Texas Monthly has made nearly as many headlines as it has written. Most recently, Executive Editor Pamela Colloff on Monday announced her departure from the magazine where she has worked for 20 years. She will be joining both The New York Times Magazine and ProPublica, in a job that will combine the resources of both institutions. Her work will appear both in the magazine and on ProPublica’s website, and she will work closely with editors from both organizations.

Creating the job took months of planning. Silverstein approached ProPublica with the idea two months prior to the offer, and together they worked out the kinks involving contracts and work flow. According to Silverstein, there is no other reporter at either institution with a job quite like this.

CJR reached out to Colloff, who we profiled last month, to talk to her about this new job and what it means for her reporting. She declined to discuss the implications of her departure on Texas Monthly. What follows is an edited transcript.

 

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How did this job come about?

So, Jake Silverstein left Texas Monthly almost three years ago this spring. And not long after he got settled, he began reaching out to me. So, he and I have been talking for a long time.  He’s been talking to ProPublica since last year about a partnership. And I’ve been talking to ProPublica since January.

 

What made you interested in this?

ProPublica partnered with The New York Times Magazine in July of 2016. That story was by Ryan Gabrielson and Topher Sanders and was about how roadside drug tests are unreliable. In many ways it was a Texas story, and I remember what an effective and powerful piece it was, and just getting this feeling that it was the kind of story I wanted to be doing more of.

 

How will it work having two employers?

I’ll have two editors. Tracy Weber, who is senior editor at ProPublica. Tracy is an incredible award-winning journalist, who teaches investigative reporting at Columbia and worked at the Los Angeles Times. Since I didn’t have any formal journalism training, I have a huge amount to learn from her. And I would love to sit in on one of her classes. Also, I will have all of the support ProPublica can offer. And I’ll be able to work with other reporters.

At the Times my editor will be Ilena Silverman; she’s the features editor at the magazine and a storytelling legend. And I’ll be working with both of them throughout the process. Tracy will be there for the gestation of the stories—pitching, writing, first draft. Ilena will be more involved on the backend. And this will brings together the strengths of these organizations.

 

Are there other writers like you who are owned by two masters?

As far as individual writers like me, I’m not sure. But ProPublica always tries to find a partner. So there are all these crazy long lists of media organizations they partner with. So my job is an extension of that idea.

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What type of stories will you be working on?

I will be doing public interest stories with a narrative treatment.

 

What do you mean by “public interest”?

When I was interviewing for the job, I asked Stephen Engelberg, the founding managing editor of ProPublica, and Robin Fields, the current managing editor of ProPublica, how they described public interest. And they referred me to their mission statement, which says that ProPublica focuses on stories of “moral force.” The exact phrase is, “Our work focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with ‘moral force.’” And that’s how I define “public interest.”

But this will challenge me on two fronts: 1. To focus on something of public import 2. To tell it in a way that it makes a good story.

 

That’s interesting that you bring up the “moral force” because that’s how Jake Silverstein described you in the recent profile, that you were driven by “moral purpose.”

That’s nice of him to say. And yes, that word “moral” is very important to me.

 

So you get to stay in Texas?

Everyone talks about the current war against the media, but the silver-lining is that reporters in the middle of the country are being heard more. At no point in this did anyone suggest I move. In fact, Louise Kiernan is running the ProPublica office in Chicago. And now they have writers on the West Coast and me here in Texas.

 

How much will you be writing?

The idea is to do big, deep stories, but what that looks like, we will figure out as we go along.

 

So, what will you be writing first for this new job?

I’m about to pitch some stories and they all have a criminal justice angle. And I’m excited to extend my reporting beyond the state. For 20 years, my work has been strictly about Texas and I hope to reach out a look beyond the borders of the state into other areas like Arizona, New Mexico and beyond.

 

How do you feel about being on the other side of the story?

I much rather ask the questions than answer them. That’s for sure. It’s also such a great exercise for reporters to be interviewed and written about. When I walk into someone’s living room to interview them, I’m not nervous. But being on the other side, helps me understand how it feels to not know someone, not know the story. So, it’s a great reminder of the responsibility reporters hold and what it feels like to be the person inside the story.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of a senior editor at ProPublica.

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Lyz Lenz is a writer based in Iowa. Her writing has appeared in Pacific Standard, Marie Claire, Jezebel, and The Washington Post. She can be found on Twitter @lyzl.