Archive for January, 2008

Chronicles of a first time crime reporter

January 12, 2008

My past reporting experience had me covering pretty, little feature stories about tonsillectomies and ear surgeries.

Then, I arrived at The New York Times Student Journalism Institute.

I asked for breaking news and I got an assignment. What I didn’t expect was a full immersion experience in cops and court reporting. After five minutes of feeling intimidated, I got over it.

On the first day of the murder, I had to talk to police and gather as much information as I could about Tucson’s first homicide victim of 2008. When I talked to my editor, Diego Ribadeneira, he asked me if I knew the motive, the suspects or the weapon used.

I responded with silence.

I talked to the victim’s family about their son who loved lasagna, hated washing dishes and had a “Colgate smile” that went from ear to ear. I made a point to get little details, just like Diego advised. “Get the details,” he said. “Even if you don’t use them.”

Then I ran around the courthouse trying to find documents that told me about the suspects’ criminal record.

The next day, I pulled a Nancy Drew and went to the suspects’ homes to find out who these guys were. I knocked on doors and went back to the courthouse to find out more information. I never knew that I could learn about someone’s childhood, relationship status or goals from court documents.

But you can.

After mining my way through swamps of information, I found a golden nugget. A friend of the victim’s told me that the suspect arrested had a suspicious Myspace page that described his gang life.

The Institute’s Director Don Hecker and I boiled all of my documents and notes one by one. He taught me how to piece together a compelling story that hadn’t been reported by other news outlets. In the past few days, I never felt like I was going to fail because I had the support from my peers and editors. I thought I was good at covering health issues, but I know I will be an even better crime reporter.

— Tracie Morales

An unwritten story

January 12, 2008

Sometimes choosing what makes it into a story and what doesn’t is hard.

It’s like standing on the ol’ playground in elementary school trying to pick the next player on your team. You have an odd number of potential players. Sadly, it seems like someone always gets left out.

For a story I wrote at the Institute, on Chicanos and Native Americans returning to the ceremony of the sweat lodge, I had a lot of great notes and perspectives that didn’t make the cut. One source whose story didn’t make it into my article was that of the Los Angeles rapper 2Mex.

(Note: To learn what exactly a sweat lodge is, read my story here.)

In 2003 2Mex released an album titled Sweat Lodge Infinite. Since I was doing a story on sweat lodges, I figured, Why not call this guy up? He might know a thing or two.

The LP, which I highly recommend, isn’t entirely about sweat lodges, but it is a great example of Chicanos making their Native American roots a part of their everyday life.

Nearly all the people I spoke with were finding themselves by finding their native traditions, and 2Mex was no different. He said that since about the time he’d gotten out of high school, he had been speaking with, reading and learning from any resource he could find on native culture. In his travels across the United States and to other countries, 2Mex has spent time with the Hopi, the Lakota, the Pima and countless other native peoples.

Taking part in a few sweat lodges, 2Mex said the most important things the ceremony gave him were a moment for pause in his busy day and a chance to speak with elders.

He brought up the point that there aren’t many lines forming around old people waiting to hear what they have to say. But at the sweats he took part in, everyone there was present in part to take time and listen to the elder. He asked, When do most Americans — especially those in cities — take the time to sit down and learn from their elders and the lives they have lived and the lessons they have learned?

He had a good point. We, the United States and the world, need a better sense of history.

As a journalist, my job is to talk to people. I’m here to listen and to pass on information. Yet often, for students and journalists, there is little time for the pause the sweat provides. For some, meditation is the answer. Others get their pause through yoga.

Right now, the only time I find pause is generally after midnight, just before bed, listening to jazz records (I prefer real vinyl 12s). After speaking with 2Mex, I think I need to create more time to speak with my elders — before they’re gone and their knowledge is lost.

— Nathan Olivarez-Giles

Gay Talese has a funeral

January 12, 2008

Gay Talese

Gay Talese was getting ready to pack when a telephone call interrupted him.

His longtime friend, the mobster Salvatore “Bill” Bonanno, had just died of a heart attack in Tucson on Jan. 1. He needed to pack; his flight would be leaving New York soon.

So he didn’t have time to talk to me, a student reporter. Even as I begged him to give me a few minutes for an interview, the sound of another telephone could be heard ringing in the background.

But finally, we talked.

Well, sort of.

He talked; I listened. And then he hung up the phone before I could tell him that I would be at the funeral, too.

The next time I saw him, he was leaving SS. Peter and Paul Roman Catholic Church. He wore a blue pinstriped suit, a crimson-red handkerchief and a fedora. I walked up to him to introduce myself, but it took me a few seconds to get his attention because he was chatting with another man. He remembered me, but said he didn’t have time to talk.


So he shouted, “Call me at the Sheraton in Tucson,” then disappeared into a car.

But there was no time to call him because The New York Times called me. They wanted Bonanno’s story to run in the paper.

Tomorrow. My story. In The New York Times.

I felt so good after writing. It was unbelievable. I was going to have a byline in The Times.

Foolishly, I thought Talese would be willing to talk, so I searched for his hotel. The good news: there were only two Sheratons in Tucson. The bad news: the phone would never ring when I called him at his hotel with the tape recorder on.

It took almost an hour before I finally got through, and Talese remained the elusive interview.

“I have to go in five minutes. Can we talk tomorrow?” he asked.

Apparently, third time wasn’t the charm with him.The next day was different, but not in the way I could have expected.

The tape recorder didn’t work, again. He didn’t answer at the time we had scheduled our interview. And he said I had made a mistake in my Times article. It said that he had collaborated with Bonanno on the book “Honor Thy Father.”

“I don’t collaborate,” he said.

I thanked him for pointing out the mistake and for reading the article. I understood where he was coming from; good journalists think for themselves and are responsible for their own work.

And then came the most surprising thing of the entire week: he complimented me. He had liked the details in my story, especially the quotes included from Bonanno’s children that no other newspaper got. It felt as if he’d recognized me as a journalist.

And finally, after I had chased this man for a week, he said the magic words: Ask me anything you want.

— Yolanne Almanzar

Say what?

January 11, 2008

Los Angeles. Jalapeños. Casa Grande.

Would you adjust the way you pronounce these words based on your audience?

In fact, some people would.

An informal study of Tucsonans conducted by two reporters reveals that people will often try to pronounce words of Spanish origin with a Spanish accent and pronunciation.

Others, however, will adopt the common English pronunciations of the Spanish-origin words, often to be better understood.

“If I was in Mexico or a Spanish-speaking country, I’d be more apt to change it to sound more with the accents and rolling the r’s,” said Amber Maker, 26, a barista at Wilko on E. University Avenue, near the University of Arizona. “But just here, I don’t really.”

Maker, of Tucson, said her high school and college-level Spanish is limited but she tries to adjust her pronunciation depending on her audience.

When she is around English-speakers, however, she knows she sounds “very American.”

Sometimes she pronounces things wrong on purpose.

“I really want to say ja-LOP-en-os,” Maker said of jalapeños. “Just because it’s funny.”

Anglos aren’t the only ones who switch pronunciations depending on who they’re around. Some Mexican-Americans do it, too.

Isaias Carrillo, born in Tucson but of Mexican descent, says he pronounces city names like Marana and San Francisco and other Spanish-origin named places without an accent “because the Anglo population doesn’t use an accent we kinda just follow their lead,” he said.

“When I speak to my Mexican relatives I would never say it like that. I’d say it with a Mexican accent,” Carrillo added.

But there are exceptions to his rule.

“I always pronounce Roberto Clemente,” he said. “I always say his name correctly.”

Some Latinos insist on always using Spanish pronunciations regardless of the audience.

Herminia Valenzuela, a regular at the El Pueblo Senior Center, said she always pronounces Spanish-origin words with a Spanish pronunciation in English.

“Maybe they don’t understand me,” said Valenzuela, 61, in Spanish. “I don’t like to change because that is the way it is pronounced.”


This non-scientific survey was conducted at two different times on Thursday night during dinnertime hours and on Friday around lunchtime. Fifteen participants read words from a sheet provided by two reporters. Reporters interviewed participants on the first day on E. University Avenue between N. Euclid and N. Tyndall Avenues, a location near the University of Arizona campus. Second-day interviews were conducted in South Tucson.

The testing words included: Casa Grande, Sahuarita, Marana, San Manuel, Mesa, Mexico, San Francisco, San Jose, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Boca Raton, Rio Grande, sombrero, mariachi, fajitas, jalapeños, enchilada, burrito, tortilla, guacamole, Tony Gonzalez, Roberto Clemente, Alex Rodriguez and Pedro Martínez.

– James Wagner and Nathan Olivarez-Giles

A city girl in the desert

January 11, 2008

I am what most people would call a city girl. I was born in Baltimore, raised in D.C. and now live in Brooklyn. I can navigate concrete extremely well. Taking public transportation, check. Walking long city blocks, no problem. But falling rocks and desert trails? Not so much.

Now don’t get me wrong — I’ve traveled outside the United States and spent childhood summers far south of the Mason Dixon. I’ve been west of the Mississippi, but San Francisco is no Tucson. Not even close.

So my first story outside the newsroom required me to travel to a desert museum. Now, I grew up in D.C., so I’ve been to plenty of museums. But one in the desert? I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

Driving out to the desert, city blocks gave way to mountain ranges, and stoplights were replaced by “deer crossing” signs. The highway wound its way though the terrain — on my left, a mountain, on my right, certain death if I were to veer off that road.

When I arrived at the museum, a sign warned, “Don’t feed the coyotes.” Coyotes? I like my animals in cages in the zoo and properly labeled. (j/k) I quickly realized we’re not in Kansas anymore, although I am closer to it than I’ve ever been in my life.

It’s hard to explain exactly what a desert museum is, but essentially, it’s an outdoor exhibition of desert and plant life. Honestly, it’s charged admission to explore the desert. You pay, hand in your ticket and walk around outside. But it’s worth it.

As I meandered throughout the desert, desperately seeking sources, I found myself getting distracted time and time again by the scenery. I mean, I was in the desert, in Arizona, looking at Pumas, prairie dogs, Bighorn Sheep and the like. That’s good stuff.

I wasn’t exactly dressed for the occasion, as more than one visitor gave my shoes the concerned once-over, but I was able to navigate those trails with relative ease. Sure, I got lost a time or two and found myself without the recommended essentials (hat, water, repellent), but like any good city girl, I was able to figure it out. And I had a good time exploring the desert, even if I had great difficulty working in it.

Driving back, I kept thinking about how amazing the experience was. In the distance, I could see more mountains, unobstructed by tall buildings or billboards. I rolled my window down and breathed in the air, unpolluted by smog. It was beautiful.

I have traveled to different countries throughout the world and have been amazed by the cultures, the scenes and the landscape, enthralled by the newness of it all. But I forget, like many people, that I can discover and be amazed by new places right here in the U.S. I was reminded of that on Saturday, and Tucson, I am very grateful.

— Arcynta Ali Childs

‘The mac and cheese of Mexico’

January 11, 2008

After a week of cold cuts and fast food, we devoured some home cooking: Martha Rosa Pacheco’s chicken soup and April Thompson’s enchiladas, which she calls “the mac and cheese of Mexico.”

One of our editors, Diego, wanted to take a pan back to New York, but since airport security seemed an obstacle, April gave us her recipe, instead.

She said she learned to make them at the elbow of her grandmother, Sofia Castillo. Sometimes, for breakfast, Nana would give April a fried egg on top of her enchiladas. April savors the memory: “You cut into it, and the yolk drips into it.”

When she was just 3 or 4, after the breakfast things were put away, April and Nana would begin to prepare the main meal of the day. April would stand on a chair at the kitchen counter, and Nana taught her by example: “Hand me this, give me that.”

When April got older, Nana would ask her to prepare the chile sauce or the enchiladas, while she made the chicken or the beef.

The enchiladas start with the chile sauce. “We make a ginormous pot once or twice a year and freeze it,” she said. “Then we can take out what we need.”

The enchiladas can be dressed up with cooked chicken or carne seco, eggplant and peppers, or just about anything else. Or they can be served as a side dish with steak and papas or chicken.

“Meals were a big ado,” April said. Family members would drop by, and the tray of enchiladas would grow so there was enough for all. Finally, around 2 p.m., when everything was ready, Nana would announce: “Ven a comer!”

April’s Chile Sauce

4 big bags of large dried red chiles, stems removed, or some big strings of chile (“But make sure they are not shellacked!”)
1 t. vegetable oil
1 t. salt, or to taste
1 T. cumin, or to taste
1 – 2 T. cilantro, fresh or dried, to taste
2 T. oregano
1 large onion, chopped
Several cloves of garlic, minced
To add later: canned El Pato tomato sauce

Fill a large pot with the chiles, crowding in as many as you can fit. Cover with water and boil for 10 minutes or so, until the chiles are soft. Drain and put them in a blender until they are the consistency of very thick applesauce. Strain the chiles into a bowl, keeping the seeds and any larger chunks, and blend again.
Add the spices, salt, onion and garlic and blend again.
For those who want a less spicy sauce, remove as many seeds as possible before blending.
Freeze in 6-cup portions.
To use, thaw and warm, mixing in an 8-oz. can of El Pato Mexican tomato sauce

April’s Enchiladas de Queso

6 cups of chile sauce, with the tomato sauce included.
A dozen or more corn tortillas
2 16-oz. bags of Fiesta Mexican cheese mix
1 round of queso fresco, about a pound
2 – 3 bunches of green onions, chopped

Heat oven to 250 degrees.
In a large bowl, combine the cheese mix with crumbled queso fresco.
Heat the chile sauce in a wide pan on the stove. Heat the tortillas on a tortilla stone or in the microwave, wrapped in a towel, for 20 seconds or so.
Dip each tortilla quickly in the sauce and turn over. In a baking pan, fold a sprinkling of cheese into each tortilla and turn over, so the folded part is facing down. Repeat until you have a full layer. Sprinkle the layer with some cheese mix and some chile sauce.
For a larger crowd, build another layer. “Whatever runs out first, the sauce, the cheese, the tortillas – that’s when I’m done,” April said.
Top with cheese, chile sauce and onions and heat in a low oven, around 10 to 15 minutes, so the tortillas are warm and the cheese just melted, but not long enough for the edges to get crisp or brown.

— Nancy Sharkey

In headline writing, spreading the news is only part of the game

January 11, 2008

“Nothing’s hard if you know how to do it,” my mom always says. “All you have to do is learn how.” She told me that when I struggled with reading, having fallen behind my classmates in first grade, and if I shared with her my headline-writing woes today, she’d say the same thing.

Headline writing is the poetry of journalism, requiring careful attention to accuracy, cadence, word choice and concision — all at once. And if you don’t make the concoction with the right ingredients, you risk losing your readers, disappointing the reporter (who may have slaved for hours over the piece) and, well, looking like a baboon.

When I try to write headlines, I feel like my brain is devolving. Solid, hard-working words disappear, and I come up with gibberish. Take, for instance, the night I had to come up with a headline for James Wagner’s article on people named Hitler. In my quest to do his story justice, I came up with this mishmash, all scribbled on a piece of scrap paper:

“How People Grapple With Hitler Name”
“When Hitler Enters the Room”
“Prank Calling Hitler”
“Hitler Name”
“Horror of Times”
“This is Hitler. Can I Help You?”
“Living Hitlers Share Daily Tales”

“Hitler namesake”
“Hitlers Roam With Weary”

“The Life of a Hitler”

“Hitler Lifestyle”

“Hitler namesake makes for interesting challenging lifestyles.”

Then, in one corner of the page, “No, We’re Not Related.”

I turned to Jen Balderama, of The New York Times, in desperation, who suggested I think about situations — how these people converse or interact with other people in their lives. She had a good idea: “Mr. Hitler, I Presume?”

That’s when it clicked: “No, I’m the Other Hitler.”

It was a hit, and up it went on the Web site.

Here at The New York Times Student Journalism Institute, I’ve gathered a toolbox of tricks from Jen and Don Hecker, the director, to deal with headline writing.

From Jen, I’ve learned to approach headline writing like a game rather than like a trip to the guillotine. She says to start with a handful of keywords that capture the story’s essence. And when you consider how to string them together, avoid clichés; avoid overdone phrases that will make people groan. Keep in mind where the story is placed, too, so you don’t repeat the same words or ideas in multiple headlines on a page. But most of all, I learned that headline writing is part skill, part art, and it develops not overnight but through years of reading and paying careful attention to the English language.

From Don, I’ve learned to slow down between the story and the headline, to let the reporter’s work soak in my brain first. Don says to skip the first three grafs of a story and hunt for the story’s heart. More than once, he would prod me with questions about the article, as if I had written it, forcing me to summarize it to him in a simple six- to 10-word sentence. Once you have a sentence, you can chop or substitute words and play with the structure.

While I can’t say headline writing feels completely intuitive yet, I can say I’m on the right track. After all, I’ve spent more than 10 years writing — and that didn’t develop overnight, either.

— Lauren LePage

Arizona governor endorses Obama

January 11, 2008

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., today, telling reporters that the upcoming election is about change — and that Obama is the one who can provide it.

Speaking in a teleconference with reporters and Obama Friday afternoon, Napolitano, a Democrat, said that Obama was the fresh voice that she believes the White House needs.  

“This endorsement is based on my belief in your leadership and vision and the fact that we need a new message of hope and solidarity, of coming together in Washington, D.C.,” she said.

Upon accepting the endorsement, Obama said that Napolitano has proven leadership with the economy, education and border issues, and that he looks forward to having someone with that background on his side. But, he said, “Her hallmark is common sense.”

Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., had also sought Napolitano’s endorsement, but, in the end, Napolitano said she believed Obama would be the better agent of change the country must have in its next president.

– Rick Rojas 

Border Fence (A Close Up)

January 11, 2008

Border Fence at Sasabe, Ariz. 


<–USA Side Mexico Side–> 

 — Elizabeth Perez 

Spelling it out for you: Clichés and the English language

January 11, 2008

One great piece of advice to all writers in general: use your imagination. This is particularly important if you are wet behind the ears and covering a new beat. Sounds simple enough, right? Writing is one of those creative professions. You know, the ones where you are free to express yourself, explore your feelings, and be really … deep.

But wait. I’m putting the cart before the horse.

In one of our introductory sessions on interviewing techniques, Russell Contreras, reporter and Web editor for The Boston Globe, gave us some advice that had an enormous impact on me. In fact, in terms of journalistic advice, I thought it was the best thing since sliced bread. And believe me, we eat a lot of sliced bread at this institute.

It went something like this:

Russ: You know when you’re interviewing someone, particularly for a disaster story, and you ask him to describe the scene and they say, “It looked like a war zone”? Say, “Oh, really. Have you ever been to a war zone”? And if they haven’t, what they say next to explain what they meant, or to describe it in other words, is where you get your best quote. If they say yes, ask them to tell you about it. Again, you get a better description and a better quote.

A light bulb went off in our heads.

And I’ve been eliminating clichés from my vocabulary and stories every since.

His basic point was to stop being lazy. It’s a lot easier to describe something using common expressions or overly used phrases than it is to actually use your vocabulary and come up with something original.

So, on to the business at hand. How do you improve your writing and use your words more effectively?

Here’s a simple suggestion, from Russ: Read George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” For your convenience, and for those who have certainly not read it, here are a few rules Orwell shares toward the end:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

And I would add, speak in layman’s terms. Sometimes using simple language is better than describing it in a “roundabout way.”

But remember, this is journalism — it’s a craft, not an exact science. So sometimes (very rarely) you may have to break the rules. After all, some things are cliché for a reason.

Orwell’s essay is actually a really good one and will undoubtedly improve your writing. Maybe not immediately, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. Take my advice. I guarantee it’s as good as gold.

— Arcynta Ali Childs