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2022 Must-Reads From TXO

The Texas Observer's editor-in-chief on their favorite stories from the last year

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There is a point in every Texas Observer magazine production cycle—usually after the first, sometimes second, round of proofing—when Adam Muro, our copy editor, has caught most of the typos; when the captions have all been fixed so none of them read “so-and-so poses for a picture”; when I’ve finally turned in my editor’s letter, and we’ve argued about what words should go on the cover, that I sit back and think, “Holy hell, this is a real-ass magazine.” 

Which is to say, when you’re enmeshed in the day-to-day of producing journalism, it’s easy to miss the magic. Whether you’re catching up during the holidays on all the #longform #mustread stories from the last year—or boning up on the issue prior to #txlege2023, here’s a list of some of this year’s most magical Texas Observer stories for you.

Our environmental reporter, Delger Erdenesanaa, has taught me a lot about oysters and oyster fishing—one way you can replenish oyster populations is by taking leftover shells and sprinkling them on top of reefs to serve as homes. But if I had to pick one piece from this year that everyone here should read, it’s “Injured, Sick, Widowed, and Sued”—about cities in Texas clawing back first responders’ workers’ compensation. It’s beautifully written, deeply reported, and tragic. The story examines how self-insured cities have sued some first responders and their families to keep them from collecting workers’ comp benefits—including a firefighter who fought to help expand such benefits for his colleagues and a policeman killed on the job. Both men were lauded as heroes in their local communities.

In the inaugural installment of our series on Texas rivers, “Drifting Toward Disaster,” Dylan Baddour looks at how the Rio Grande ran dry in parts of the state in 2022 and at a complicated treaty and water wars that are endangering the waterway. This is a collaboration between the Observer and Inside Climate News.

You should never miss Justin Miller’s trenchant analyses of Texas politics, but I’ve thought all year about the “Battle of Beaumont,” his feature about the lockout of ExxonMobil workers. Sometimes labor stories can be formulaic, but the story of Local 13-243’s near-death experience is nothing but. In that story, Miller goes inside the long-term lockout of refinery workers at Exxon in Beaumont, once the last bastions of union strength in Texas.

Staff Writer Gus Bova got a lot of attention for pointing out, after Uvalde, that “Greg Abbott is full of shit.” In another story, “Uvalde Vive,” he took a hard look at the civil rights movement born in the same elementary school where students were murdered—and how parents are rising up now to fight for reforms in the aftermath of the tragedy. Still, Editor-in-Chief Gabe Arana’s top pick from Bova for 2022 is: “Fear and Loathing at the San Antonio Border Security Expo.” Says Arana: It’s hard to be profound and brief, but Gus nails it—it’s piercing social criticism that at the same time manages to be funny.

Read more about the border in “Biden is Still Separating Immigrant Kids from their Families.” John Washington and Anna-Cat Brigida recently reported exclusively for the Observer on troubling evidence that children are still being separated from their parents and other relatives at the border under President Joe Biden, despite promises to the contrary. Subscribe to the TXO magazine to see the full version—and see photos in our January/February 2023 issue. 

Michelle Pitcher is one of the newer additions to our staff—she regularly breaks stories on criminal justice, but don’t miss “Course Corrections,” about the return of federal Pell grants to prisons. 

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And check out “The Murderer’s Little Boy.” As part of an ongoing look at domestic violence in Texas, freelance writer Olivia Gentile examined the bizarre case of why a man accused of murdering his wife in front of his son—and hiding her body in his house—has maintained custody of their child.

Kit O’Connell, the Observer’s new and tireless digital editor, has made a huge impact since coming on in July. And they have managed to find time to write, too. Kit’s critique of the New York Times’ “gender therapy” piece is just the sort of hard-hitting calling-out that our publication should be doing. “There is No Legitimate Debate over Gender-Affirming Healthcare.”

Eric the Red—Houston’s notorious surgeon—is still out there breaking the law, according to the federal government. Read all about his checkered past and how long it took Texas authorities to take away his medical license in “Rogue Surgeon, the tale of Eric the Red” by Kait Gallagher. 

In “The John Birch Society sees a Renaissance in North Texas,” Steven Monacelli, TXO’s new correspondent on extremist groups, delivered the goods on the growth of a right-wing organization once thought to be extinct. Watch for more.

Other collaborations this year led to deep dives on a cold civil rights murder case and money laundering.

In “Frank J. Robinson Haunts East Texas”—a collaboration with Dave Davies of Texas Public Radio—the Observer took a hard look at the troubling shooting of legendary civil rights leader Frank J. Robinson that was labeled a suicide despite witnesses who say they saw gunmen leaving the house and a tipster who pointed to the KKK. Check out the podcast here: https://www.tpr.org/podcast/the-ghost-of-frank-j-robinson

And in “Mexico’s Repo Man,” the Observer finished off a series on money laundering by Jason Buch, in collaboration with the Border Hub, that illustrated how an effort to trace billions allegedly stolen from the state of Veracruz and then laundered in Texas by former Mexican Governor Javier Duarte ended in an expensive civil court flop.
Ready for more? Here’s a look back at some of our top stories from 2021.