Telling Uplifting Stories, Including Her Own: Interview with Aurora Rodriguez

In a Miami Dade Community College classroom, Aurora Rodriguez can be mistaken for one of the students she teaches in the undergraduate journalism courses. It is not simply a matter of looks; it is also the way she connects with younger audiences in person and through her work, her knowledge of the latest cultural trends, and her nonstop energy. Aside from teaching aspiring journalists at the college and before that at Florida International University, she is the editor of Where magazine for South Florida, as well as a blogger for various websites including J-14 Magazine and Dirty and Thirty.

She started in journalism almost 15 years ago in her native Puerto Rico and since then has written for various news sites and publications including The San Juan Star, The Ledger and The Miami Herald. Throughout her career, her focus has been on stories about culture, travel and entertainment. If you want to be in the know of the coolest places in Miami, ask Aurora. But aside from all the fun stories, her writing also addresses very personal struggles.

About eight years ago, Aurora was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Instead of hiding it she found a way to deal with her illness: by writing about it. I wanted to know her motivations for opening up to her readers and what she is teaching to others who want to follow her same teenage dreams.

What draw you to journalism?

When I was in the third grade and I started writing, one of my teachers told me ‘your writing is really good, you should be in the school paper.’ We did have school papers in elementary school. I remember writing stuff about the cafeteria food, my fellow peers, and then I never stopped. In high school, I became the editor for the school paper and it was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed hearing other people’s ideas and I enjoyed hearing stories about people’s lives. I guess that’s what really drew me into journalism.

You started at a really early age too? Did you do something before you were a reporter in The San Juan Star?

Yes I did! When I was in Sagrado (Sagrado Corazon University in Puerto Rico) my first real reporting job out of high school was being a youth reporter for Casiano Communications and the website PuertoRicowow.com. I had a weekly column online and I started writing about events and what was going on the city and Puerto Rico, where to go, and what you can do when you were young and you wanted to have a good time in the area.

Were you inspired by any author? Is there anybody you have looked up to throughout your career?

I was really in love with literature and I was really in love with poetry. I won a few poetry awards when I was in Sagrado which I was really excited about. Some of my favorite poets are (among others) Edgar Allan Poe; I know it’s a classic but I really love his writing (…) When it comes to really reading journalism and news writing, I pretty much follow the local news and those reporters. I also loved the magazines so I would subscribe to (these) which was one of the reasons I think I became a feature writer, just because I follow pop culture so much.

(…) Being at the school paper I started (writing) poems for it, but then when I started news writing I had a professor, his name is Rafael Matos, (who) gave me my first journalism class and he told me ‘don’t let anybody take your voice away from you because you can really be a good features writer.’ And I pretty much just kept doing that. I blame him and that is a good thing (laughs).

What has drawn you to continue writing in this type of beat: culture, traveling, entertainment?

I feel like there are stories that just have to be told because not everything has to be negative and depressing (…) I feel happy when I write a story and it’s something that people can relate to. For example, in my travel writing if I write a story on say going to Jamaica where I went a year ago, and somebody writes ‘oh my God, those were such great recommendations, I am happy you wrote that story because I follow your advice,’ it makes me feel good.

(…)I really like writing stories about real people, writing stories about people that are doing amazing things in their neighborhoods. I just like writing stories where people read them and they can relate or they read them and they are happy when they read them.

You are also very personal in your writing. In your blogs you have covered your frustrations.

Yeah, like my bipolar disorder and my mental illness… I knew that there was something wrong but I had no idea what was going on and when I found out, it was like sense of relief. I have been on medication since 2008. After I got married that is when I found out.

(…) It is very personal (writing) but I am not afraid to share my personal stories because I want people to relate. One of my personal goals is for people to read my writing and say ‘ok, I am not alone, look at her, she is able to have a job’ because there is stigma that people that have bipolar disorder can’t work because that is such an up and down disease. I’ve proven that you can live a normal life with my disability

It is very personal, I am sharing it, but it is also a release. It makes me feel better when I write about a tough time.

You even surpassed many expectations for “normal” people because I see you and you are always doing something.

Yeah (laughs). I have so many people coming up to me and saying ‘you are always out girl, you are partying’ and I am like ‘hold on a second, I am networking.’ I know it sounds strange but it has to do with my career. A lot of times to be able to come up with a story idea I need to be out there… One of the goals that I gave myself for this year, and I have been pretty good about it, is to go to less events because it really does take up a lot of your time. I feel when you starting out you should do that but once you reach a point you can back away; I am going to pick and choose what I am going to go to. With my disability and everything else, well I don’t consider it a disability, but I do get more tired because of my medication, etc. so I try not overextend myself too much when it comes to going out.

(…) I think that is my biggest advice to young journalists, (do) not get yourself get too burnt out because I’ve been there when I was 23, 24 years old. I was trying to cover everything at the same time and I would get so exhausted that I would barely sleep and that is dangerous. You need to have a balance.

Can you describe a great challenge that you had in your career and how did you tackle it?

I went through a big challenge when I was at The Ledger when I covered arts and culture. I remember there was source, and I bring this up at my class all the time, there was a source that said that they never gave me the quotes that I put in the story. You know for a journalist that is a big no no. When somebody says that, it is really scary. My editor was not the most supportive editor at the time but I was lucky enough that I had notes, that I had all the information in my reporter’s notebooks. I was able to back up my quotes, I was able to prove, yes I was there, yes, I had interviewed you.

(…) My biggest advice is always keep your notes, always keep everything in file and when you are interviewing somebody, always ask for permission, always save those files because you never know when somebody might read something and say, ‘hey why did I say that.’ You just don’t know what type of person it is you are going to be dealing with out there, so just keep yourself protected.

Talking about your students, what is the biggest advice you give them when you teach them?

I start my class really funny because I make them take their phones out and look up a story. I know that sounds hilarious, eleven years ago no professor would have allowed you to take out your phone and look up stories on your phone. But here is the thing: that is the world we live in today, news are that handy. News are in social media, news are on your phone, they are just right there for you in the palm of your hand.

(…) My advice to them is to keep up with the news very day … No matter what (themes) they really like, just try to step away from what they feel comfortable with and read all sorts of news… I always tell them be prepared, make sure they know multimedia, make sure they really learn their social media.

I tell them one person is expected to do the job of five. So don’t think you are going to go into a newsroom and just write: you are going to write, you are going to shoot video, you are going to take pictures, you are going to update those websites, so you need to be a ‘package’… That is what I try to teach them in the classroom.

Follow Aurora Rodriguez on Twitter @AuroraMiami

Follow the author @yadicarocaro 

Living in a Bilingual World

Vanessa Vazquez’s career in journalism is based on navigating two cultures. Her career started twenty years ago in her native Puerto Rico as a reporter in The San Juan Star, a newspaper targeted to English speaking audiences (in Spanish speaking island). Then she migrated to the United States and helped the Orlando Sentinel launch its Spanish language newspaper El Sentinel for a growing Hispanic audience. A few years later, she did the same for The Tampa Tribune with Centro Tampa, a Spanish language newspaper and website. I asked about her views on journalism from both sides.

You started in Puerto Rico in an English language newspaper to work here in Spanish language media. What was you experience in The San Juan star?

The San Juan Star was a generational newspaper for me. My mom worked there and my brother worked there. I grew up around it. The reason I liked The San Juan Star was that at the time it was the only newspaper in English language. The target audience at the time was for people who were transplanted or, like my mother, who grew up with two languages and felt more comfortable with the English language… The San Juan Star was for me home. I grew up there.

You say it was for transplants for people coming from the US. Was it for people who grew up in the states and came back to the island?

We had a lot of military bases (in Puerto Rico). When we started in 1958, there were a lot of Americans living in Puerto Rico that did not knew Spanish; there were (also) a lot of Puerto Ricans from the Island that were going back and forth. It was a perfect fit in 1958 and it kept growing. It was a pretty big newspaper back then…They had 80 thousand subscriptions. That was the necessity of having it bilingual because we were a bilingual culture.

Back in the 50s, 60s and 70s, it was forced (to speak English in Puerto Rico) so a lot people got comfortable with that language. The transplants, meaning the people who came from military bases, stayed there. In PR we had active bases until 2000s… We had like 6 military bases. Those people did not knew Spanish but they wanted to be part of the community…When I came in to Orlando we did the same thing: we wanted to cover what was going on in the area but in Spanish because (immigrants) felt comfortable. So it was a reversal for me: from a newspaper in English to a newspaper in Spanish… We wanted to cover everything that happened in the Island in English but in Orlando we wanted to cover what happened in the area in Spanish.

Was there a difference in content or the way the news were written or in the coverage from The San Juan Star?

We were different because 80 per cent of the editors came from the US newspapers so they came with the idea from journalism in the US, meaning that we did not like the idea of becoming friends (with sources); we were very hardcore. That is why we won the Pulitzer Prize because we were different.

You mean they covered more hard news?

We did hard news. We went and did reporting, old school reporting. If we had to piss somebody off we did and that is why we got the respect from a lot of people even from the government. They said if The San Juan Star covers it, it was because something was wrong and it was respected.

(…) When I came to The Orlando Sentinel, my editor Maria Padilla, came from a newspaper in English. We worked together in The San Juan Star, she came from that mentality of ‘no, we are not friends of anybody, we are going to find the two sides of the story and we are going to do it in Spanish.’ That is why El Sentinel was so successful from day one.

What do you think was the intent for The Orlando Sentinel with the newspaper El Sentinel? Was it marketing or the need to publish news in Spanish?

It’s funny you ask that because we at The Orlando Sentinel we had one page for the Latino market. In 1998, the Orlando Sentinel did a story about how the Puerto Rican government was bringing criminals here without alerting the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. These were criminals who were witnesses of massacres, who were drug dealers. They were brought here with new identity. The Orlando police was stopping them and they were realizing ‘this guy has new Social Security’ number… things were not adding up. The Orlando Sentinel sent two reporters and that is how I met them; we all worked together. They needed to find somebody who spoke Spanish and who new the library. I knew the library. That was a good ride.

They wrote the story, but the copy editor in Orlando was not so cultural and wrote a headline that say ‘Puerto Rican government is dumping criminals’ (see related story here). That caused the whole Orlando Puerto Rican community to go against the Orlando Sentinel; (they would say) ‘lets go and kill reporters,’ literally, because the Orlando Sentinel did not understand the new dynamics of the Puerto Rican community coming to Orlando. They said it was racist. So pretty much the editor said ‘we need to do something about this.’

The Orlando Sentinel was also owner of a Spanish language newspaper in Chicago which was very successful. They already had Maria Padilla working at the Orlando Sentinel, they also had Pedro Ruz. They knew me so they hired me immediately… They needed someone who spoke Spanish. So you have three people in the newsroom trying to culturize and explain (to staff) ‘we are Americans, most of (Hispanics) speak English, but they are afraid (to speak it) and what you guys did was racist.’

(The Orlando Sentinel) created one page, only one page of content of Hispanic media in English and Spanish. That was in 2000. It was very successful… At the moment they decided to do it bilingual because we had a very interesting Puerto Rican community. It was divided: Puerto Ricans from New York who do not want to deal with Puerto Ricans from the Island… (That is why) we decided to do El Sentinel, but bilingual… It was so successful that La Prensa, (a Spanish language newspaper) which was there before us, changed their whole format. They realized they needed to start covering the news instead of being a shopper.

How was you experience in Tampa with a similar project launching a Hispanic language newspaper and website? Did you see the same integration?

No, when we went to Tampa we had a hard time, because the person running the project had a hard time understanding journalism. (Tampa residents) did not wanted to be compared to Miami. They did not wanted to be compared to Orlando. They wanted to maintain their identity. They did not trust the newspaper. The difference is that the Orlando Sentinel was the only one newspaper in town. The Tampa Tribune had a competition with The St Petersburg Times and for history’s sake, The Tampa Tribune was always known to be racist. It was a tough sell.

When we started, I remember me shaking my head asking why do we need to be separate from the English newspaper. I came from Orlando, separation did not work.

Vanessa has also been a fervent proponent of online presence for newspapers for many years, and was very vocal about letting editors and publishers know the web was the future (I know this first hand since I worked with her many years). As a self-taught techie, Vanessa expanded her media experience to work in email marketing with companies as New York Life and Marine Max. She also owns VVY HUB a company dedicated to help small businesses establish their online marketing presence.

You worked a lot with the online side (of newspapers). Can you talk about the evolution of that side?

I started in online journalism in 2000 at the Orlando Sentinel. I decided to go into that route because back then AOL and other companies were involved in giving the news, and people were going to (these sites) to see information because it was faster. People did not wanted to wait for the 6 o clock news or the paper the next day. I saw there was this desire for news now.

Back then (the concept) was to have a teaser (online) and then do the big story in print. Now sadly, print its being thrown to the garbage, what (media companies) are doing is digital first, then they print a crappy story. It’s very sad to see how they (integrate).

You have worked a lot with Hispanic media. In your current job you are targeting Hispanic market as well. What are some big misconceptions about big corporations on the Hispanic market?

That’s is atopic which will take 3 days but I can try to convey in on two seconds (laughs). Mass media wants to lump everybody into one category. Hispanics are different, we come from different cultures, we have different dialects. In different areas we are totally different; we adapt to our surroundings but we are very attached to our homelands.

Follow Vanessa on Twitter at @lilprgidget. 

Follow the author on Twitter at @yadicarocaro.

Translating Militarisms and Other PR Lessons from a Soldier: Interview with Mitch Marovitz

Mitch Marovitz’s career in communications was formed by his experience in the US Army. Mitch, who is currently President of the Public Relations Society National Capital chapter, says the service taught him about public affairs, broadcasting and leadership.

During his 30 year career, he developed audio visual training lessons for the U.S. Army Armor School, commanded American Forces Radio and Television Service networks in Central America and Europe, commanded the European edition of the Stars and Stripes newspaper, and represented the Army with the entertainment industry. After his military career, he transitioned to the commercial world becoming a management consultant team lead at Booz Allen Hamilton, and a university professor. He also has a PhD in Instructional Design, Development and Evaluation from Syracuse University.

As a person who has been able to easily adapt to the military and civilian worlds, I wanted to know about the lessons he learned along the way, and get an insider’s scope of working in Hollywood.

How did you got involved with public relations?

I was stationed in Europe in the mid- to late 1970s but I did not go to Germany, I went to Italy. My wife and I had been married a year when we went overseas. I was a signal platoon leader. My unit provided communications for the Southern European Task Force. After only a few months in Italy, I was about to get promoted out of my job since the job I was in was for a Lieutenant and I was about to become a Captain. The Army had trouble finding a job for me in Italy at first but then I got lucky. There was a brand new radio and TV network that just started in Italy. The officer who led it returned to the US and they needed someone to run it. Here I was: I had this experience in producing audio visual educational lessons and a degree in radio and TV production (in college). I was interviewed by the public affairs officer who was responsible for this nascent network and I got the job. Because of that, I got the 46 MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) designator as a public affairs officer (broadcasting is a subset of public affairs in the Army).

How difficult was it to communicate that military perspective to the commercial industry?

That’s a good question. It’s important to be able to translate ‘military terminology into everyday English used in business by employers who will hire you.

It all goes to the same (PR principles): know who are you talking to, know your audience, that is such an important tenant of what we do. I could speak to some potential employers fairly normally because they were veterans groups or had some affiliation within the military; I could use some abbreviations and acronyms and do just fine. I had to “translate” military terms and experiences for others so they could understand the scope of my responsibilities.

What was one of the biggest challenges you had? Was it during that time?

My tests occurred at different levels. Depending on where you are in your career, I think that the tests that we have as PR practitioners vary… Some of the biggest challenges I had as a leader, the most stressful ones certainly, were the ones I had when deployed.

Fortunately, no bullets were fired in Bosnia but from our point of view we were prepared for the worst. My job was to provide information and entertainment for the deployed troops and to take care of my troops while doing so; to get what my people needed in terms of logistical support like spare parts, telecommunications circuits, production support, food, warm clothes; being able to get those items consumed me…

What we did was very important. All of us shared that motivation. I’ll tell you how important our service was to our audience. I got a satellite call from a young soldier, one of my technicians… It was winter of 1995.We (American troops) were crossing the Sava River and there was huge snowstorm. The Sava River overflowed its banks and it flooded everything, the Soldiers had absolutely nothing, their clothes were all destroyed and all they had was AFN (American Forces Network) radio and TV which we were providing by way of satellite.

The technician, one of my Soldiers, needed some advice. He was sent to move a satellite dish to prepare for a troop movement. My technician said that an Army officer was threatening him, telling him that he was not going to move the satellite dish; that was all (the troops) had, they had nothing else. Everything else they had was destroyed. So I asked my Soldier, ‘do you have an extra dish any place that you could use in place of this dish?’ ‘I do,’ I said, ‘Fine. Use it. Don’t move this officer’s dish, we’ll get an extra dish for you to put it where it needs to be.’… And everybody was happy.

Another challenge Mitch described was putting together an internal media plan in which all services (Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Marines) agreed. He considered that “one of my greatest feasts.” Then in 1992, he became the chief for Army Public Affairs branch in Los Angeles where he encountered a different set of challenges.

There are so many misconceptions about representing the Army in LA. I found the people of LA and the entertainment industry in general quite friendly and willing to engage with me.

It was not my job to convince writers, producers and directors to do military stories; I did not really need to do that anyway because military stories often explore the human condition and interpersonal relations, especially Army stories. I did, however,have to help them with dialog, specific situations that are realistic for that time’s military members, and set dressing. So I spent a lot of time, days. In fact, about 2 days a week I went to one studio lot or another and just talk to producers and writers.

I truly enjoyed working with screenwriters and producers. I like to think I got along well with them and enjoyed sharing ideas in an easy going “back and forth” conversation. Maybe,however, it’s due to the fact that it is much easier to change a script before a director gets assigned to the film than after. Once a director is assigned to a film, it becomes his or hers. and all suggestions go through the filter of the director’s vision. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, just that it is harder to make changes to the story. For TV is different,; the producer is very important on a TV show. You have to know your medium and who is really in charge.

Could you give some examples of the initiatives and films you worked in Hollywood?

I spent a lot of time with Maggie Renzie, the producer for independent film director John Sayles. …He produced a number of wonderful independent films. I worked on a film called Lone Star.. We provided the production company a lot of assistance, which we were proud to do as it is a wonderful film hoped to be able to give it complete 100 per cent support. But John would not allow a military person on set while he was filming. He did not want any perception that a Government representative was on the set of his movie. I explained that we are on the set for two reasons: one, to make sure the film company shoots what was promised and two, (we are) the last line of defense for uniform violations and things like that.

That came in handy cause I was doing this one movie for HBO called The Tuskegee Airmen and I just happened to be on the set. I was filling in for the regular technical advisor who had to be away. I noticed that the character Ben O. Davis was wearing the wrong rank for this particular scene. The director was very thankful and he reshot the scene and got the right brass on the actor’s uniform; (the actor) was Andre Braugher and (he did it) willingly, no problem at all because he did not want his character in the wrong uniform in the movie. So those are the kind of services that we provided.

Getting back to Lonestar, since Mr. Sayles did not want the government on his set, we could not give him full assistance and I felt really bad about that. We did provide courtesy assistance, however, meaning we provided research and dialog consulting services as requested. Sadly, there is a uniform violation in one scene that we might have corrected had we been on the set but I am not going to tell you what it was (laughs).

Now that you are a professor, what are some of the lessons you want the students to takeaway? What are some of the differences of what they learn in school in comparison to what they’ll see on the workplace?

It’s a tough question and I can only answer for myself. Teaching undergraduates is different than teaching graduates. Teaching undergraduates is not (about) teaching a lot of theories. We touch on them, of course, but principally, for undergraduates, we are teaching them how to do the work they will be expected to do on the job. It’s very tactical.It’s at the masters and the PhD levels that we start trying to relate practice to theory. That is in my opinion what being a master is all about. Understanding the principles primarily of public relations and the principles upon where those principles are based.

(…) From my perspective, I teach theory because I want my graduate students to be armed with all of these approaches to problem solving and to understand when they work best and how they work best. I am fortunate because I have had a lot experience in my life and I try my best to provide the right examples and demonstrate the principles that these theories represent and what they look like in real life.

Follow Mitch Marovitz on Twitter at @MitchMarovitz

Follow the author on Twitter at @YadiCaroCaro