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!

Communicate Blog is Back (plus Lessons from Interviewees)

Communicate Blog is back! Since I posted my last interview in 2015, a lot has changed: I moved to Germany, Europe for a work opportunity, I shifted jobs (twice!) as a US Department of Defense consultant in the field of knowledge management and IT, I completed new certifications including my PMP (finally!) and Security Plus, plus had a new baby.

Even though I have been quite busy with all of these changes, I still felt the urge to connect with professionals in multiple fields, and highlight their accomplishments and lessons learned. So after some hesitation figuring out how to find the time, I decided to venture into blogging again! Every two weeks, I will be publishing new content with interviews to people not just in the field of communications, but in the areas of management, technology, art and many others. The topics have expanded to reflect my new interests and the realization that no matter our chosen professions, we have lots to learn from each other.

While I continue working on my next post, I wanted to give some updates on some of the people I interviewed 3 years ago.

Justin George, journalist

Back in 2015, I had a great conversation with Justin about the challenges and the value of journalism. After leaving The Baltimore Sun, Justin joined The Marshall Project, a not for profit non-partisan news organization covering the US justice system. He covers criminal justice politics and policy, particularly anything related with criminal justice reform, and improving opportunities of prisoners.

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Justin George

Today, he is a busy as ever especially during the current political climate in the country and recent violence where journalists have been the victims. What has he learned recently? “I’ve learned that great journalism takes great support. From editors and photojournalists and graphic artists, etc. The cutting of staffs at local newspapers has decimated the industry and what people are losing is quality and the ability to truly have important issues in their communities investigated thoroughly. Which is why nonprofit journalism such as The Marshall Project and Pro Publica is so important – to fill in for legacy media institutions that are getting gutted by greedy corporate owners or due to losses in readership or advertisers.”

Alan Taveras, entrepreneur

In our interview, I spoke with Alan about a new start-up his brother Guarien and him were launching: Brands of Puerto Rico. This ecommerce platform provides the opportunity to local businesses and entrepreneurs to sell their products globally. The reception has been so great that they also launched five more markets where local businesses in each area offer their products to the world: Brands of Mexico, Brands of Nicaragua, Brands of Dominican Republic and Brands of El Paso.

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Alan Taveras

I should also highlight the devastation Puerto Rico experienced last year during Hurricane Maria did not stop them. Furthermore, Alan put together brigades to collect and bring food and first-need articles to areas where governmental aid had not reached. Per Alan, the most valuable lesson he has learned in the past yew years “is the importance of having the financials in place to look for funding that fuels growth.”

Vanessa Vazquez, journalist turned developer

My longtime friend Vanessa was one of the first interviews for this blog. Back then we were talking about her journalism career, but today she has shifted to a career as a lead software developer for Johnson and Johnson focusing on online marketing. She is also a certified Scrum Master.

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Vanessa Vazquez

Her advice? “You always have to be able and willing to learn something new. Adapting is the key to stay ahead in technology and in your personal life as well.”

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