Why Journalism Still Matters: Interview with Alsy Acevedo

By: Yadira Y. Caro

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

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

By: Yadira Y. Caro

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 every 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