Giving Voice to the Voiceless: Interview with Crime Reporter Justin George

While many journalists have been forced to shift away from the field, Justin George remains stronger than ever. The Colorado native is in one of the most challenging beats in a notoriously violent city: crime and police in Baltimore. As a reporter for The Baltimore Sun he has covered high profile stories such as the recent city riots and the story of Adnan Syed, which became highly popular due to the Serial podcast to which he also contributed.

When I met Justin, he was a general reporter at the Pulitzer Prize winner newspaper the St Petersburg Times (now known as the Tampa Bay Times). During his nine years there he uncovered tough stories that needed to be told such as the investigative series on sexual abuse allegations at a developmentally disabled group home and a former Tampa Bay Buccaneer search for the killer of his son. Before that he worked at the Daily Press and the Daily Camera.

This autumn, Justin is heading to Marquette University as a Public Service Journalism fellow to lead a group of student researchers. I wanted to find out how he perceives journalism today and most of all, what motivates him amid what seems as a world surrounded by bad news.

How would you describe what you do?

I am a crime reporter and I cover mostly Baltimore police. My job is to essentially cover crime. Every day Baltimore police sends out a crime list (of what) occurred last night, usually the very serious ones like murders and shootings. I look at those every day and I try to find out who the victims are, look for trends. I am also keeping track of what is going on the department, how they are enforcing crime, how they are trying to deal with the trends, what is going on as far as politically in the city… It’s a combination of a lot of things… I interview a lot of police, I go out on the streets when I can and I try to interview victims in neighborhoods and see how crime affects them.

I’ve always viewed my job as more than just crime. I think crime affects a lot of things: it affects business growth, it affects quality of life, it affects population growth in the city… This is actually a health issue in the city.

How do you prepare for stories? How do you get your leads and identify what makes a story?

You just look for compelling stories about victims, or about suspects, things that are very unusual. But you also look for trends… If there are a bunch of crimes occurring in a neighborhood…If police are taking different tactics (such as) doing more foot patrols to try to meet residents and also suppress crime, do a story on that…We had the riots here and that has driven some of the violence that has occurred because of the looting of pharmaceuticals. So these are all little things that you pull out and you try to understand why. That’s always been key, understanding why things happen.

In terms of the perception of the public of the job of the media, for example when the people say the media is exaggerating, how do you feel about that?

The media gets beat up a lot now but I also think that regardless of it, (people) know that we are doing a public service and there is no doubt about it because they contact us, they are talking to us on Twitter and they understand that we are getting them information. I find most readers are honestly very thankful and they are very helpful… They want to understand too and they want to know why. They look to us to try to find out why.

(…) You have some trolls out there who say that the media is an issue and they are the problem. At times we make mistakes but we also try to acknowledge those things and be transparent. I know that is an issue in general but in Baltimore I think people are craving information. They want us.

Why did you wanted to become a journalist?

That’s a good question. I always liked to write, I think that was important. My dad actually worked at a newspaper. He was actually in the mailroom; he was not a writer but he put together newspapers so as child he would bring home the paper from the midnight shift… I would wake up every morning and read it, read the sports section. I think that always influenced me. I was always interested in writing and I was also very idealistic. I have a sense of right and wrong that I think is important to me. Everybody has a different sense of right and wrong but to me justice is something that is important.

Could you describe one of the biggest challenges you have had and what did you learn from it?

There’s been a lot. I think you always try to learn something from all the stories you spend a lot of time doing. Thinking of one that comes of the top of my head is that me and my crime partner who also covers crime, Justin Fenton, did a series on a summer of violence a couple of years ago. We looked at the people that were affected by the shooting and homicides that have gone one in the summer… We stretched out across the city and we looked for different people: victims, people in the neighborhood who have been affected, police. It was just really interesting because I think what that show was just how crime does impact a city. It impacts a city in every level and it impacts people in every level.

What stood out to me the most was speaking to a father and a son who had lost a mother and just the fact at how he was trying to hold the household together as his kid was a teenager and meanwhile the father was working all the time and trying to be a mother too and it just struck me how the bottles of Tide were on the living room floor. He was trying to do everything and trying to keep up the house too. But he had sworn that he was going to take care of his son. It was interesting, (actually) it was not interesting, it was sad to see what a hole had been left, what violence had taken.

With all these stories you cover, how do you keep a sense of optimism?

I would not say there is optimism but there is reward and the reward is that you are giving people who have been killed a voice for the first time. You are making their lives known to other people. These people may have lived lives out of the limelight but for once people are going to understand who they were and some of (the victims) had done already incredible selfless things. Sometimes is a cautionary tale of what not to do. Your are also trying to get these people’s faces out front to try to spur people to come forward and solve these crimes. That’s important too, that killers know that these people are not forgotten and that people are paying attention.

I’ve always remember a conversation we had in Tampa when you mentioned that what you liked about the St Pete Times is that they gave reporters time to develop a story. Now that in the past few years journalists are expected to do many things in a short period of time, do you think this is still possible?

It’s possible, it’s harder and the fact is that your bosses want to give you that time and your editors want the best stories. But the problem is there is less staff and there is a lot of news so time is very precious and its really difficult… If you look at the Sun we have an investigative team and our editors have given them time to work on very important studies and it has really paid off. They’ve given me time. I mean they are allowing me to go on a project for nine months. That’s phenomenal, that’s losing me, a pretty big producer, for that long. It is still important, is still valued in good newspapers like the Sun, it is still valued at St Pete Times, it’s just a lot more difficult.

What do you think about the evolution of journalism? Do you think it really is evolving or do you think it’s the perception of people?

The entire landscape has changed in a few years. I think journalism is very different. We are asked to do social media, we are asked to Tweet, Instagram and Facebok and get information out quickly. We are writing things as soon as we get to the office and updating things throughout the day. Before, we used to concentrate on the story that would go on the paper. Now we are concentrating on everything that’s going online as quickly as possible. So things have completely shifted… Everybody is more fluid. For better or worse we have to be faster and quicker. At the same time the quality can’t decrease so I think there a lot more pressure on us now so it makes it a lit more tricky.

I think technology helps. I think a lot of people think it hurts but I think it helps a lot when you take a picture from a crime scene and you Tweet it out, at least when you get back to the office I think you can look at that picture and describe what the scene is like. You can make it work for you.

If a student is going to school right now and says I want to be a journalist, what is your advice for them?

I think you should go for it if you are really passionate about it. I think people will tell you that you are not going to get paid a lot, (that) it’s a tough business and that is all true, but at the same time how many people do you know who actually love their job. If you are really passionate about writing and reporting, go for it. If you work really hard you can still be very successful at it. I would never discourage somebody from going into it if they are interested in it. I do think that they need to make sure they understand the commitment and sacrifice that would take…but you keep going and and you keep working and you can keep working and you can succeed.

Follow Justin George on Twitter @justingeorge

Follow the author @yadicarocaro

‘There are no social media experts’: Interview with Knight Innovator Alex de Carvalho

By: Yadira Y. Caro

When I met Alex de Carvalho for an interview, he looked tired but also glowing. He was still beaming from organizing and hosting Social Media Day South Florida, an event he created which gathered over 400 enthusiasts and speakers to share best practices and new ideas. The Brazilian/Finnish entrepreneur, speaker and blogger creates spaces for people to connect: he founded the Social Media Club South FloridaBar­CampIgnite, and he is also a founding member of Refresh Miami.

Currently, Alex is the Knight Foundation Innovator in Residence at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University. In this position, he works with students and faculty to develop innovation programs and use digital technology to address real world issues. He has also hosted events such as the Media Party and the Scripps international Innovator’s Cup.

Previously, he launched various Internet startups in U.S. and Europe, he was a strategy consultant, and an instructor at the University of Miami’s School of Communications. He also co-authored “Securing the Clicks: Network Security in the Age of Social Media.

He is friendly and willing to help (agreeing to this interview showcases it). I was curious about his motivations to start community building, his current projects as Knight Innovator and why he thinks social media experts do not exist. What follows is our conversation, edited for content and space.

It seems the common element for all of these things you do is networking: get people from different locations and bring them together. Is that your purpose?

Yes, you could say that. I started blogging about 12 years ago. I was living in Paris and by blogging I met these incredible people, these other bloggers who became friends and I started to go to their events. They had meet ups. I started going to Internet conferences, I met a lot of startup companies and I fell in love with this whole new way of meeting people which was actually by blogging. There was no Facebook, no Twitter, it was just by blogging and figuring out, ‘oh there is an event, let me meet these new people who are bloggers.’

What were the topics that you were blogging about?

I had two blogs: I had my own personal blog which I still have which was more about my thoughts on tech. I do not blog so often anymore but I used to blog a couple of times a week. Then I also had another blog, which was the “Year of Brazil in France.” Every year, France honors a different country and that year (2005) they were honoring Brazil. I am Brazilian, I was like ‘wow, I should blog about what is going on!’ There were a bunch of events, singers, artists and because I was blogging about it, my blog became more popular than the official site. The reason is that the official site was just listing all of the events. If you are French, you did not know what was good or not. So I was blogging about the good events that I had gone to and that I took photos of, or the ones that I would recommend. That’s why my blog had more traffic than the official site for the year in Brazil in France; that also meant that the bloggers in Paris got to know me as the Brazilian blogger. They loved it and I met a lot of people and made many friends in that French blog and startup community.

When I came to Miami I had already lived here previously for 10 years… Meeting people in Miami was very different than the way you meet people than in Paris and London. In Paris and London you have dinner parties, you have many more conversations. Here, when you go out at night, the music is so loud you can’t speak to anyone. When you go out in South Beach, it’s all about the car you drive, whether you have a Rolex, spending 25 dollars for a drink, and then you can’t even speak to anyone because its so loud! It’s very difficult. So coming here I wanted to meet people in a more cultural way, in a more intellectual way, around topics of shared interest, which is why I cofounded RefreshMiami. I did that for 4 years and then I created Social Media Club South Florida and I started creating these events: BarCamp, Ignite, and Social Media Day. These were ways of bringing people together in a new, relevant, high value way where you can actually speak to intelligent people and where the music was not loud so people could understand what you were up to.

Why the interest in technology? Did you grow up interested in that?

I went to Business school and then I did an MBA to work in marketing but I always felt that there is something wrong with marketing. For example, there is product manager at Crest and there is product manager at Colgate. Crest and Colgate are basically equivalent products. There is no difference, and yet these two product managers are fighting for market share, and their entire bonus and salary depends on ‘how can I get more market share than my competitor?’ So how do they do it? They do it through marketing messages, they do it by spending money, photoshopping stuff, doing press releases. It all seems like a lie, and it all seem very futile. Why would I go to school to an MBA and work for Colgate or Crest? Why should I sell this suntan lotion and not that one? It all seems to me very pointless. There had to be a better way. That better way is social media.

After my MBA I was a management consultant doing business strategy and then I created a startup in 1999 about email marketing. I started creating permission-based marketing where people opted-in to get your messages because they were interested in what you were selling. I learned about social media where you are blogging about your interest; if I like this coffee then I am going to write something about the coffee because I like that coffee. If you follow my blog you’ll say ‘he is Brazilian, he likes coffee, let me try it out.’ It seems like much more authentic way for a brand to connect with people than some kind of a photoshopped thing with a Colombian coffee producer with a donkey that does not exist.

That’s s why I fell in love with social media. It’s a more authentic way to talk to people.

Companies still do it, they push the message.

Of course, you have to because there is still TV and magazines, so you still have to do traditional advertising. Now with social media, you should also be on Facebook and Twitter. You should be on Pinterest, you should be trying creative things.

Talking about social media and the people who do social media for these brands, they are so-called experts. What is your perception on this? Are there any social media experts?

No, I don’t believe there are any social media experts, especially because social media has only been around for 10-15 years. By social media I mean blogging and things like Facebook and Twitter and such. People would say ‘yeah social media existed through the bulletin boards, AOL,’ ok, whatever, I am talking about modern social media. It’s too young. It’s not like accounting that has existed for hundreds of years and traditional marketing which has existed for 50, 60-70 years, where there is a body of knowledge.

In social media you don’t have that yet because it’s new and the platforms themselves are new. The platforms are changing all the time. There is no way to know everything about Facebook because Facebook even right now is testing something new in a market you are not in. They might roll it out into your market but all of a sudden you were an expert and now you are no longer because it’s new. There are too many platforms and you can’t know everything about all the platforms.

But also social media management requires a lot of skills. We are talking about doing computer based technical things to being in front of people and speaking at an event, to doing strategy, to managing graphic artists, to maybe even managing a development team, to creating an app. So look at all these different kinds of skills, it’s very hard for one person to have all those skills. So that is why I say there are no experts.

During Social Media Day there was a lot of discussion about doing effective social media strategies. The book you co-wrote Securing the Clicks was more about the security aspect that should be addressed. Do you think companies are forgetting that?

Yeah, I think so. I think companies are not paying attention to security and the security really should be looked at in very holistic fashion. All aspects of risks for business from computer based network security, to reputation risks, to intellectual capital to copyrights. Creating policies for companies is important so employees know what to do and what not to do on social media.

During Social Media you were with a Red Cross representative talking about a new project. What is the project that all about? Is there some gap in disaster relief and social media?

There is a gap of knowledge about what goes on in digital and social media about what goes on in a disaster. First responders do not have that knowledge. They have not ever needed to because they get calls from 911 and 311. They are prepared for disaster… but they are not prepared for the “explosion” of social media during and after disasters.

It’s interesting because digital humanitarians are there and they will always be there. If something happens in Nepal, they are going to help,;if something happens in Haiti. People from around the world crowdsource online, do mapping projects, NGO identifying, people finders, and so on. People find projects and different things they can do online to help first responders. But the first responders are not always aware of these things… They are not in social media and they do not know how to get their official messages out.

When there is a disaster there are a lot of rumors and photoshopped photos and things that are false, which go viral. The Red Cross has real information, like ‘here are where the shelters are,’ ‘there is flooding over there’ and those messages are not getting out because people online are still paying attention to celebrities like Justin Bieber. I think cities can do a lot to prepare digitally so that when there is a disaster the first responders are not wasting resources and are connecting better. I think there is still a lot to be done. This is what that research my research is about and the possibilities excite me.

In terms of professionals in communications who want to target their careers towards the future, what should be good to know?

I think social media is a good skill for any field, but especially communications and journalism students. The world has changed completely; the professors obviously have great skill and knowledge but these professors come from a more traditional form of journalism and PR. The world the student is graduating into is not the world the professor came from. It’s now a world of digital entrepreneurship and it’s a world of personal branding. I don’t like the phrase ‘personal branding’ but people understand what it means. It means to create a professional persona online where others are going to hire you based on the way you present yourself. I don’t think those skills are being taught in school. I don’t know that entrepreneurship is being taught to communication students.

I know that in journalism school you learn that you must take yourself out of the story and you learn to fair and balanced, to be neutral. It’s exactly the opposite of what works online. If you are a blogger, you are a part of the story. In fact, people follow you because of your story, because of your challenges, your dreams, what you are trying to do. People like it when they know that you are from the left or the right. Anderson Cooper and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but also other news personalities, we pretty much know where they are; meanwhile, the journalism students are taught you cannot put yourself in the story when you interview. Even BuzzFeed likes to hire people that already have a community: it’s not that you know about fashion, is that you built a community of ten thousand followers because of fashion. But are students being taught that too? Students have to figure it out for themselves.

To get in touch with Alex de Carvalho, contact him via Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin or Instagram.

Follow the author on Twitter @yadicarocaro 

Networking Tips for Building Relationships: Interview with Katrina Louis

By: Yadira Y. Caro

Networking has shaped Katrina Louis’ professional path. When I met her during a recent mixer, she seemed confident, easy to talk to and made us feel as she truly listened. Even as she carried herself with the confidence of someone who has been working many years in public relations, I discovered later she had recently graduated from the University of Florida (Go Gators!).

Katrina graduated just as recession started in 2008. With no job in line she delved into what she knows best: not for profit organizations. She had volunteered with Keep America Beautiful, the Amateur Athletic Union, the YMCA and at her school, she got involved with the National Association of Black Journalists and the Association of Black Alumni at UF.

It is through volunteering where she was able to find a job opportunity and since then, Katrina has mixed her love for community work with career. Up until earlier this year she was the Multimedia Specialist at the Children’s Services Council in Broward County (Florida), an organization established by voters that funds over 100 family programs. When she decided it was time to move up, she quickly found an opportunity as Communications Manager in Charlotte Works in North Carolina, an agency dedicated to give resources to job seekers.

As a young professional who has moved in diverse circles, I figured she could have some useful advice for navigating the networking scene. In our conversation I learned not only how networks can help build a career but also help make a difference.

 Why did you pick public relations?

I have always loved to write and read. In high school I wanted to be journalist print major. I did an internship at the (Miami) Herald and I realized it was not for me. I did like the writing aspect, talking to people, and I was like, what is something similar? I found public relations. I did not know that it was a major. I did not know it was an area to get into.

What did you not like about journalism?

I did not interact with people as much as I like to. (In PR) its not always about I am trying to get the story, its more about building the relationship.

What do you think not for profit organizations need in terms of communications?

From within the organizations, making sure everybody in the organization is speaking the same language, that you have the same message. Everybody works in different department but to the community you all represent one organization. After that I think is definitely awareness, you got to be visible. People got to know who you are and recognize what you (do). Most of the time you are working with a small amount of resources. A lot of people don’t put communications as top priority when you have to prioritize resources so sometimes you just have to get creative with the way that you do it.

Do you have any example of something were you had to be creative in order to make it successful?

One of the most recent (examples) was at the Children Services Council especially because we were not a not profit; we were more government than not for profit. For us, a really big undertake right before I left is (when we were voted as) a ballot initiative. We had to be voted by local voters during some election to continue to exist. CSC has been created in 2000 and at that point it was 2014 and there were people who had still had no idea who the organization was. Because we could not say vote for us, we had to educate the public about our services. We had to come up with ways for everybody, for the entire community to see that if we went away, how would they be impacted because we operate with a 6 million dollar budget and that it s a lot of money to go away. It was not like somebody else was going to get it, it was just gone.

I maintained our website, I maintained our social media, I did newsletters. A lot of the communications came from me. I was making sure that when our partners in the community did an event or had a program or something like that, (they’d let) people know ‘you are funded by Children’s Services Council.’ On social media ‘make sure you tag us’ or ‘share what we are doing.’ It was not us being selfish, it was more like ‘hey you already know about these great things that are happening, but make the connection (that) this is the organization providing it to these agencies.’

In terms of building relationships, what are some of the tips or advice you have for others?

I would not call myself an expert but I would say some things that have worked.

 1) Find venues and events to connect with people

I think it’s really a great way to just network in general whether it be in professional organization like PRSA or whether it be like a civic engagement or community one… You meet interesting people where you may completely know them from one thing like we went to college (together) but I did not know that you own your own business. I can be a customer. You never know. For me it’s about talking to everybody pretty much.

2) Make yourself memorable (be yourself)

I’ve been told that I am charismatic and I would take that as a compliment (laughs) I try to be genuine in my conversations. I don’t talk to people to see what they can do for me. That’s helped me a lot. People remember if maybe we just started talking something that sparked out of a compliment. I really like shoes and purses and things like that, so I may say ‘I really like your shoes. Where do you get them from?.’ You start a conversation and then it turns into something else. When you don’t go in automatically saying what can I get out of this person I think it gives the opportunity to make that relationship building process a lot easier because it comes from a sincere place.

3) Find benefits for both sides

I would definitely say that the relationship should be mutually beneficial … If you are looking for a job, the whole conversation should not be about how can you get me a job. What can you offered that person when after that conversation ends, I want to talk to you again.

4) Talk slow

I think when we talk to people we talk so fast and we give so much information that is really overwhelming. Everybody is busy so if you are talking trying to tell me every single thing that you do, talking at a mile a minute, is just a lot to digest. Start with something specific, have your conversation and kind of let it flow.

5) Find ways to connect after conversation

When ending the conversation, if you have not already established a way of connecting with each other. Find that way to connect with each other moving forward whether ‘let’s exchange phone numbers’ or ‘lets connect in LinkedIn.’ Just offer having that way of how can we continue this conversation.

Those are things that at least worked for me and I’ve done pretty well about building my network. You may go in with one intention like I really want to collaborate on a project together or work on something together and you may end up like BFFs, you don’t know (laughs). You start talking to people, spending time with people, you start seeing things you have in common, you start to genuinely like people. I think that is the goal. To genuinely like the people because when opportunities or things come across you want to be that perfect person I’m thinking of, like, ‘ok, this opportunity does not fit me but I know the person who you may like.’

In terms of what you learned in school and what you have learned in the workplace. How different is it, or is different at all?

I do believe I got a really good education, it gave me a really good foundation but I think experiences like the work experiences that I’ve had has been what benefitted me the most. Just being around the peers who are on the industry whether it’s at the conferences or workshops and things like that because that is where you get to share what’s working and what’s not working. It may be something you were thinking about doing and then you hear somebody else’s experience, then you may go back and change your mind about something. You save yourself time because you talk to someone who has already been through the experience.

Do you have a particular example of how the work you have done has impacted a person?

Once upon a time there was a group called the Association of Black Alumni which is an affiliate group of UF alumni. They had a chapter (locally) and I’m like ‘what happened, this would be so great.’ You have a commonality with a bunch of alumni who might have shared a lot of the same experiences you did during college.

They did not have (the chapter) and I’m the type of person where if I don’t see the opportunity there I’ll make it. Basically I helped restart the chapter in South Florida. Since my thing is community outreach I (also) really wanted to do something for high school students who are transitioning to UF because I know for me that was a big thing. (Before school)I’ve never been to Gainesville, I’ve never lived away from home and I’m going to this college. That college experience I’ve never really had that in my family…I helped restart the chapter but I also helped restart the scholarship that was given on behalf of the chapter

That was in 2011. (Earlier this year) the (South Florida chapter of the UF Association of Black Alumni) board did a networking event and they were recognizing black alumni in South Florida. I actually received the Young Alumni Gator Great award because it was recognized how big deal it was that I restarted the chapter, what I have been able to accomplish. We’ve been able to give a scholarship to a student graduated from a South Florida high school going to UF, making sure there is that pipeline of support for these students so they have somebody who has been there done that, who they reach out to. It’s just very humbling to see because I did not go into it saying ‘I want to be a big deal.’ I really did go into it because I was like ‘I know my experience going to college’…You want to fall in a network, you want to be part of a network.

Follow the author on Twitter at @yadicarocaro