Keeping Latinos Connected: Selymar Colon

By: Yadira Y. Caro

In the shifting news landscape, Univision’s news coverage continues gaining relevance. With a growing Hispanic population in the US and many watching from their own countries abroad, Univision’s journalistic team informs first, and second generation immigrants, and even those from later generations on stories relevant to issues in their region and the US. They also serve as advocates for the people.

Selymar Colon has been a driving force behind this continued growth in Univision telling the stories of the people while finding new ways to reach them. As VicePresident and Editor in Chief of News Digital, she has been a champion of digital integration since she started in Univision in 2006 after graduating college. She joined the news company as a field producer and continued rising through the ranks becoming a producer for Al Punto with Jorge Ramos. Her work has been awarded national and regional Emmys, named one of the Top 40 under 40 in latino Politics by Huffington Post and most recently, won along her team a World Press Photo Award.

In this interview, Selymar shared what drove her to journalism, the value of mentorship to advance professionally and how she stays informed.

Can you describe what you do?

I am a digital journalist in a newsroom where our main focus is the Hispanic Latino community in the United States. At Univision we have such a close relationship with our audience; that is extremely privileged. We cover the issues that matter to them, things that are happening in the United States that impact their lives, and headlines from the countries that would be of interest to them here as well. A big part of what we do is service journalism which is key to our audience to help them understand how the immigration system works in this country, how it impacts their lives. Obviously a big part of the audience is immigrant so this is information that it’s useful to them.

You studied journalism in your Bachelors (at Lynn University) and your Masters degree (at Florida International University). How did you know you wanted to be a journalist?

This is a little bit cliché, but the reality is I always wanted to give a voice to the voiceless. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico and I remember when hurricanes or major natural disasters would happen, the journalist felt kind of part of your family. They were the ones guiding you through the emergencies, through the news. I found that instant connection when I saw how much help they were bringing to the community and that’s what attracted me the most to the news: how can I be that guiding force, that guiding light in the community, how can we uplift voices that might not have anywhere to share their story, to get help. So that’s what interested me the most about the field of journalism.

Are there any misconceptions about what you do or about journalism?

Right now it is a difficult time for journalists all over the world. 2018 was one of the toughest and bloodiest years of journalism in the Americas. Mexico has become the bloodiest and most dangerous country to be a journalist. The rhetoric the President of the United States uses against journalists does not help either.

I think in any democracy, keeping a healthy press is extremely important. Also, its important for its citizens to make their own conclusions to what is happening in the country and the laws that are being enacted and may affect them. So I think in general, right now the time it’s difficult, but at the same time, it’s interesting because you’re seeing more journalistic work that is excelling, just going beyond to what we were doing before. Its gaining even more purpose. There are more people that are backing the good journalism that helps them conduct their daily lives and keep democracies alive.

Selymar Colon behind cameras with Al Punto host Jorge Ramos.

Since you started over a decade ago in journalism, what are significant changes that you’ve see on either the way you perform your job or overall in the trends in journalism?
We usually say a good journalist is a good journalist regardless of the times. I think technology has helped journalism and it’s the key that, like in any other industry, has made the biggest changes. In journalism in particular, technology had helped journalists gather and analyze better data and information to provide better reports. On the other hand, it has also allowed journalists tell their stories in various formats that reach bigger audiences that are further from them. Probably five years ago, ten years ago, people were used to their local newspaper, and now they read them on an app, they read them on their desktop, on their smart TV.

Technology has made a big change for consumers on how they consume news and for journalists in helping us gather better information and analyze it. Probably in some cases, you don’t have to go physically to a location to gather the data, you can create that data even from various sources, analyze it and include it in a story.

How is a regular day for you? Do you have to be constantly connected?

Yes, it does come with the job to be almost all the time connected! I have push notifications from any and all major news organizations. There are some apps like Nozzle that do help you better see what’s trending, give you a sense of what people are sharing in your own network. So it’s through a combination of apps and social networks; and push notifications are key to stay connected at least on breaking news and announcements.

Do reach out, do find that mentor, and when you get that mentor, use their time smart and wisely. Know what you want to get of that relationship, and that’s going to help you tremendously in your career.

Selymar Colon

You’re leading a team of journalists. Is there any particular approach you have for management?
To communicate, to talk to people, to listen is really important. It’s something that even though if I keep a busy schedule, I try to do as much as I can to have one-on-ones, to listen to everybody in the meetings. Also I leave the journalism team some space if there are projects that they want to push forward. I think that’s really important because the day to day and the breaking news can consume you.

I think as a woman in this role, it’s also important to also leverage other female voices in the newsroom and not just the journalists. Also in the stories that we tell, and the voices we use as sources as well.

What advice do you have for women who either want to venture in technology or communications?

Get mentors, don’t be afraid to ask for mentorship. If you see someone that you might think ‘Oh my God, this person has such a big title and so much responsibility,’ the worst you can get from that person is a ‘No.’ Then you move on and you find someone else you want to talk to. Do reach out, do find that mentor, and when you get that mentor, use their time smart and wisely as well. Know what you want to get of that relationship, and that’s going to help you tremendously in your career.

Sometimes it’s good to also keep a balance of who those mentors are. There might be people that are directly in your industry of preference, but there could also be someone who is not in your industry, but its in a field or in a position that you might want to get to, or from an interest that you gain in some point in your career. It’s also good to hear from everyone, from other people what their experiences are. More often than not, I would say that people would be open to meet you, to talk to you on the phone and share with you their stories, share with you some of their experiences. After you have that information, use it for your benefit, take from that conversation what you think suits you the best and apply it.

Are there any two or three resources, either podcast books or anything that have helped you throughout your career?

I would say one thing besides the mentorship, is continued education. There are fields where continued education is mandatory, there are some where it’s not. Even if it’s not, we should always pursue continued education. I’ve taken some executive education courses, and I’m always looking for more of those because those are good places to continue to grow, to continue to learn. Attending conferences it’s also really important, and if you can’t go physically at least follow them and read about them on blogs.

All of the podcast I listen to have nothing to do with my field. I do like a lot How I Built This, because of the inspiration it provides. This goes hand in hand with the mentorship and learning from people that are probably in another industry. It helps learning from their career paths and how they made it. I listen to another one called Latina to Latina from Alicia Menendez. Its really good and empowering because I discover a lot of new voices of powerful and interesting Latinas in the United States; their stories are just magical. I do like another one called the Washington Post Retro Pod, which gives you 5 minute history snippets. I’m a little bit of a history buff.

In the morning, morning podcasts are really important of course. Up First from NPR and The Daily are my two go-to podcast every morning. For reading, The Nieman Lab is really good, it’s a website that gives you new things that are happening from most organizations.

Do you have questions, feedback or suggestions of people to interview?

Contact me!

Covering the Military Stories: Howard Altman

By: Yadira Y. Caro

Unless you read Army Times or other military publications, stories about the military members are not common 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.

Do you have questions, feedback or suggestions of people to interview? Contact me!

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