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Veteran reporter talks about leaving journalism after 25 years

Two longtime Latino journalists are leaving their posts at the Los Angeles Times within the span of one week.

Investigative reporter and multimedia specialist Robert J. Lopez left the Times on Friday, Sept. 5, after announcing on Facebook that he resigned to take a job as director of communications at California State University, Los Angeles.  Three days later, Hector Tobar, a book critic, announced on Facebook that he too will be leaving the Times.  Tobar, who has held key jobs as Metro columnist, national correspondent and bureau chief in Mexico City and Buenos Aires, has taken a job teaching journalism at the University of Oregon in Eugene. His fourth book is scheduled to hit the shelves next month. Tobar’s last day is September 12.

We spoke with Lopez about his decision to leave daily journalism after a career that spanned more than 25 years. Lopez offers up his view of the state of journalism today and what he really thinks of going to “the dark side.”

Robert Lopez accepting an award at the 2013 CCNMA Scholarship Banquet. (Photo by Minerva Canto)

Robert Lopez accepting an award at the 2013 CCNMA Scholarship Banquet. (Photo by Minerva Canto)

Lopez, who often made time to volunteer as a CCNMA scholarship judge throughout the years, says he got his start in 1989 with a summer program for minority journalists at UC Berkeley. He worked at the Oakland Tribune for three years before he was hired as a staff writer for City Times, then a new section for the Los Angeles Times that focused on areas that previously lacked coverage, a finding made following the 1992 riots.

After two years, Lopez moved to Metro, where he remained the rest of his career, developing expertise in investigative reporting, multimedia and breaking news. Among his many accolades, Lopez garnered the Pulitzer Prize twice as part of two different teams, one that covered the 1994 Northridge earthquake and another that exposed corruption among public officials in Bell, Calif.

While at the Times, Lopez also pressed for the release of law enforcement documents that would demystify the 1970 death of journalist Ruben Salazar. You can read about that on Lopez’s blog, LA Journo.

CCNMA: What prompted this career move? Was it the right job at the right time?

RL: Yeah, it was the right job at the right time. It’s a great opportunity. Change is good. It’s a new challenge, the pay is better, and, quite frankly, the benefits can’t be matched by any media organization and so it was the best fit for me and my family. That along with the uncertainty in the news business. I mean the LA Times will always be around and will always be the LA Times. By that, I mean it will always influence people in Los Angeles and California. The right people will always react and the staff will always do good stories, but whether or not it will be able to maintain its current staffing is very questionable. The revenue is dying, you know, print, not just the LA Times, but everywhere. I need another decade of work. I wasn’t sure I was going to get that in journalism, but this will certainly give me a better opportunity at that.

CCNMA: OK, we’ll get back to that in a little bit. One thing I wanted to know is, in looking over some of your stories that you’ve written I see that you’ve had the opportunity to work on a lot of important stories throughout your career. Is there one that you’re particularly proud of working on?

RL: I was very proud to be part of the Bell series. We won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. That was a highlight. We also did a big investigative piece in 2000 where we tracked down more than 300 members of the 1989 class of Belmont High School. We wanted to assess the social and economic mobility of immigrants. These students, these graduates of the class of 1989 in Belmont were pretty much immigrants and the sons of immigrants, Latinos, Southeast Asians. We did a big project. It was a special section. It was an amazing thing. We actually tracked real people ten years later. We worked with the Times poll and we developed a series of questions. We polled them, and so we had a scientific study based on real people. It came at a time when there was a real backlash against immigrants, post Prop. 187. It really showed that they had made some significant gains and it was very counterintuitive. It was real people, real stories.

CCNMA: You mentioned earlier the state of journalism. With so many journalists being laid off or leaving on their own, many if not most, are saying newspapers are dying. Do you agree or do you think newspapers are simply in the middle of massive upheaval?

RL: There will always be newspapers, but they’re not going to be like they once were. All you have to do is look at the demographics of who reads newspapers. It’s older. It’s not growing. Young kids don’t read newspapers, and so that demographic is getting older and it’s dying. So newspapers are going to have to figure out ways to collaborate and figure out ways to do things because they’re not going to have the revenue streams that they have now. Yeah, you’re just not going to stop that slide, so, to a certain degree, yeah, they are dying. Will they ever go away completely? I don’t think so, but they’re not going to be like they once were. I mean that’s clear.

CCNMA: You’ve been an active supporter of CCNMA throughout the years. What do you think that means for diversity and all the work that we’ve been doing?

RL: Oh, it’s a major blow. Look at the people who are leaving the profession. Look at the people who are getting laid off. Look at the ASNE reports that come out every year. Compare those to a decade ago. I don’t see much improvement.

CCNMA: Do you have any words of advice to young journalists today given the sort of gloom that seems to be hanging over the industry?

RL: I’ll be really honest with you. I’m not sure I could recommend for people to go into journalism. I might suggest something else. I surely did that with my daughter.

CCNMA: Any words of advice or words of wisdom to the veteranos still in the trenches?

RL: You know what? Yeah. Hopefully, they’ve innovated. Hopefully, they keep up with the trends because that’s what’s going to keep them their jobs, if they’re willing to multitask and do different things on the digital side. The more you know, and the more value, and the more you can do, the better chance you have of surviving. That’s what I did. I was an innovator. That’s what allowed me to thrive. The LA Times offered me a pay raise and to promote me to an editor to try to keep me. I mean they made a very sincere offer, a very respectable offer, but I just didn’t want to stay in journalism. I felt this was too good of an opportunity, so it’s not like I thought I was going to be laid off immediately. I just had longer-term questions. There was just nothing bad that could happen from this move and everything to gain. I can always go back into journalism.

CCNMA: It seems public service was really an important aspect for you in taking that job.

RL: It really was. I don’t begrudge anyone who goes into crisis management or the so-called “dark side” or things like that because you’ve got to do whatever you have to do to take care of your family. I totally get that. That kind of thing works out for me. This is public service. If somebody tells me, “You’re going to the dark side, I tell them, “This isn’t the dark side.” I’m out with the Latino kids, I’m out with the Asian-American kids and I’m out with African-American kids. I’m helping them go to school. I’m at a school that caters to them. If it wasn’t for this school, these kids might not have a chance to go to a university, to get a four-year degree. So, you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that at all. I’m excited.

— Interview by Minerva Canto

Editor’s note: This interview was condensed for clarity.

 

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Yearlong job search tests dogged sports reporter

By Miguel A. Melendez:

Two years ago I lived in a spacious two-story apartment in South Pasadena. It was the first time I had ever lived in a city that reminded me of the Norman Rockwell paintings that lined the walls of the Hometown Buffet restaurants our family of seven would visit almost every Sunday.

It felt like I had finally made it, and in many ways I did. I was cruising through a 13-year career with stops at the Orange County Register, Pasadena Star-News, L.A. Daily News and the NFL Network. When my contract expired at NFL.com, I was sure I’d land a spot somewhere — anywhere.

Miguel Melendez seen in between Andy Dalton (now the QB of the Cincinnati Bengals) and former ESPN reporter Erin Andrews, right.

Miguel Melendez seen in between Andy Dalton (now the QB of the Cincinnati Bengals) and former ESPN reporter Erin Andrews, right.

Instead, I spent the next six months unemployed. I easily submitted more than 60 applications for journalism jobs. When nobody came calling, I dumbed down my résumé and it was then I got two phone calls: one from a sporting goods store and another from a casino. Neither one made an offer.

Months passed, and I continued to submit applications. The phone never rang. I gave up my apartment for fear of running out of money and moved in with my best friend. The agreement was I wouldn’t pay rent until I landed a job.

More months passed and, still, nobody called.

Maybe it was the desperate look in my eye or that she saw I was on the verge of insanity, but a good friend of mine, Evelyn Ibarra, offered me an entry-level job making just above the minimum wage. “You’re not gonna like the kind of work you’ll be doing,” she warned me. But at this point — nine months without a job and a bank account quickly depleting — I felt I had no choice. I would do anything.

My job? Stocking tortillas, hauling cases of orders to customers and working the register. Nothing was beneath me at this point, I felt. I had done it all before I became a cub reporter. I was homeless as a kid and learned how to hustle so that I could eat. So when I was handed a hair net and an apron I reminded myself this is how I would hustle. I was no longer a kid, but a 30-year-old who still needed to eat, along with paying a car note, insurance, a cell phone, and now rent.

I worked five days a week at Acapulco Mexicatessen in East Los Angeles. The only time I sat was during my two 10-minute breaks and 30-minute lunch. And what reporter do you know stands, walks and sweats their entire shift? A quick scan across any newsroom is proof we’re not built for that.

The work I did at the tortilla factory was non-stop and, to be quite honest, boring. It was boring because I knew what I was missing. For the first time since I could remember I wasn’t watching the World Cup. I had no idea how the Dodgers were doing. And working every Sunday shift also meant missing out on playing softball.

Many of my co-workers had been doing this day-in and day-out for at least a decade, if not more. They worked long hours to provide for their families, either here and/or in Mexico. I’m most glad that I got to know them as more than just co-workers and as people with a genuine ambition for living the American dream. I’m reminded of Valentina and her husband. They live modestly, but see a bright future because of their two sons, who are attending college – one at UC San Diego and the other at the University of San Francisco. Valentina beams with pride when she talks about them, and with good reason. She wants the best for her sons, and just as she wished and prayed they would do well, she wanted the same for me.

My co-workers all knew my situation. They all encouraged me to hold up my head and continue pursuing my passion.Ojalá que todo te salga bien, Miguelito they told me whenever I mentioned I had applied for a job (“Hope everything turns out well for you, Miguelito.”) They were fascinated about the kind of work I used to do, but I was even more fascinated with how they spoke about striving for a better life here in the U.S. They had that same feeling I had years ago when I moved to South Pasadena: that feeling of having made it. And here I was complaining under my breath that I was severely under-employed. I was ashamed and humbled.

I decided it was time to stop feeling sorry for myself. I reached out to CCNMA on Twitter about getting some help with finding a job. CCNMA President Yvette Cabrera, a former colleague of mine at The Orange County Register, reached out and invited me to the Ruben Salazar Scholarship Banquet. It was a good way for me to network, she said. And it was. I met a vice president from KNBC and an HR manager from ESPN Los Angeles. I also met an executive editor who said I should reach out to their new executive sports editor.

Not long after, I had two interviews with Yahoo! Sports for two different positions. Neither materialized. I had another interview at a local paper in West Covina, but apparently I wasn’t hungry enough. It didn’t matter. I was even more determined to land on my feet and prove that I did, in fact, belong in journalism. Then, just three weeks ago, I was offered a job from FOX Sports to be a digital content programmer. That same day I told my friend at the tortilla factory I was leaving the company. I delivered the news to my co-workers, who were filled with joy. I could see and feel it in their smiles and tight hugs.

A professor once asked me what single advice I can give to aspiring journalists. I was only 26 at the time, and, really, not that much older than the students I was speaking to. But I remembered what a mentor told me when I was a 17-year-old freelancer: “Be nice to people you work with right now, whether you like them or not. You never know when your paths might cross again, and you’ll be the one needing that someone’s help.”

It’s advice that rings true to this day. But, having gone through this yearlong hiatus, I can  tell aspiring journalists to never lose hope of chasing your dream job. I spent 13 years as a reporter, beat writer and editor. My work defined who I was. It’s all I had ever done, and it wasn’t until this ordeal that I realized how much I really loved it. I was lucky in that I had friends who supported me the entire way. The small breaks I caught along the way helped fuel my relentless chase. But, luck had nothing to do with reaching out to mentors, former colleagues and scouring job boards online day-in and day-out. It was all effort. I cried myself to sleep once, and it was then that I knew I needed to find my way back to journalism. There’s no faking that kind of passion.

Follow Miguel Melendez on Twitter @MelendezSports

CCNMA Note: We loved this essay because it embodies what many people are still going through following the recession and fall of newspapers. It was also extremely fitting that Miguel was able to include the American dream in his story. He was able to see that because of his personal background, and that’s what CCNMA fights for every day: perspectives like his. If you have a story you’d like to share with CCNMA, email us at ccnmainfo[at]ccnma.org.

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In photos: CCNMA open house mixer

openhouse

We had a great time sharing our new space with everyone who attended the open house mixer Saturday. Here’s what you missed:

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Petition seeks to include more Afro-Latinos in Latin-American media

What do Latinos look like?

Well, what does a fruit look like. Or what does a car look like? Or what does a house look like?

There are many types of delicious fruits, or cars, or houses, each with its own distinctive features.

It’s not until we dig deeper into those features that we realize what kind of fruit we are eating, what car we are driving, or what house we will live in.

A HuffPost Latino Voices article titled “These Images Show #WhatLatinosLookLike” sought to take images of Latinos and show the world that Latinos are not just the brown-eyed, black-haired individuals many people are accustomed to seeing in mainstream media.

Since the HuffPost article was published, the hashtag has taken off and found renewed vigor at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists annual convention, which took place in Aug. 6-10.

“People look at us and automatically assume they know what we are,” says Victoria Arzu alongside her sister Sophia Arzu in a youtube video that calls on Latin American media to include more Afro-Latinos and other minorities in its programming. The two started a petition called “Proyecto Más Color” on change.org and it has already surpassed its original goal of 100 signatures and now seeks to get 1,000.

According to the petition:

This is important because there has been a lack of representation of the diversity of the Latino culture, especially regarding the representation of Afro-Latinos. The only explanation for this disparity is discrimination. The younger generation of Afro-Latinos needs role models to look up to. Afro-Latinos have been oppressed for too long. We have the right to be represented in Latino media.

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Newsrooms see uptick in diversity numbers

Surveys detailing diversity numbers in print and broadcast newsrooms have been released. Both mediums show slight improvements; still, neither completely reflect the ethnicities and cultures that make up this country.

While total newsroom employment declined 3.2 percent, the number of journalists of color at daily newspaper newsrooms increased by 1 percentage point to 13.3 percent, according to the American Society of News Editors’ (ASNE) annual newsroom census — a stark comparison to the 37 percent of people of color in the country.

The number of Latinos at newspapers increased to 4.46 percent of newsrooms from 4.26 percent.

Online-only news sites reported that 20 percent of the workforce was made up of people of color based off the 105 organizations that responded, according to the ASNE. People of color made up nearly one-third of all part-time employees (28.3 percent) and more than one-fourth (25.7 percent) of volunteer contributors.

The Radio, Television, Digital News Association (RTDNA) released its own report on diversity in newsrooms and found that 22.4 percent of TV newsrooms were journalists of color, also up 1 percentage point from the previous year and the highest in 13 years. However, that number includes Spanish-language TV stations, where most employees are Latino. Excluding the Spanish-language TV stations, the percentage of journalists of color in TV was 19 percent, a drop from 19.4 percent in 2012.

The percentage of Latinos working in non-Spanish-language TV stations fell from 5.5 percent to 5.3 percent. Including Spanish-language TV stations, Latinos make up 9.1 percent of TV newsrooms.

In radio, the percentage of journalists of color was 13 percent, the highest level since the mid-1990s. Most of those gains came from non-commercial radio stations, about “two to three times as high” as commercial stations, according to the survey.

Latinos working in radio, presumably not including Spanish-language radio, increased to 6.2 percent — up from 5.7 percent the previous year.

Ironically, the RTDNA survey found that Latinos make up 78 percent of newsrooms at Spanish-language TV stations, a drop from 89.1 percent in 2012. It would appear that even Spanish-language stations aren’t a safe work haven for Latinos.

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