Editor’s note: Since this story was published, Michael Lindenberger has been named vice president and editorial page editor at The Kansas City Star. He starts in August.
At first it was that simple text without context from someone that puzzled Michael Lindenberger that surprising day, but the unexpected message soon was reinforced by an excited call from his boss. He was working from home, as were several other co-workers, when the journalists learned they were Pulitzer Prize winners.
They scrambled back into the Houston Chronicle office to share in their victory, small-scale and COVID-era style, as the four 2022 winners for editorial writing for 2021 pieces about voter suppression in Texas. The series, called “The Big Lie,” detailed tactics to restrict voting, rejected claims of widespread voter fraud and advocated for voting reforms.
The UofL alumnus, 51, called the achievement “super affirming.”
“It was fun not just to win myself but to see my team and others win,” Lindenberger said, adding that the work of the editorial board and other staff members also elevated that of the winning four. “It was a real team success.”
As deputy opinion editor, Lindenberger directs the day-to-day editorial operation and edited much of the submitted copy along with his boss. He also wrote some of the entries, including one installment that gave a nod to his home state under the headline “The Big Lie: What happens when a GOP state tells the truth about voter fraud? Ask Kentucky.”
Lindenberger already knew whom to ask in Kentucky, and his experience likely gave him an advantage in securing the high-level interviews. He figures he has interviewed nearly every Kentucky governor since Wallace Wilkinson in the early 1990s, so he was able to add Andy Beshear to the list that already included Beshear’s father and former Gov. Steve Beshear. And he also knew from his UofL days fellow student Michael Adams, the Kentucky secretary of state who worked with Beshear on a bipartisan approach to expanding voting options in the state during the pandemic.
“We try to do our own research and our own reporting when we can, and I think that makes a difference,” he said about the Chronicle’s editorial operation.
Louisville readers may recall Lindenberger’s byline from the Courier Journal, where he served as a bureau chief, and LEO, for which he was chief political writer, or before that, from the Louisville Cardinal student newspaper, where he wrote and served two terms as its top editor in the mid-1990s.
“The Cardinal was fantastic training for journalists like me,” he said. The staff grew and the paper sent reporters throughout the country to report on some stories. Lindenberger recalled that lessons he learned while working there – “leadership, management and just journalism” – helped shape his career. “It was a truly great time.”
Then-Cardinal adviser Bob Schulman later became a good friend and served as an important mentor, teaching about fairness, the connection of the press to a community and the role of the press in a free society, Lindenberger recalled.
“All that was extraordinarily useful,” he said.
He also credited several faculty members, in particular, Charles Breslin, Paul Weber and Phil Laemmle, as meaningful influences.
The student wrote some UofL Magazine stories then and did research for some historical markers on campus, including the one that shows the resting spot of the ashes of Louis Brandeis beneath the portico of the law school that is now named for the Supreme Court associate justice.
The Louisville native wrapped up his bachelor’s degree in political science in 2003, having returned home after a reporting stint at the Dallas Morning News.
“I was deeply interested in the law,” he said. So he kept going, working on his law degree at night while writing for the Courier Journal. Lindenberger decided to finish it up full time, ultimately in 2006, after the newspaper closed some bureaus and made him rethink and expand his career options.
Although he interviewed with some law firms as he was winding up his second degree, he felt the pull back to his newsroom roots.
“My heart was still in journalism,” he said.
Lindenberger returned to the Dallas Morning News in 2007 as a senior reporter, enjoyed the honor and “great experience” of a Knight journalism fellowship in 2012-13 at Stanford University and was promoted to a Washington, D.C., correspondent for the paper. He was recruited back to work in Dallas, this time on the editorial staff, all the while relying on his legal experience.
“The law degree did two things for me,” he said.
Starting with contract work while he was still in school, Lindenberger contributed to Time magazine and Time.com more than 100 articles for almost a decade “writing for a very international audience about legal affairs for one of the most prestigious publications in the country,” he said.
And when he returned to Dallas after UofL, he was covering areas he described as “very political and policy heavy,” particularly about transportation issues in high-growth areas of Texas. “These were hugely important stories.”
“I was equipped with a legal education that allowed me to not ever be intimidated by anybody,” Lindenberger said. “That context and that capacity proved extraordinarily important as I became more and more an investigative reporter.”
After his varied roles at the Dallas paper, the Houston Chronicle hired him for its opinion team four years ago.
“We definitely had a goal of doing the kind of work that the best of our peers do,” he said.
Lindenberger said the editorials in the Pulitzer-winning series showed that widespread voter fraud in Texas “just doesn’t exist,” despite claims, and that voter suppression tactics were not new, dating back to Jim Crow-era efforts to limit minority votes. One part of the series called for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to resign, and others were critical of the Texas Legislature.
“We really do believe… that the work we do changes lives. We change opinions and that changes lives because it changes conditions in the state,” Lindenberger said, adding that effort takes a long time.
“You don’t write one editorial and suddenly everyone starts taking climate change seriously. It’s time and time again. It’s honest recording or use of the facts – and writing that makes people care about it.”
And the good news of the Pulitzer arrived after some personal losses and challenges for Lindenberger and for colleagues during the pandemic.
“All that together, and then to realize that the work we did in spite of all that stuff, to know that the work we were able to accomplish was judged to be the best in the country that year was really, really gratifying,” he said.