Three quick writing/editing tips

January 10, 2008 by

I’ve been humbled twice within the span of about 12 hours.

I never thought my writing was perfect or untouchable. I appreciate all and any help from experienced editors because I know it will only help. So when my backfield editor (shout out to Boston Globe reporter Russ Contreras) helped me work the 1,500 words of my enterprise piece down to about 1,200, I was pleased.
Then my second, and new, backfield editor (shout out to Boston Globe reporter Johnny Diaz) reworked it down to a tight 900 words, and I couldn’t stop smiling.
Cheesy, I know, but my story was immeasurably better. It was tighter. It flowed better. It was more fun.

My story idea (about Latinos with Anglo-sounding names) is a lighthearted look at culture, society and assimilation. So when I used statistics, I needed to really justify the few I had. In my case, I was dealing with people’s experiences, and it was tough to quantify. Since I was writing about experiences in a trend story, I needed to weave the few numbers in, almost as if they were transitions between anecdotes. Ultimately, most of them were taken out. Overall, however, it’s a good rule.

I spoke to several experts at length about names and their relation to assimilation. But I had a specific focus and I needed to stay strictly to it, no matter how interesting other related ideas might have been. When I spoke to the experts, I needed to make sure that I kept them on focus. To clarify sometimes ambiguous terms, I needed to ask this question: “Can you explain that in layman’s terms, for the story and for the readers who might not know about this?”
Lastly, as my second backfield editor says, “Think of it as if you were talking to your close friend.” Make it fun and conversational, if you can. Listen to the flow. Read the story out loud.

And then maybe you’ll feel better about being a novice writer.

— James Wagner


When your grandpa is a ‘Hall of Famer’

January 10, 2008 by

Grandpa and I 

Luis “Campanela” Galvan makes no secret of his somewhat legendary status in Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico.

“Did you tell them I’m a Hall of Famer?” he asks every time I have an interview for an internship. “Do they know I’m in the Hall of Fame?”

My typical response on the other end of the phone goes a little like this: “Yes, Grandpa, I have told everyone who will listen about your history and how it shaped me. But no, Grandpa, they don’t want your autograph. Do they want you to call them and tell them yourself? No, Grandpa, I think they believed me.”

My grandpa, who I know as “Campa,” short for Campanella, a nickname his newspaper editor gave him when he was a catcher for the company’s softball team, was the kind of sports journalist who also covered community, politics and everything under the newspaper sun, earning him rock-star status in the largest city in the state of Chihuahua.

Just look at the photographs and awards on his wall in the TV room, where a constant game of really boring golf always seems to be on (as a child, that was torture). There, you’ll find him writing in his little notepad in photos alongside greats like Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin, Roy Campanella and former Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo, among others. So when I initially told my grandpa, now 78, that I was going to be a journalist, he was quite fond of the idea. A 50-year veteran, he had hours’ worth of advice, including one time when he sat me down for two hours and read a list of every single influential figure he’d interviewed.

Times were different then, he said, and you didn’t need a formal education to become a reporter (my grandpa did not make it past the eighth grade). I wonder what my grandpa’s career would have looked like had he been a journalist today. He probably wouldn’t have gotten a free membership to the country club in Juarez, where he mastered the (boring) art of golf in order to better report on the golf beat. In the world of journalism today, that would have been considered unethical by many in the newspaper business. My grandpa also probably would not have been able to show up at a newspaper and ask for a job, which he got when he was still a teenager. Today, he would have had to intern at the Post, the Sentinel and the Oregonian to possibly land some low-paying reporting job with no benefits in a town the size of a peanut. That, and he’d have to finish college, something unheard of in Campa’s hometown, where families of 13 scrape to have enough for the dinner table.

But even without all the required formal education, my grandpa would have shown up to The New York Times Student Journalism Institute and rocked the beat (no pun intended). He was the kind of reporter whose social skills made him friends (back then it wasn’t so bad if they were friends — now we’d call them sources) who stuck by him until they all started dying, which, in my wildest dreams, my grandpa will never do.

As I continue on my path in journalism today, I find myself turning to my grandpa for hints as to how to get there. Things were completely different then, but in a way, they are still the same. In the end, it’s about telling someone’s story, and this story is about my grandpa.

— Astrid Galvan

Contrary to reports, Richardson may stay in race

January 10, 2008 by

Bill Richardson

Rick Scibelli Jr. for The New York Times

Despite fourth-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson will remain in the presidential race — at least for now, a campaign adviser told The New York Times Student Journalism Institute on Wednesday night.

Based on information provided by two campaign insiders, The Associated Press reported that Richardson was planning to drop his presidential bid today. According to The AP, Richardson had returned to New Mexico to meet with his senior advising staff about whether to leave the race.

Campaign staffers say, however, that Richardson returned to New Mexico to begin the legislative session. According to an e-mail sent to campaign staff members obtained by The Times Student Journalism Institute, the previous reports of Richardson’s exit were false.

Richardson had said earlier that he planned to remain in the race until the Super Tuesday primary on Feb. 5, when 24 states, including most western ones, will hold their primaries.

It was also reported in The New Mexican, of Santa Fe, N.M., that Richardson could be planning to stay through Super Tuesday, when New Mexico’s primary takes place.

As a Hispanic and a westerner, Richardson is expected to perform well in the western primaries, which are in the coming month. “He had a built-in constituency in those states,” said David Alire Garcia, a staff writer for The Santa Fe Record and host of the public television series “New Mexico in Focus.”

Sisto Abeyta, a New Mexico-based consultant for Richardson, said the change in the election schedule, pushing primaries up by months, had hurt Richardson’s chances. “It’s been made more about popularity than who can serve,” he said, adding that it has made the campaign difficult for Richardson, who has said he’s no rock-star candidate.

Richardson, 60, formally announced his candidacy on May 21 in a video posted on his Web site. “I am running for president,” he said, “because these times call for a leader with a proven track record and a demonstrated ability to bring people together to tackle our problems at home and abroad.”

Richardson’s chances were uncertain from the start, Garcia said. In the age of television, where candidates have to look good in front of a camera, he said, Richardson was a throwback to another era.

As the first Hispanic to run for president, Garcia said, Richardson didn’t appear to be a disenfranchised minority to voters. “I think it was such a beautiful irony that you have the first Hispanic candidate and he’s also the most experienced candidate on paper,” he said.

Richardson, who has been governor of New Mexico since 2002, is the only Hispanic governor currently serving in the United States.

Throughout his campaign, Richardson has both flaunted his extensive political resume and joked at how, even with his experience, he hasn’t claimed a space in the top tier. One of his advertisements, which many have labeled one of the funniest campaign ads of this election cycle, shows Richardson in a mock job interview with a disinterested corporate interviewer reading off his long resume. The interviewer smugly asks him, “What makes you think you can be president?”

Richardson began his political career as a member of the House of Representatives from New Mexico, where he served for 14 years. In 1997, President Bill Clinton selected Richardson to serve as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and he served in that role until he became the secretary of energy in 1998.

A noted negotiator, Richardson represented the United States in negotiations for the release of American hostages in Cuba, Iraq and North Korea. In 2006, he met with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to negotiate the release of the imprisoned National Geographic journalist Paul Salopek.

He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times.

If and when he leaves the race, he is likely to be considered as a running mate for the Democratic presidential nominee, whoever that may be, analysts said.

“I would think he has an excellent chance,” Garcia said. Richardson made the short list of running mate for both Al Gore in 2000 and for John Kerry in 2004.

Political observers will be waiting to see whether Richardson endorses Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama. Garcia said he imagined Richardson was torn between his loyalty to the Clinton family and knowing that Obama had a chance of winning the election.

Abeyta says that if Richardson leaves the race, don’t expect to see an endorsement immediately, because he will probably wait until after the Nevada primary to make his choice.

Though he may be leaving the race after only two states, Garcia said, the Richardson campaign was a milestone. “He was very much a bicultural, bilingual, binational candidate,” he said. “I hope it will pave the way for future Latino candidates.”

— Rick Rojas

Remember who you are

January 10, 2008 by

Never has an article I’ve written caused me to look deep within myself and ask if I am in a similar situation. With a story I recently worked on, the answer was yes, I am.

The article was about integration: mixing the Latino immigrant culture together with the American one to create Hispanics.

There was an amazing family of three generations I got to interview: a grandmother, a mother and father, and four children. The interview was done in the home of the mother and father, Carlos and Angelica Alvarez.

Each generation in that small apartment in South Tucson had a shift toward Americanization of its own, and yet, the family unity remains.

The four Alvarez children — Carlos Jr., 16; Esgar, 12; Emanuel, 9; and Israel, 3 — all sat quietly on the couch and listened as their parents and grandmother answered my questions, and occasionally answered some themselves.

The grandmother, Marta, is the reason they’re all here. Her grandchildren may not realize the bravery it took for them to be born here. She is the true pioneer.

At 47 years old, just 12 years ago, she bravely went through “el hoyo,” or “the hole,” which was cut in a border fence that she and thousands of others went through to reach the United States. She quickly found work as a janitor. She brought her three youngest children with her.

Just six months ago, Marta got her citizenship. How happy she is.

Now, all except two of her eight children live in the Tucson area. All are U.S. citizens.

All of Marta’s 21 grandchildren are the first ones to speak English. They are the first to have lived the American experience from their youth. They are adapting to American culture, watching the same movies, listening to the same music and saying the same phrases as their peers. They are getting a good education.

They will be bilingual, with a higher chance of getting a successful job and of having their own kids be English speakers.

Other Hispanics in Tucson of my generation have gone through a similar type of integration. And so have I.

In my immediate family, we don’t speak to each other in Spanish at home, but I do with my grandparents, who are Mexican immigrants. Luckily, I am fluent enough, but I do have to think sometimes to find the right words. Playing La Lotería, or the Mexican Bingo game, is still a fun family tradition. So is eating the Día de Los Reyes cake. My sister got the piece of cake with the baby Chist, so they will have to throw a party. Mariachi music is at every family wedding, tamales are served at Christmas, menudo is eaten on New Year’s. Each Sunday, we visit both sets of grandparents. In my life, Mexican traditions are still pretty strong.

Like some of the people I interviewed, such as Maya Bernal, 17, and April Thompson, 24, I have within me a mixture of Mexican and American cultural characteristics.

Maya realizes there is room for improvement in her limited Spanish skills. She can understand the language well, but she struggles to speak it. Still, she maintains strong relationships within her family.

April, whose first language was Spanish because she grew up living with monolingual immigrant grandparents, has kept the Latino heritage alive within herself.

With my own personal background — I’m first generation on my mother’s side — this article has taught me to embrace what is left of my Hispanic culture. I have to take what I have and make it stronger, otherwise it will fade, and I won’t know who I am anymore. Being Mexican-American reminds me where I come from. I must never forget that.

— Julian Cavazos

Walking Tucson’s south side

January 9, 2008 by

South Side Tucson

(Roxana Vasquez/NYT Institute)

Don’t be afraid of the south side. That’s what I tell people who have never been to Tucson, Ariz. Every city in the world has what it calls a bad side or a ghetto. Though these places may be seen as a rough side of town, the cultures that exist there are not all bad. The important thing is to respect the tradition and beliefs of the people who live on the other side of the invisible line. The south side is an important and beautiful part of Tucson. It represents the future, success, the old and the new.

I was born in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, but migrated to Tucson in 1988, so basically I’ve seen Tucson grow with me. The south side, to me, represents my Mexican-American culture and the rest of the people who share my identity. It holds within its streets and neighborhoods messages of how it has grown and changed.

Many buildings south of downtown Tucson, their paint peeling away with time, show how the architecture of the area has evolved over the years. Shrines from faithful individuals keep alive an ancient wall that has been up since the 1800s, where believers still share their wishes and stories by tucking letters into the cracks. How can we preserve such beauty and history? How can we show the world how much it means to maintain these old places?

Many people who come from Mexico or South America decide to stay on the south side of Tucson because of their fear of not being accepted in other areas of the city, like the foothills of Tucson, where the majority of the population is Anglo. Ely Muñoz, 28, from Oaxaca, Mexico, sells her oranges from a parking lot, helping her family with a little more money during the holidays. How threatening is that?

A hard-working mother raising a little more money is something inspiring. You’ll find sweet people hanging about the same way you might find bad people. Maria Lopez, 62, rests her arms on the fence in front of a house, waiting to speak to whoever will talk to her.

Many people who have moved from Mexico have been successful at the businesses they’ve established because they have catered their services to the local culture. But they have not denied or discriminated against anybody. They are there for everyone. You just need to cross the invisible line. Francisco Medina, 67, from Nogales, Mexico, owns his own barber shop on the south side, and he welcomes anybody who needs a haircut. With 42 years of experience, he’s unlikely to screw up your ’do.

Having people like Medina as a role model on the south side shows how dedication and hard work can make success possible. It helps members of the younger generation, like Martin Simpson, 14, to see those possibilities and understand there is a future for them. Simpson enjoys playing basketball, but he also enjoys working with computers — a great skill that will help him in the future.

There are many kinds of people on the south side. Don’t be afraid or shy to learn about a culture that has helped this great city grow.

— Roxana Vasquez

Tucson’s South Side

(Roxana Vasquez/NYT Institute)

Bonanno stare-down

January 8, 2008 by

Bonanno Stare

The Mafia have a reputation for being intimidating. I know this. But at the funeral of Salvatore “Bill” Bonanno today, I found out that even the youngest members of a family can be so.

Bonanno, son of the New York Mafia boss Joseph Bonanno, died recently at age 75 in Tucson, Ariz. It just so happens that I was in Tucson at the right time to be brushed by this man and his family’s legacy.

It was Monday morning, Jan. 7, and at 11 a.m. Salvatore Bonanno’s casket was set to arrive at Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church along with hundreds of his family and friends. In town for The New York Times Student Journalism Institute, I was sent to cover the funeral. This was my first funeral, and I was nervous.

Bonanno’s grandsons acted as his pallbearers. I could see in their body language that they were deeply affected by their grandfather’s death. My camera was up and I was firing off frames as they carried the casket to the hearse after the ceremony. Everything seemed normal, but a young boy near the center of my frame, not older than 10, caught my attention. This kid was giving me one of the hardest faces I have seen from an elementary school enrollee. I kept shooting, and he kept staring. At first I thought he was interested in my gear, but then I realized that he was showing me who was boss — this kid was was staring me down.

To be honest, I was a little intimidated, especially with all of this child’s family surrounding me and my cameras. The funny part is, The Times had sent a freelancer out to cover the story. In the shot The Times ran on its Web site, the boy can be seen, a bit from the side, giving me the eye. In my shot you can see that eye straight on.

So keep in mind that there are interesting stories behind the photographs you see in the newspaper.

— Aaron Montoya

Funeral photo 2

Norma Jean Gargasz for The New York Times

My interview with Imus (not that one, but close)

January 8, 2008 by

Saturday was an interesting day for a girl whose interviews usually take place in nice offices or at gritty crime scenes. I spent the day on a ranch, surrounded by horses and their (über-rich) owners. I’d expected to find a bunch of snobs, but what I found instead was a group of interesting people.

My first interview was literally dizzying. The woman talking to me was also walking her unsteady horse in circles, around me. In a feeble attempt to keep eye contact, I followed her lead until I’d spun enough to almost throw up.

Next came a series of horseback riders and competitors. They were all so nice that I was able to forget about the awesome smell of horse dung. As cynical as I am (and yes, Russell, I do still question my mother when she tells me she loves me), I found everyone’s kindness to be some sort of deviation of sincerity. And I liked it. One woman I met had won an international horse competition more than a dozen times, yet she stood there and answered questions about horse stuff for 10 minutes.

But the most interesting interview I had was with Fred Imus, the brother of Don Imus and the host of his own talk show, Sirius Satellite’s “Trailer Park Bash.”

A couple of women and their tightly-lassoed husbands told me to go talk to their local celebrity, Don Imus’ brother. They said he was really nice. That’s not quite the word I’d choose.

When I first approached Fred, he uttered something like, “What do you want?” I told him I was with The New York Times Student Journalism Institute and he said: “I hate The New York Times. Do they even have journalists there?” I replied with a laugh. I said I had just a few questions, and he said he’d answer only one. I rolled my eyes and smiled at him, subtly demanding he stop being such a geezer. So he agreed to answer more than one question, although he said he would stop talking to me as soon as I began to irritate him.

The first thing I asked was, “What do you do for a living?” He looked at me and rolled his eyes, as if saying, “Oh, come on.” So I laughed and asked again: “What do you do for a living?” I mean, really, who knew Don Imus even had a brother? He went on to tell me about his once-weekly radio show on Sirius, which he emphasized was the greatest job he’d ever had. As he spoke to me I wondered what his brother would think about his little bro talking to a woman of color. Who works for a living. In a job other than domestic work. But, I erased Don’s face and went on with Fred. I wrapped up my interview after I got the quote I wanted (which I didn’t end up using anyway). I thanked him for his time, and he said I’d done a good job.

In reply, I said: “I know. And I didn’t even have to irritate you.”

— Astrid Galvan

Book Review: A Thousand Splendid Suns

January 7, 2008 by


Khaled Hosseini had a lot to prove last May.

His first novel, “The Kite Runner,” had achieved worldwide success and a coveted spot on the New York Times best-seller list in 2005. Four years later, Hosseini still had readers worldwide captivated and eager for his sophomore effort.

Talk about pressure. But Hosseini delivered with 2007’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” a story of two women in Afghanistan so emotional it could make even an iceberg cry.

The story begins with Mariam, the illegitimate daughter of a rich businessman who acknowledges her only a few times a month, when nobody’s looking. Her mother, a poor servant, is an overwhelming figure who may be bipolar and ends up killing herself after a fight with Mariam. The suicide sets the tone for a series of tragedies that Mariam and the rest of the characters will encounter (and, in true Hosseini fashion, overcome).

Mariam seeks shelter in her father’s home, but he provides it only until he finds a suitor to marry her off. The man, Rasheed, is a pudgy shoemaker many years Mariam’s senior, but for her father, he’ll do. Mariam reluctantly marries Rasheed and becomes trapped in a relationship marked by years of physical and mental abuse.

Hosseini’s characters, like those in “The Kite Runner,” deal with the calamities and fortunes of life against the backdrop of a chaotic Afghanistan. The novel tells the history of the long-troubled country, including the rise and fall — and rise again — of the Taliban. Events weave in and out of the characters’ lives, affecting them in various ways.

For example, the novel’s other main character, the teenage Laila, sees her life changed dramatically by a bomb attack that leaves her both homeless and an orphan. To make matters worse, Laila discovers she is pregnant, and her child’s father, her lifelong best friend, is believed to be dead.

This is where the gist of the story really begins, and when the two main characters, Mariam and Laila, come together. Laila marries Rasheed after recuperating from injuries sustained in the bombing. She knows this is the only way she’ll survive in Afghanistan, where women still have few rights, especially not single women carrying illegitimate children.

Mariam despises Laila at first and makes her life miserable because she feels threatened by the much younger, prettier girl. But a series of events turn the two into best friends, and the rest of the story unfolds through their shared hardship, luck and redemption.”

A Thousand Splendid Suns” sees the characters’ hope challenged every other chapter or so, and as a reader, you begin to wonder whether there can be a point amid all the tragedy. But just when you think there may be nothing left, Hosseini’s words, like Mariam and Laila themselves, remain strong, and keep you going.

— Astrid Galvan

Shooting video an edge for print?

January 7, 2008 by
Joe Cavaleri


That’s a question that crossed my mind yesterday when I started writing my story on Ooh Aah, the University of Arizona superfan. The result was quite interesting. Although I jot down most images when I’m solely writing a print story, it was interesting to note that the video I captured was truly helpful when recapping Ooh Aah’s performance.

I think that multimedia is extremely important and that newspapers should pick up on this medium. I won’t say video is the best for print reporters who are trying to do both in all instances — it probably won’t be very good to go back and look at video when on tight deadline — but it was beneficial for my piece. I had a little more time to play with the story.

— Solange Reyner

The stories that keep you up at night

January 7, 2008 by

Part of covering a new beat is coming up with good story ideas on your own, which isn’t easy for a lot of journalists. At the beginning of the institute, we were supposed to come prepared with two ideas for longer-form stories that we wanted to cover while we were here. Some ideas were good, others … not so much.

On the first day, a student presented her idea to Don Hecker, director of the institute. Here is the brief exchange that followed:

Don: You know that feeling you get when you are really excited about something?
Student: Yeah.
Don: Yeah, I don’t have that feeling.
Student: (silence)

So you try again.

Other times, you are assigned stories to cover on the spot. These have a much shorter turn-around time and are usually reported and written the same day. These are the stories that keep us up and working late at night.

I covered one such story yesterday that took me deep into the Arizona mountains and tested my willpower to stick with this profession a bit. I was writing a story for which I needed to solicit opinions from visitors at an outdoor museum about an issue that took place at that same museum a few months ago. Sounds easy enough, right? But when my ability to do my job hinges, in part, on the cooperation of people who would rather not — well, that complicates things considerably. Some of my favorite responses:

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I’m not from here.”
“I’d rather not talk. I’m here with my friend and I just want to show him around.”
“I’m in a rush. The raptor show is about to start.”
“I don’t know anything. I’m trying to catch up with my family.”

And my all-time favorite: “I don’t think anything.”

I was left to drag myself along the dusty desert paths for hours in search of someone with something to say. I was hot, increasingly frustrated and wondering what had become of my life. But I couldn’t go back to the newsroom with nothing, so I kept asking people and getting rejected and asking more people until I got some usable material. It was difficult, but my persistence paid off.

I wasn’t too happy with the quality of the responses, and I schlepped back into the newsroom pretty despondent. But I worked with some of the editors, did some more research and pulled my story together.

It may not have been my idea, but I was able to “make it work,” as Tim Gunn would say.

— Arcynta Ali Childs