Covering the military stories: Howard Altman

Unless you read Army Times or other military publications, stories about the military members are rare in mainstream media. However, at The Tampa Bay Times in Florida, Senior Military Staff Writer Howard Altman has found his niche, building trust among this community and traveling across the world to cover their stories. These include conversations with generals in war zones, struggles of the veteran population or the toll of military life among family members.

His career as a journalist and editor spans over 30 years covering a variety of topics for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Newton-News Tribune, City Paper and The Tampa Tribune. I asked Howard about building relationships, and how he continues innovating in a challenging industry.

When you became a journalist, did you have an idea of what type of stories you wanted to cover?

I knew I wanted to shine a light on bigger issues, bigger problems. Just looking back at some of the coverage we did such as mayor race in Philly, or how the high rises where not required to have sprinklers and some firefighters died. We did a series of stories on that and it changed things. That kind of thing has always been important to me.

You cover a lot of stories about the military. Is there anything that has surprised you or anything interesting that you have found in your coverage?

It’s all fascinating. We have a military base (McDill Air Force Base) which has two Combatant Commands. It has component commands, it’s got two air force wings and mission partners. So there is a wide range of things to cover. I’ve traveled to Afghanistan, Iraq, Bahrain and other places. I’ve been embedded with special forces groups. This week I wrote a series of stories about World War I, World War II, current conflicts, and even the sickening of embassy workers. I cover the VA all the time. We have two of the busiest VA hospitals in the country and one of the busiest VA claim centers. There is so much stuff going on.

How do you identify a good story?

My phone rings pretty much 24/7. I like the human element, I like stories about technology. I wrote a story about the drones that can deliver blood. You know fascinating stuff. [Building relations] is really challenging. The military doesn’t always like to talk to reporters, especially a lot of the special forces. So I kind of always approach it like a Green Beret ODA [Operational Detachment Alpha]. When they are traveling outside the wire, they go out and sit down down with a key leader and find out what is going on. For me it’s similar minus the body armor, the MRAPs, the M4 and people shooting at me. You meet key leaders, you build networks, build trust over time, and trust is very difficult to build.

I think people know I have no particular agenda, I’m not anti-military or pro-military, I tell the stories as they are. That is where the trust is. Probably twice a year I talk with the SOF [Special Forces] at the Joint Special Operations University about the various issues that we face and how can we work better to tell their story; about what frustrates me and what frustrates them. I go to all kinds of events such as Operation Helping Hand dinner and people see me out in the community a lot. So I build trust and people come and tell me stories constantly.

What do you think makes a good journalist?

Somebody who is curious, who is skeptical, who is willing to work hard to dig up the facts. Someone that will challenge their own assumptions, challenge own thesis, not cut corners, not make stuff up, either people or quotes. Who makes sure that the documents they are getting are the provenance, that are real. You have to have a passion for this job because lets face it: it does not pay very much and everybody hates you.

How do you survive to all the changes in journalism? How do you adapt?

I was always an innovator. I worked in one of the first newspapers to go online. One of the editors, around 1993, said “one day, people will be able to see how many people look at each one of your stories and for how long.” That was crazy then. So I’ve always been atuned to where the audience is. That is one thing.

The other thing is, when I took over the Philadelphia City Paper, I thought it was very important to find vertical niches. Then identify which one would be popular and really own the politics, media coverage, urban design and those kinds of things. I continue to believe that in the terms of the military coverage.

The Tampa Bay Times did great covering Veterans issues but they were not able to crack the military. After they took out the Tampa Tribune, they brought me on board knowing that I had this audience. It’s a lot, and its conservative; people who would not necessarily read The Times otherwise. We cover their issues. I try to go vertical and try to own it.

Would you recommend anyone to become a journalist?

I always say run away (laughs).  For democracy to succeed we need good journalists, strong journalists, accurate journalists, unbiased journalists. Now more so than ever. I’ve done all kinds of things, I’ve met all kinds of people: cut up jokes with Mel Brooks, sat down with generals and presidents, met princesses, go to places people don’t go, see things people don’t see. Its fascinating and I highly recommend it.

Breaking Barriers Through Fashion: Nasheli Juliana

The world of fashion is quite alluring yet seems unattainable. For Nasheli Juliana Ortiz, the road to become a fashion designer has not been easy but has been very successful. She is the Chair of the Fashion Design Department at Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia, and is now getting ready to present her designs at Paris Fashion Week next month.

Growing up in Puerto Rico, she overcame health-related obstacles which ultimately lead her to this world thanks to her persistence, hard word, and talent. After completing studies in Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and the Savannah College of Art and Design, she held several positions as a university professor and worked with multiple well-known designers. I asked Nasheli about her childhood challenges, misconceptions of the fashion industry, and how famed designer Oscar de la Renta gave her the first break. She gave great advice which can be applied to anyone in any industry.

 

Why did you wanted to be a fashion designer?

I had developing problems went when I was growing up: I had meningitis when I was 2 years old so I was in a coma. I’ve always had (learning) problems in school and my mom forced me to be in painting, drawing and dance to help me develop fine motor skills. The only thing that I knew how to do was doing clothes for my Barbies. I spent hours and hours doing clothes for my Barbies with paper towels or whatever I found around the house. When the time to select my high school came my mom said ‘you’re going to the vocational school.’ I didn’t want to go to the vocational school because none of my friends were going. But she enrolled me and I remember the first task was to do short pants and a waistband. It was the first time that I understood something completely. So I think my mom forced me to be a fashion designer. It was because she saw that something in me that I didn’t discover it until that moment.

How do you know that you could make a career out of fashion designing?

I did not knew that, really. We do not have a lot of Latino fashion designers to feel represented. I was very ignorant about the fashion industry. I started as a seamstress and then when I went to the university was when I learned that fashion design is a whole industry. I went to the Dominican Republic and studied at Altos de Chavon. I learned there all the things that you can do inside of the industry. That was the moment I said ‘oh I can still make a living being a fashion designer and not die,’ because in Puerto Rico there is still the idea that if you are in the fashion and art industries you are going to starve. That has not happened and I am happy as a fashion designer (laughs).

What do what do you think are the biggest misconceptions about the industry of fashion design?

That is glamorous (laughs). Fashion design is not glamorous at all. Its very mean, classist, sexist, and as a Latina it has been very difficult to achieve anything. I’m not in any way what people think about of a fashion designer: I am a Latina with a very strong accent and I am even fat; fat people are not allowed in fashion. It’s a very mean industry. Even though I love it I am very aware of all these sad parts of the fashion industry.

What are two or three key things a person needs to make it in the industry and be successful?

You need to be disciplined. It is very hard to make it and you need to be very disciplined, be open to feedback and you need to be willing to work with other people. This is a collaboration field.

How do you describe your designing style?

As a fashion designer I work two sides: I work ready to wear, daylight wearing clothes. I like to use a lot of stretch bands; these are very comfortable clothes. On the other side is the most conceptual side. I present social problems in my conceptual work which I present in the runways. My work is very conceptual and political.

What are you communicating through your designs?

I just want people to understand that fashion has a lot of power. Fashion is seen a lot of times as very vain, but we communicate who we are and we make statements through our clothes. Clothes have been in power in the political aspects, how to use uniforms, women liberating themselves from the corset as empowered groups. even the people that are anti-fashion are making a statement and that is fashion. I want to keep that message right. Clothes have a message and that is very powerful.

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Part of the collection Breaking Arrow…PR, inspired by tumultuous historical episodes between the US and Puerto Rico.

 

Can you describe example of a failure that you learned from that turn into something successful?

My career started when I was graduating and during my final presentation one of the critics that came to see my work was Oscar de la Renta. It was a critique in front of all my classmates. I was pregnant with my first kid at the time and Oscar de la Renta said ‘you are going to be a great designer.’ Nobody in my classroom knew that I was pregnant, only my professor. When Oscar de la Renta said that, she (the professor) said in front of everybody, ‘first she needs to be a mom.’ Because it was so mean and Oscar de la Renta heard that he said, ‘well I am going to give her her first internship.’ That is how I landed the first job. People want to get you down but karma is instant (laughs).

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What would you recommend to anybody who is thinking about being fashion design or in a related field?

I believe in academia. I believe is very important to have that formal education, that safe space to make mistakes and to have a group of people there are searching for the same goals that you are searching.

I think education is very important. A lot of people think that because they know how to sew that they are fashion designers and its a very big step and very big path to get from one to another. Education is one of the biggest things that we’re missing now in the fashion industry because fashion is a reflection of society. You need to have an anthropology context, a history context, a psychology context to understand what is design, it’s so unique and you can only have that in academia.

Are there are any two or three resources you recommend?

I am reading two books now: The Latin American Fashion Reader and Liberated Threads, Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul. With all the things happening now in the United States, I think its very important that we understand about appropriation and empowerment of black women and Latin American women through fashion.

Spreading Disney’s Magic: Interview with Sarah Domenech

Sarah Domenech works where you vacation. As the Public Relations Managers at Walt Disney World Resorts, she spends her days at the Orlando parks or traveling throughout the US and Latin America to ensure everyone knows about the latest Disney has to offer. She helps keep the magic alive.

Sarah started her career in her native Puerto Rico as a journalist in the area of music and entertainment. Later, she moved to Florida to continue her career in TV and newspaper journalism. In 2007 she started working at Disney managing projects and marketing strategies. Today, her focus is on the Hispanic markets in the US and the Americas. She is always quite busy but she is indeed having fun, judging from her social media posts or her posts for the Disney blog. Even with her hectic schedule, Sarah took some time to answer my questions about her job and current challenges.

How did you ended up working with Disney?

I’m a journalist and I was working as an entertainment and travel editor in Orlando and used to cover Disney World a lot. One day, they asked if I was interested in a PR role within the sales and travel organization. I interviewed and after 11 years, I’m still with the Company.

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Can you describe what it is like in a regular week at your job?

What I love about my job is that there are no regular weeks. We surely have standard meetings and things to do but we get media requests every day, celebrity visits and projects; no day is similar to the one before or the next. I talk to media on a daily basis, pitching stories about our theme parks and resorts, talk with celebrities and management to plan photo opportunities and now, our weeks are all about the opening of Toy Story Land. I am working with the media to cover the press event and opening of the new land at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

Can you describe 2 or 3 things key things you believe are necessary to succeed in this job?

Organization is very important since your day can be different from hour to hour and need to keep track of tasks for different projects – a lot multi-tasking happens here: relationship skills are key since you not only need to establish new relationships with media partners but maintain them and strengthen them. And last but not least, writing. There’s a lot of writing involved in this role. Oh and be on top of media trends, the landscape for media, specifically for Hispanics, is changing constantly and you need to keep up with what’s happening.

Do you have an example of a failure from which you learned from (at this job or elsewhere)?

Too many actually! Since English is not my first language, making grammar mistakes in press releases and even during presentations are my pet peeves since I have made so many. But with every mistake, I have learned and move forward and I haven’t made those mistakes again. I learn a new English word every day!

Any 3 books, podcast, websites, etc. you recommend to any professional?

Oh dear! I read a lot, well, I consume a lot of media. For example, in my line of business I go to online newspapers like El Nuevo Dia, People en Español, Parents Latina, and The New York Times. My favorite books are The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho– life transforming – and 100 años de Soledad (100 Years of Solitude) by Gabriel García Marquez. Anybody that is in communications and works with Hispanic and/or Latin American markets, should read those.