Our Favorite KUT Stories Of 2018
It's safe to say 2018 was an eventful year. In the spring, a series of bombings killed two people and seriously injured four others. A few months later, a school shooting outside Houston prompted Gov. Greg Abbott to convene a series of roundtable discussions and issue a school-safety plan.
This year, the Trump administration announced its "zero tolerance" policy, which led to family separations at the Southwest border. The White House backtracked after a national outcry, but the issue of immigration never left center stage.
A scorching-hot summer gave way to a rainy fall and led to historic flooding in the Hill Country. Murky water overwhelmed Austin's water treatment plants and prompted a weeklong order to boil water. A record number of Travis County residents registered to vote, and Sen. Ted Cruz faced a serious challenge from Beto O'Rourke.
From the serial bombings to the immigration crisis to the midterm elections, here are the stories KUT reporters felt passionate about in 2018.
Early this year, I heard chatter that the Trump administration was considering changing how officials decide who gets a green card. In short, the administration wanted to make it harder for low-income immigrants to obtain legal status, particularly if they rely on some government programs or could rely on them in the future.
Folks who work with these families say parents who are undocumented are removing their children from services like Medicaid – even if their children are U.S. citizens and entitled to those benefits. One of those parents is Marlene.
It’s difficult to find people who are living in the shadows and willing to speak on the record about their fears. But Marlene shared her story with me, which is why it stuck with me throughout the year. Marlene told me she was afraid of being deported and had decided to withdraw her citizen children from SNAP because she didn’t want her application to draw attention from federal officials. At the time, she was also considering removing her son, who has disabilities, from Medicaid.
Recent reports show Marlene is not alone. Immigrant families in Texas are withdrawing from government services in significant numbers, and that has led to a spike in the state’s uninsured rate among children. Experts say the proposed changes to green card application rules will only make the problem worse.
This wasn’t the most important story I did. It’s not the newsiest. But this was the piece I had the most fun putting together and one that’s continued to feed my imagination.
I had finished writing the script for this when I decided, one last time, to reach out to the man who ended up answering the question. That man, Jerry Ludwig, suddenly happened to be available. So, just hours before deadline, I had the full answer to the riddle of this map. It slotted into the narrative perfectly.
The story has stayed with me mostly because it sparked a deeper interest in Austin’s early history. Since I did this piece, I’ve tried to track down the fate of the unfortunate mapmaker, L.J. Pilie; I even visited an archive in New Orleans to research his family. No luck so far, but I plan to keep searching.
With this series of stories, I wanted to answer the question: What happens once someone is evicted from their home?
Reporting on people in extreme transition – moving out in five days, facing homelessness, struggling to pay bills – is hard. You're asking a lot of them. I relearned, as I do with many stories, that talking to a reporter when you're dealing with a traumatic experience requires a lot of generosity. I'm so grateful these people let me witness this time in their lives.
During our coverage of the Austin bombings, I was thinking about why these attacks felt different to so many Austin residents of color. We often write off Austin as a progressive city, skirting over the racial tensions that exist here. This series of events crystalized some of the struggles, microaggressions and economic pressure that Austinites of color can face, and I saw an opportunity to capture that.
I was also able to interview people across a broad geographic area – in Pflugerville, Central and East Austin. In producing this story, I felt like I was truly fulfilling my duty as a reporter and representing the communities we serve.
The serial bombings were the biggest breaking news event in Austin this year, and I covered a few of the press conferences with police and the FBI. But when I was assigned to do an obituary on Draylen Mason, the teenager killed by one of the bombs, I knew I had to switch out of breaking news mode.
I had to learn about his personality and character, and his teachers and friends were kind to talk to me about their friend. I was reminded that there's power in sharing your story: Many of those I interviewed said talking about him for the piece was important to their grieving process.
This was the most cathartic story I've written in my career – not just because of the obvious news value, but because of what it meant to the community.
After the deaths of Stephan House and Draylen Mason, people of color in Austin – rightly – felt targeted by the serial bomber, and yet, the chief of police continually stumbled and outright avoided calling the bomber a domestic terrorist.
Having then-interim Chief Brian Manley finally say that outright didn't put anyone's reservations to bed, but it was a step forward in acknowledging it. It also happened during a live event the entire newsroom helped plan and host after three straight weeks of nonstop coverage. I hasten to say it was a nice bookend to the story because it wasn't a nice story – but it was as close as Austin could get to one.
One of my favorite pieces of 2018 was close to home. My dad and I were sitting at lunch talking about what was happening around Austin and he said, “I’ve never been to South by Southwest.” My parents were longtime Austinites but moved years ago because of work.
Immediately, I knew I had to remedy this and get as much of it on tape as possible; my parents embraced the idea. They opened iPhone apps they had never used and recorded themselves independently as they walked around SXSW – and KUT got a slightly different view of the massive festival.
We’ll see if they’re interested in covering it again in 2019.
I mean, I got to ride a mule through Austin with a man dressed as Santa?
But, of course, that's not the only reason I loved working on this story. I was introduced to a truly remarkable person who embodied so much of what makes this city special. Sam Grey Horse was kind, humble and, obviously, a little weird. In other words, he was a true Austinite. The story of how his animals essentially brought him back to life after a near-death experience was surreal. Even more so is the fact that he now spends his days riding horses and mules through downtown Austin – trying to heal others.
If this story taught me anything it's that it's easy to forget the human behind the spectacle. But if you take the time to get to know the person in the Santa suit, you'll likely be pleasantly surprised by what you learn.
This story holds a special place in my heart. Not only is the Lang Institute doing ground-breaking research, but their holistic approach to speech training was also admirable. Not once were the children in the room made fun of or degraded for what may have made them different from their peers. Instead, they were reaffirmed and encouraged not only by staff but also each other.
In that room, during camp, it wasn’t about how you said it, but what you said. The institute teaches these inspirational kids how to be confident in themselves without degrading others, and I think that’s a life lesson we can all learn from.
I wrote this story in February when we really didn't have any idea what kind of an election we'd see in November. All we'd seen were a few special elections across the country – close races in traditionally deep-red areas that resulted mostly in Democratic losses.
In November, Democrats here picked up two state Senate seats, 12 state House seats and had their closest statewide election in decades. Now that we know what kind of wave it was in Texas, it's good to remember how difficult it is to have one-party rule and what kinds of things may have led to the GOP's latest showing.
This was definitely my favorite story that I did in 2018. I learned a ton about Austin history, met some Austin icons and found a surprising parallel between the city’s past and present. I also got to run across Highway 183 while holding a microphone – which is incredibly dangerous and I do not recommend.
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