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.

Why Journalism Still Matters: Interview with Alsy Acevedo

If you ask journalists for recommendations on what career to choose, I bet not many would recommend their own: uncertain job security, new responsibilities added every week for smaller salaries. But many of them would also praise the lessons learned in their career: how to find and pitch an idea, searching beyond what is said, persistence.

Alsy Acevedo believes journalism is a discipline with lessons which can be applied anywhere. She started covering hard news at an early age producing a political radio show in Puerto Rico. She then became a staff writer for various newspapers in the US (El Sentinel, Orlando Sentinel, Ashville Citizen-Times). In 2012, she was named by Huffington Post as on of the Latino voices to follow on Twitter. Currently, she is a Senior Communications Strategist at Catholic Relief Services (CRS), an international humanitarian agency dedicated to disaster response, where she stills finds ways to uncover stories and bring the public’s attention to current issues.

How would you describe what you do?
I tell stories of people in distress, but I also tell ways of solving the issues that distress them.

When you talk about people in distress, what are some examples of that?
People in distress because of war, because of natural disaster or because academics. I’ve been following the violence issues in Central America very closely. I’ve also worked in emergencies such as the Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines providing communications support for that and also epidemics like the Ebola outbreak last year … They are very tough circumstances.

When you are describing communications support, what is it that you provide to them? Are you bringing awareness of any issues?
It’s everything: from telling the stories of the beneficiaries I meet overseas to doing social media around the issue, to promoting legislation or supporting legislation on a bill, setting interviews with experts or sometimes giving interviews myself on the issue, (also) speaking engagements with different audiences like students or community leaders that are interested in this subject…Certainly, more diverse than what I used to do in the newsroom.

You describe your current job is more diverse of what you did in journalism…How would you describe the similarities of both?
The fact that you can listen to people and understand story lines and trends and communicate what others say in a way that someone who has no idea of that reality can understand, that’s definitely a skill that I’ve applied in both. In journalism I covered the school board or a particular election or some obscure city code, so I would need to explain that so the person who has no idea of those topics could understand it. With people in distress and emergencies and war and epidemics, it’s more of the same because people understand that these realities take place but usually you are so detached, or is overseas, or it is something that is not immediate to us. It takes some creativity and some understanding of both realities in order to make sense for the general audience.

Even though you are based on Maryland you are dealing with people in Latin America and other parts of the world as well, trying to communicate that message, understanding their concerns. Are there any particular strategies you take on to ensure that you have conveyed the message?
I think its having open dialogue with colleagues overseas and the people who implement projects outside of the Unites States. For example, when I went Mexico recently, we were covering the violence issues and also the farmworkers rights issues. I had to explain to the beneficiaries and my colleagues overseas what about these issues was relevant for the audience in the United States because there are different takes on the same issue. So for one of the audience that I work with, who are a Catholic audience, so the faith aspect is very important…I was able to bring everyone together on the same page. So it’s a matter of finding similarities of what people are interested in.

Being a reporter working for El Sentinel and Orlando Sentinel, did people want to put you in a certain coverage area because you are a Hispanic? Was there good integration in your experience?
In El Sentinel and Orlando Sentinel Hispanic issues were definitely my beat. In North Carolina I had the health bit and I brought in the Hispanic beat myself because I thought it was relevant and nobody was doing it. I just started reporting in those stories as well. I think that in North Carolina I was more integrated to the general newsroom and in Orlando I was mostly covering Hispanic issues. That is tough place to release yourself from. A trend that I am seeing is Hispanic reporters who will not do the Hispanic beat no matter what and others who would, but it is very difficult (for them) to get out of there. The good thing though is that if you are in the beat its not going anywhere, it will be growing. If you are an expert then you have leverage and its something you can run with eventually. I think specialization is definitely a trend within the Hispanic market.

In your experience working in North Carolina, what is an example of a story that was about a Hispanic issue or maybe had a Hispanic angle that you brought up to the health coverage?
There were many Hispanics in western North Carolina but they were not in the paper, nobody spoke to them. So that is a way to integrate their voices in any story. One of the first stories that I did was actually about law enforcement and I did it in conjunction with one of my colleagues. They were talking about secure communities and this program that was implemented under that gave law enforcement the ability to ask on immigration status. We were covering a town hall so there was the sheriff, there were community leaders and there were like three Hispanics from western North Carolina who were Hispanic leaders and nobody talked to them. My colleague did not talked to them and I did. So when we got back to the room and I provided my quotes he was like ‘well, the story is to long’ and ‘I don’t think is necessary’ and I was like ‘I feel very strongly that it is necessary that they appear in this story’. We brought it to the editor and the editor did choose some of my quotes. It’s just a matter of shedding light to the reality that is already there and others don’t see it or don’t have the ways or the intention of covering it.

Do you see journalism as a career that is evolving? Or do you believe is a hype when people think that journalism is in decline?
I am optimistic so I think journalism will live forever and ever and will prevail (laughs)… I think journalism is changing so rapidly and definitely it does not work as the business model that it used to be Papers are declining but other forms are evolving and sprouting so I think content is king. As long as you have very good content and you bring journalism ethic and integrity to your stories, you will be contributing to journalism even if you are not on a paper anymore.

What do you think makes a good journalist?
I think fairness makes a good journalist and objectivity. It is such a complex concept …I don’t think it necessarily exists as definition suggests but being fair and admit that you have you own biases… Also in that fairness is giving the voice and the credibility to the people that have the voice and the credibility.

For people who are in college right now, will you recommend them to go into the field?
Well, I should know better and tell people not to study journalism because it’s hard to find a job and make a living out of it. But that is not what I believe. I believe is a great career and it gives you the skills and provides you the openness and the courage and the curiosity to question the world… I have a lot of friends who are former journalists that are in classrooms or in communications with different organizations like I am or who are doing a completely different thing like running a business and knowing how to market it to the general public.

I think (journalism) is a tremendous opportunity to learn about the world and get out of your comfort zone and really put yourself out there. I think that is a real skill to have when you go to the real world. And maybe the real world is that there is no newsroom that will hire you because its shrinking, but the fact is that you will have skills to enrich other working in environments juts because you went into journalism school and know how to listen to people and ask really good questions.

Follow Alsy Acevedo on Twitter at @alsyacevedo

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 succeed.you keep working and you can succeed.

Follow Justin George on Twitter @justingeorge

Follow the author @yadicarocaro