An association for alumni and supporters of The Daily Texan

Friends of The Daily Texan

An association for alumni and supporters of The Daily Texan

Friends of The Daily Texan

An association for alumni and supporters of The Daily Texan

Friends of The Daily Texan

Contact Information
Friends of The Daily Texan, Inc.
1401 Lavaca St
Austin, TX 78701

[email protected]

Alumni Spotlight: Lisa Falkenberg, Pulitzer Prize-winning Houston Chronicle columnist, got her journalism start at The Daily Texan

Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Lisa Falkenberg.
Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Lisa Falkenberg.

The summer before her first semester at the University of Texas, Lisa Falkenberg found herself in the basement of The Daily Texan. The auburn-haired freshman already had her sights set on a career in journalism.

“I had a bunch of clips and my resume,” Falkenberg said. “And I walked into the news editor’s office and thought that they would be wowed by this stuff. They barely even looked at it.”

She was told not to expect to get hired. She pursued the job anyway and was hired as a general-assignment reporter during her freshman year. Later she became a senior reporter, primarily covering the university administration. “I want to stress how important a learning experience it was for me,” Falkenberg said.

After completing reporting internships, including for Scripps Howard and the Associated Press, she graduated in 2000 and began her first full-time journalism job at the AP’s Dallas bureau in 2001. Soon, she would hold a regional beat for the AP, reporting on happenings throughout North and East Texas and covering big stories like the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster.

In 2004, Falkenberg joined the Houston Chronicle and was posted in Austin. The next year, she was involved in the Chronicle’s highly regarded coverage of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Covering natural disasters was an opportunity “to go back to the way reporting used to be done and should be done,” Falkenberg said. The shoe leather stuff: walking around and interviewing strangers, seeking out victims.

“Today [reporting] is done so much on your phone and computer,” she said.

Falkenberg’s work was noticed by top editors at the Chronicle. In 2007, at the age of 28, she was promoted to the coveted job of metro columnist. Her writing has garnered major praise and awards. In recent years, Falkenberg’s powerful storytelling has illuminated the flaws and inadequacies in the criminal justice system.

In 2014, Falkenberg was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, recognized in part for a column she wrote about a 12-year-old girl who was raped and became pregnant.

A state district judge, John Phillips, ordered that the girl’s baby be taken from her because of her age. But doing so, Falkenberg explained, would be illegal. A parent can lose custody of a child when there is abuse and neglect, but not because of age.

“I started writing columns about every single thing [the judge] did,” Falkenberg said. “Eventually he recused himself.” She credits the attorney helping the young girl, as well as her columns, with producing a happy ending. “Readers became so incensed, so angry, writing letters to the editor, waiting for the next part of the story to come out.”

The next year, Falkenberg went from Pulitzer Prize finalist to winner in the commentary category for a series of columns she wrote in 2014 about Alfred Dewayne Brown, who was convicted for killing a police officer a decade before.

Falkenberg’s columns questioned the dubious criminal justice proceedings that led to Brown being sent to death row and called upon the state’s highest criminal appeals court to make a decision on his case after it languished for a year. Brown’s conviction was overturned in 2015, and the district attorney will not pursue a new trial.

“There was a lot of pressure on me the days before,” Falkenberg remembers. “Colleagues really depended on me to win this thing. The Chronicle had never won a Pulitzer before.”

The day the prize was announced was for Falkenberg a blur of photos being snapped, champagne corks being popped and hugs galore. “My biggest emotion? Relief,” she said.

Afterward, Falkenberg said, she thought about leaving the Chronicle to write a book. She was interviewed for an editorial-writing job with The New York Times. Ultimately, she stayed with the Chronicle. She’s a mother, and she didn’t want to take a job that would keep her away from her young children.

Winning the Pulitzer, however, did change her career in some ways.

“I give a lot of keynote speeches. I get calls back that maybe I didn’t used to,” she said. And she feels more “freedom” as a columnist. “I can take chances, and I think my editors trust me to make my own decisions.”

Her columns are published each Wednesday and Sunday. “Being a columnist allows you to be a whole person,” Falkenberg said. “I can be up front with the readers about where I stand with something. My opinions are also based in something – they are based in facts.”

Lilly Rockwell is a business reporter for the Austin American-Statesman and is on the board of the Friends of the Daily Texan. She worked at The Daily Texan from 2003 to 2004, as a general-assignment reporter, senior reporter and news editor.