Category Archives: Journalism

Venezuelan Face-off

Venezuelan election at the Venezuelan Consulate in San Francisco

On Sunday, Venezuela held a presidential election, choosing between Nicolás Maduro, the hand-picked heir to Hugo Chávez, the U.S.-taunting strongman who died of cancer in March after 14 years of rule, and Henrique Capriles, a state governor who, under the flag of an united opposition, ran against and lost to Chavez in October.

Maduro won, but not before hundreds of Venezuelans converged on the country’s consulate on Mission Street in San Francisco to vote and to loudly proclaim their allegiance to one side or the other.

Capriles supporters, most clad in some form of red, yellow and blue, the colors of the Venezuelan flag, far outnumbered the chávistas, who used bullhorns to compensate for their lack of mass.  The chávistas, wearing red, included an assortment of other left-leaning demonstrators, whose banners proclaimed support for socialism in Mexico, the Bolivarian revolution  in general and, of course, Che Guevara.

Until recently I would have not devoted part of a sunny, spring Sunday to standing on a San Francisco sidewalk amidst a crowd of vociferous Venezuelan expats, but the small Spanish school  in Marin where I engage in my own revolution against the demands of  the subjunctive is run by a couple from Caracas and the current state of their native country is a frequent topic of conversation.

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Periodismo Peligroso

Three Mexican photojournalists killed

Part of protest in Mexico City against the killing of three photojournalists.

Mexico is becoming an increasingly dangerous place to be a journalist. Three photojournalists were found dead and dismembered Tuesday in the Gulf state of Veracruz, bringing to 44 the number of journalists killed in Mexico in the last six years, according to Article 19, a press freedom group.

While that number pales next to the more than 50,000 Mexicans killed in the same period during the government’s war against the narco cartels (and cross-cartel fighting), it elevates Mexico to No. 8 on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2012 Impunity Index, “which spotlights countries where journalists are slain and their killers go free.” Sadly, the year is still young.

Here’s what CPJ says about Veracruz:

… a battleground for the Zetas and Sinaloa cartels, is one of Mexico’s most dangerous states for the press, according to CPJ research. Four journalists were murdered there in 2011, and on Saturday, the body of journalist Regina Martínez Pérez was found strangled in her home in Xalapa.”

I have a long history with Mexico, including being the owner of a house I built there, but with many Mexicans clamoring for an end to the violence, the repressive PRI party on the verge of regaining the control of the presidency that it held for more than 70 years; the cartels becoming increasingly entrenched in local and national politics, and a the country’s always ethically tenuous journalistic institutions fighting — quite literally — for their lives, I fear the worst for the country in the near term.

You think I’m being overly dramatic? Read this story about the threats against Jorge Medellín, a reporter for the national newspaper Milenio. An excerpt:

Mexican journalists take the smallest hint of a threat seriously because they know that killing a reporter is so easy to get away with. The word for this is impunity–killing with no consequences. None for the killer, at least. But the consequences for the Mexican people are that journalists are afraid to report the news.

Learn more: New York Times story on the latest killings; Committee to Protect Journalists; Article 19; Coverage in El Universal, a centrist paper from Mexico City

Instapaper: Savior or Enabler?

Instapaper

Will Instapaper save me or ruin me further? I ask because I’m a hoarder. Not one a big enough one to merit a reality show, not one of those disheveled types (does hoarding and dressing poorly always go together?) with dozens of feral cats and other critters living amid trash-packed rooms. No, I’m different. I’m an information hoarder.

I pile. My desk and my “office” are collections of stacks – things to do, things to read, things to use, things to organize all the other things. Partly, I blame dear old Mom, she who has never tossed a rubber band for fear that it might be useful for something some day, but mostly it’s my fault. I tell myself that all this information, all these good ideas, will come in handy when the day comes that I do something useful with my life. (Snide comments go here.)

The clutter continues inside my computer(s). The files and folders related to my professional pursuits are pretty buttoned up (money is always a good motivator), but the rest of my digital world operates on chaos theory. And nothing is messier than the hundreds of bookmarks that run downward and downward on the left side of my browser. Each is something I find interesting, compelling or entertaining, and something that some day I will read, perhaps again, perhaps for the first time, and cogitate upon.

You bookmarkers out there know that compiling these links is laborious (two clicks at least) and organizing them even more so. Who uses the Organize Bookmarks page anyhow? The result is an endless list of links, which as it grows and grows becomes a better source of guilt about ideas unfulfilled than of knowledge gleaned.

So, I’ve switched. Good-bye bookmarks, hello Instapaper. So long Command D, welcome Read Later. Now I’ve got a graphically pleasant, easy-to-read page of articles from the Times, Wired, the New Yorker and Salon. True, I subscribe to some of these publications, but they sit in a pile somewhere and it can be so tiresome to actually have to open them in order to find the content amid all that advertising. The nicely ordered list that Instapaper makes just seems so much … smarter.

And that’s why I want to read this stuff in the first place, which I will – some day.

Pobre Mexico

A few days ago the Wall Street Journal published a lengthy story about the ominous criminal, political and social conditions in Mexico that have combined to degrade civil society in many parts of the country to the brink of public disorder.

Fueling this collapse are two evils — the ravenous appetite of the narco cartels for control of the border, of law enforcement and of the proverbial hearts and minds of Mexico’s impoverished citizens; and the endemic, ubiquitous and persistent corruption of government on all levels.

The Journal piece focused on the implications for the United States should the rule of law fail in Mexico. It quoted a high-ranking official in the country’s current ruling party, the PAN:

“The Mexican state is in danger. We are not yet a failed state, but if we don’t take action soon, we will become one very soon.”

For me, it’s more personal. I have good friends — Mexicans and Americans — who live there. I have a house in Oaxaca, Mexico’s most beautiful state and also its poorest. I have seen the country’s working people, through resilient desire and endless effort, carve out good lives for themselves amid a system that favors the wealthy, the connected and the corrupt. And, sadly, I have witnessed well-off people I considered friends express disdain for the poor and for the creation of a society of laws. They are, after all, the beneficiaries of the current system.

I don’t cry easily. The scar tissue laid on during 20 years of daily journalism usually keeps the tears in check. But these days Mexico makes me cry.

In the fall of 2006 I stood in the zócalo, the main square, of Oaxaca – a place I love, where I got married, where I built a house on the far end of a dirt road – and watched a battered TV play a video of the day state police rousted striking public school teachers from the square. I watched the rise and fall of batons on makeshift shelters. I saw the march of heavy boots through darkened streets. Fires burned. Rocks flew. The camera shook. Above all, I heard the sound of helicopters, which police used to fling canisters of tear gas into the crowds below.

I cried right there as the video played. A woman next to me, dressed in the traditional apron of a southern Mexican housewife, saw me, an aging gringo journalist laden with camera gear, and said, “Que triste. Que triste.” How sad. How sad.

A few days later, local thugs — some say off-duty cops — opened fire on a protest march, killing freelance American journalist Brad Will. (Here’s a picture — not mine — of the shooting.)

The resulting international outrage — far beyond any that accompanied the earlier deaths of dozens of Oaxacans — prompted the federal government to send troops into the city restore order.

More than two years later, nothing has changed for the better in Oaxaca. The economy, highly dependent on tourism, has yet to recover. The governor who attacked the striking teachers remains in power. The leaders of the strike are jailed. The killers of Brad Will are free. (The photo at the top of the post is from an anniversary march in Oaxaca’s main square two years after the 2006 attacks.)

Multiply this one incident — a strike, a shooting, a disregard by the authorities for even the facade of justice — throughout the country and amplify it along the drug-trafficking lanes in the border cities and you begin to get grasp of the severity of the challenges Mexico faces. Here’s one fact: 6,000 people were killed in Mexico last year in drug-related violence. The U.S. dead in Iraq for six years of war is 4,200.

Perhaps you wonder why you should care about what happens in Mexico. After all, aren’t the beaches in Baja still beautiful and the pina coladas in Cancun just as tasty? De veras, they are. But Mexico is much more than an American playground.

First, it is also, as the Journal points out, the largest U.S. trading partner and with our economy already on life support we don’t need to lose our best customer.

Second, if you think having more than 4 million undocumented Mexican immigrants living in the United States is troublesome, then imagine the immigration pressure on the border should the Mexican government collapse. Says the Journal:

“It has 100 million people on the southern doorstep of the U.S., meaning any serious instability would flood the U.S. with refugees.”

Finally, there is morality. What is happening in Mexico is simply wrong. It is wrong to oppress the poor so the wealthy can prosper. It is wrong to deny people jobs because they belong to an opposing political party. It is wrong to glorify crime and drug use. And, it is wrong to kill journalists. (Read this report, or this one, or this one from the Committee to Protect Journalists.)

Poor Mexico. I cry for you. I wish I could do more.

Grab Shots: Old News Edition

* Newsies in the Pipeline: Newspapers are on life support, but J-school applicants are up in the U.K. and and in N.Y., reports Jarvis. Discuss.

* Readers Come, Money Doesn’t: Newspaper web readership is up 12% year over year (although web revenue is down). Nieman Journalism Lab lists its Top 15 newspaper sites. My hometown Chron (SFGate) averages 4.1 million uniques a month, up 10%. Somehow, there’s got to be a business in there.

* Ready the Tombstones: Former S.F. Examiner colleague and Salon pioneer Gary Kamiya concludes: “If newspapers die, so does reporting.” And, in light of the web revenue report, he adds: “Currently there is no business model that makes online reporting financially viable.” (Mutter mines the same vein.)

* Cancel the Funeral: Steve Yelvington says he just has “to call bullshit on the “Newspapers Are Dead” meme. Some numbers:

“In spite of the worst economy since Roosevelt, many U.S. newspapers are still turning profits in the 15-20 percent range, and the U.S. newspaper industry is still turning around 50 billion dollars of gross revenue every year.”

* Cue the Elegy: that “show deep digging.” (Andrew Cline calls BS on him, saying: “Nostalgia is dead. It’s time to discover or create the next venue for journalism.”

Why Journalists Still Matter: Obligation

Mumbai terroristLast year was a tough year for journalism (and many other professions). Newspapers, a dying industry, but still the primary source of original journalism in the world, cut more than 15,000 jobs. Some big ones decided to stop delivering the daily paper. Some smaller ones gave up paper altogether in favor of the Web. And a worse-than-dismal economy guarantees more of the same in 2009.

The decline of print journalism is inevitable for numerous economic, social and technical reasons. But, we have yet to see the sustained emergence of a replacement business model that can underwrite the journalism once paid for by the Daily Fish Wrap.

The proliferation of personal media tools — digital cameras, video recorders and phones — has transferred some of the lost capacity of professional journalism into the hands of everyone. That is a good thing. It means more eyes, more ears, more minds on the watch for news. When I was in the newspaper cattle-prodding business a few years back, I extolled the instant reporting of the London tube bombings by the victims of the attacks. Jeff Jarvis just did the same regarding the recent horrors in Mumbai.

Let us not forget, though, that as beneficial as it is for people anywhere and everywhere to report what they see, they are separated by at least one core principal of professional journalism — obligation.

Good journalists feel an obligation to witness the news and report what they see to their communities — even if that means running toward things that common sense and self-preservation would compel one to flee from as quickly as possible.

The picture on this page is an example of that obligation. Taken by Sebastian D’souza, the photography editor of the The Mumbai Mirror, it shows one of the Mumbai terrorists walking calmly through a railroad station. The New York Times reports that the photo is one only a few showing an attacker clearly. The Times describes the important of D’souzas photos and those of another newspaper photographer, Vasant Prabhu:

“Their photos, some of them unpublished, provide detail and precision that is lacking from other witness accounts. They show brave attempts by police officers to stop the attackers. They also highlight the woeful inadequacy of the officers’ weapons and thus help to explain how just 10 terrorists managed to hold a city hostage for three days.”

Read the whole story. And then ask yourself: Which direction would I have gone — toward the news or away from it?

Here, There, Everywhere

(Note: This is a note to my friend Michele McLellan responding to her Facebook post about newspapers outsourcing copyediting tasks.)

Michele …

As you know, I’ve pretty much stayed out of the “whither journalism” lately, but I’ll add a thought or two to your well-reasoned argument based on my personal experiences of the last two years.

First, I’ve been doing a lot of work for a glossy, local lifestyle magazine here in the Bay Area. I do a lot of photography, I also write and edit. Most of the magazine comes together from people who don’t work in the same place — the editor has an office, freelancers write, I edit them, a copy editor in another place edits me, a designer in the office sends me Adobe InDesign files or PDFs for proofing. Works well. Every two weeks we meet for story planning and idea exchange.

Also, last year I wrote and photographed a book (touted all over my FB page). My partner — a chef — wrote her parts from her office, I wrote my sections from mine, the designer emailed around concepts and pages. We all rarely met. Book came out, is doing well. Of course, you and I did the same thing the year before.

Finally, to underwrite such rewarding, but hardly remunerative pursuits as magazine photography and cookbook writing, I keep a hand in editing research for financial institutions. I work with a team of a half-dozen analysts in Denver and New York whose work I edit weekly. I’ve done this for three years. Although we meet only once a year for a feedback and review session, I know their work as well as that of any of the reporters who say across the aisle from me in newsrooms for years.

Newsrooms traditionalists might argue that proximity contributes to quality. They are wrong. The prodigious amount of so-so writing and editing seen in many newspapers is testament to that. Commitment to excellence, responsibility and, most importantly these days, personal growth lead to quality – and those values are highly portable.

First the doors came off newspapers, then the walls blew out. In the next couple of years, we’ll see the floors drop away. Knowledge work – which is what journalism consists of, i.e., literary and creative skill applied to principles of public information, access and transparency – doesn’t need an address. It just needs a platform.

Cheers …

Tim

Children of the Canal

About a year ago, I photographed competing immigration rallies in San Rafael. On one side of the street were advocates for the local Latino community; on the other were members and supporters of the Minutemen, a conservative anti-immigrant organization. Both groups were a rarity in Marin County, an affluent, mostly white, heavily liberal enclave just north of San Francisco.

A few weeks earlier, federal immigration agents had raided homes and businesses in the city’s Canal neighborhood, a tightly packed area of run-down apartment buildings and small homes that is home to 12,000 people, 86 percent of them immigrants from Mexico and Latin America. The agents arrested 65 people, 23 of whom were eventually deported.

The raids were part of the broader immigration debate in the country, a divide that had spawned huge marches across the country. I wanted to put something together for Marin magazine about how the issue played out in suburbs, but was hesitant for a couple of reasons. First, I was jammed with doing the book. Second, after 20 years of traditioal journalism I didn’t want to write an on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other type story where the emotion got buried under a slag heap of official statements from either side.

After I finished the book this spring, I began talking with Tom Wilson, head of the Canal Alliance, the Canal neighborhood’s primary social service group, about different story ideas. He pointed me to an after-school program that tutors neighborhood children, teaches them other academic skills and exposes them to a world of possibilities outside the Canal. The program guarantees that if a child sticks with it, he or she will graduate from high school and enter a community college.

I told Tom I’d like to photograph the kids in the middle-school program and ask them a few questions about their dreams. Then I pitched the idea to the magazine, adding that I’d write an introductory essay — not a story — about the immigration issue. To my surprise, they loved the idea.

I made the photographs over three afternoons in a classroom. I wanted the pictures to be simple portraits, so I posed the children in the middle of the room and lit them with one umbrella and a big reflector, using the far wall for a backdrop. I spoke with each for about five minutes first, talking about their dreams, their families and their countries of origin. Most of the interviews were in English, a few were in Spanish.

Some of the children dreamed big — to be doctors or lawyers. Others wished for little more than a visit home to their family in Mexico. Some rushed forward to be photographed. Others I had to persuade through cajoling.

If you look at the photographs, you will see the faces of children, but also, in many of them, the eyes of adults who have seen more of the world, a rough world, than any 12- or 13-year-old should.

If you read the essay (below), you will learn how I feel about this children, which is that regardless of how any of us feels about immigration the children of immigrants should not pay the price. Who are we to deny them better lives — especially in the United States, a country founded on that very principle?

* Here are the photographs.

* Here is a PDF of the Marin Magazine package, including the essay.

* Or, click the jump for the essay.

Continue reading »

Pulitzers, 2008

Pulitzer PrizeEven though the bulk of the 2008 Pulitzer Prizes announced today were won by large news organizations — the Washington Post took six – one of the awards demonstrates that capacity of great work exists even within the smallest of news organizations.

Photographer Preston Gannaway of the 20,000 circulation Concord (N.H.) Monitor on the Pulitzer for Feature Photography with her intimate essay of a family coping with death. Looking at her pictures is difficult emotionally, but rewarding in their honest portrayal of something that is real in all of our lives. (Slidshow here.)

In my previous blog about newspaper journalism, I once wrote about the power of one, the capacity of any journalist, writer or photographer, to strive for excellence. Gannaway proves the point.

* Also: The Pulitzer for Spot News was won by Adrees Latif of Reuters this picture of a wounded Japanese photographer being held at gunpoint during the riots last year in Burma. The photographer later died.

Private Lives, Public Moments

Holly SeelerA great privilege of doing journalism is the temporary passkey it gives me into the lives of others.

At times, this entrance is burdened with sadness or results in a stinging anger from the injustice in our society that holds so many at the bottom despite all their efforts to the rise up.

More often than not, though, I am rewarded with the pleasure of meeting someone who is charming or beautiful or enticingly smart. They allow me their company, permit me to question them in precise detail or engage me emotionally as I photograph them.

I treasure these moments, hold them in memory as long as possible and savor them for their simplicity of purpose. For me they are the essence of journalism — written and photographic — the inquiry, the interaction, the engagement.

Meeting Holly Seeler and her family — Tess, Jack and Victor — the other day in Sausalito was one of those moments. Seeler has multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease that is attacking her ability to walk. Her response to the illness is energetic and forceful, and she has left a career as a creative director to focus on spreading the message of personal change through positive outlook and action.

I spent less than an hour with her. We made pictures. Her husband, a photographer as well, showed me his work. I met the dog, Roxie. Then I left — reluctantly. This was a good house, a good family. They gave me hour out of their lives. I added it to my collection.

See a gallery of pictures of Holly Seeler and her family.