It was an honor to be inducted into the National Association of Hispanic Journalists Hall of Fame. I began writing my speech that week and then got busy and didn’t finish it until hours before the event.
By Mc Nelly Torres
In mid-September, 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated my native island of Puerto Rico. I finally managed to travel to the island in November, when I spent two weeks cooperating with local journalists on behalf of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists with the support of the Knight and Ford foundations.
In order to help tell their stories, we delivered satellite phones and wifi hubs to local journalists working under dire conditions while covering the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Communications had become a daily struggle and these journalists needed to communicate in order to perform their jobs.
As many Americans living outside the island, I watched on TV and online as Hurricane Maria ripped through the small southeast town of Yabucoa, just miles away from my hometowns of Patillas and Arroyo.
The nearly Category 5 hurricane enveloped the whole island like a giant blanket and spent 30 hours precipitating chaos and massive destruction.
Never before had the people of Puerto Rico experienced so much fury in one storm. The damage to property and communications was unprecedented and the blackout that came before, during and after has been a nightmare for all Puerto Ricans living in the island but also for the millions of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. mainland as well.
We didn’t know if our friends and relatives survived the catastrophe. We didn’t know if they had food and water. There was no electricity or communications whatsoever. The blackout hindered social media too.
I could no longer see posts from my friends in social media about ordinary things like daily thoughts or pictures and special moments like birthdays. All their Facebook profiles were frozen in time just before the storm – some of them managed to post that electricity was out before the storm arrived.
I had no news from my cousins and my mother. And this went on for days and weeks. I was afraid for the whole island.
Last summer, I had made a four-day visit to the island. After landing, my husband and I drove straight from San Juan to the east and south coasts, where we stayed in Guardarraya. This vibrant part of the island, known for good surfing, is a beach community in Patillas, where most of my family is from.
When I returned in November, I found myself in a different place. Instead of an island, known for its beauty, wonderful people and tasty food, I found a desolate landscape devastated by Mother Nature as it had never been before.
All that remained of the little boutique hotel we had stayed in Guardarraya, Caribe Beach Playa Resort, was the bare concrete structure; most of its windows had been ripped out. The locals tell me Maria had brought a 20-foot storm surge that had swept everything in its fury, including most of the hotel.
People are still traumatized by their experience. And each day that passes without electricity is a reminder of what took place in September.
Life will never be the same.
This post is to share pictures and short videos I took to show how the people of Puerto Rico survived the worst hurricane on record to hit the island and how they have been neglected by their government.
And how, under difficult circumstances, amid struggles and challenges, even as electrical power has been slowly restored throughout the island, they get up every day to clean up, find solutions and survive. They are not waiting for a savior, even though they are justified in feeling like second-class citizens.
As I traveled the island, spoke to people and documented what I saw, I felt as if I was visiting a foreign country. How can a place so beautiful look so different now? Nature can do that.
I saw hundreds of light poles knocked down by the storm and wires everywhere on the side of the road and on top of houses. Trees and property flattened.
I saw sadness.
I saw resilience in people who were and still are trying to make the best of a bad situation. I saw despair in the face of the unknown as thousands of people left the island looking for a remedy they can’t find at home.
I also saw strength in those left behind as they repeat the new mantra “Puerto Rico Se Levanta,” an assertion for themselves and for outsiders that there’s no choice but to look forward to a brighter future.
Those are my people. That’s Puerto Rico. Still and always my enchanted island.
Mi isla del encanto.
By Mc Nelly Torres
Víctor Hugo Michel was excited and overwhelmed at the time of the training I provided for journalists at the IberoAmericana University in México City several years ago.
Michel’s mind ran wild thinking about all the stories he would be able to report and write using the data analysis and investigative tools he learned in October of 2012.
“I never thought I could organized data, ranked it and compared it electronically to find new trends and information which is not easy to see with the naked eye,” said Michel, a reporter for the newspaper Grupo Milenio in México City. “These tools are like using a new set of glasses with three-dimensional vision providing me with something I didn’t even know existed.”
Since then, Michel has produced data-driven stories that have garnered him many awards. He keeps in touch with me through Twitter (@WatchdogDiva). But Michel listened to a piece of advice I gave him at the time after I introduced him and others to the Investigative Reporters and Editors organization. Join the organization, I said, attend the workshops and conferences. But more importantly, get involved. It will be worth it. I promise.
I’m a long-time member and I was serving as a board member at the time.
And while this might sound bias, I truly believe in IRE’s mission which is to train journalists investigative techniques through workshops and annual conferences. What has been truly remarkable about IRE since I joined in the 1990s has not been limited to the training, but to the great mentors and long-lasting relationships I’ve made over the years.
I said to him: Make it to the annual conference because it’s an investment to your craft, work and future.
Then in 2013, he gave me an awesome surprise when he tapped my shoulder before the International Luncheon at the IRE annual convention in San Antonio.
Back at the training session in Mexico City, Alejandra Guillén, another journalists who traveled from Guadalajara, Jalisco (eight hours away from México City), had said at the time that the training introduced her to technology that she can use in her daily work.
“I usually don’t have the time to analyze data manually so my work has always been superficial,” said Guillén, who works for El Informador, a daily newspaper in Guadalajara, México. “But now I understand how I can use these tools to be more efficient.”
Michel and Guillén were among 25 journalists who spent three days with me learning data analysis tools and investigative techniques as part of a workshop sponsored by the Periodistas de a Pie, an organization based in México City.
I always feel inspired after a day of training journalists. I love to watch their eyes spark with excitement when I show them the roadmap I used to build a story using data analysis tools. Curious minds marveled at the screen as I show them how they can too use these tools.
I also love to mentor young journalists of color which I do every year at the IRE annual conference.
So when Periodistas de a Pie invited me to teach a three-day workshop on data analysis and investigative reporting, I felt honored and excited about the possibility of spreading the gospel of data journalism.
Founded in 2007, Periodistas de a Pie is a network of journalists in México which mission is to defend freedom of speech, the pubic right to information and improve the quality of journalism in the country by offering training. Periodistas de a Pie’s focus is also to help and protect journalists working in dangerous areas in the country.
In a country where most data is not easy available like in the U.S., these journalists face numerous challenges –sometimes even dangerous ones that could cost their lives – to inform the public. But they are passionate about the work and it didn’t take long for them to understand the potential of these tools as we began to work together on hands-on lessons.
The visit to México City has been one of numerous trips I’ve made in recent years including Venezuela, Honduras, Bolivia and several times to Puerto Rico, where I was born and raised, after El Centro de Periodismo Investigativo de Puerto Rico invited me to teach data analysis tools to local journalists.
In San Juan, I see familiar faces each time I’ve been invited also sponsored by CPIPR.
Jackeline Del Toro, a reporter who works for El Vocero who also attended my sessions in 2011 and 2012, during my last training in Puerto Rico to express how the session I taught in 2012 changed her approach she once had when working in complex stories.
“It helped me to see beyond the data I have in front of me,” Del Toro said, as she shared a project she produced about transsexual people in Puerto Rico.
Del Toro has seen positive results in her work. The project won an award for special report from the Association of Journalists of Puerto Rico.
In 2014, the Education Writers Association invited me to spend a day in Dallas, Texas to teach data analysis to Spanish-media journalists who cover education. There I met journalists from all over the country who are starving to learn these tools. And last year, I spent an afternoon in my own backyard -Miami- speaking at a workshop in Spanish sponsored by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.
As I teach these workshops, one of my objectives is to change the culture among journalists who said they hate numbers and math. To me that’s absurd. Journalists report on numbers. If we don’t understand budgets, statistics and numbers, how can we do our jobs with integrity and accurately? If I can change one reporter’s mentality, I’ve done my job.
Daniel Edith Rea Gómez was one of those journalists.
“I’ve always shied away from numbers because I’ve considered them the enemy,” said Gómez, who works for the newspaper Reforma and a member of the Periodistas de a Pie, said. “But this training showed me how data can be used to write high impact stories. Now it is my responsibility to build onto what I learned and work in my own investigations.”
Why vote for me: “I’ve been a member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors for more than 10 years. I believe in IRE’s mission, which is to promote investigative reporting and train the next generation of journalists. I have not only made personal financial contributions to IRE, but have also volunteered my time to help coordinate and participate at workshops and conferences. I have also helped raise money to ensure that IRE continues its mission to provide investigative training to journalists around the world.
“I’m running for reelection because I would like to continue my work as an ambassador for IRE and as a voice for all journalists, including those in small newsrooms. During the past year, I have represented IRE in Puerto Rico and Venezuela and throughout the nation. I pay my own way to these events as well as to IRE board meetings and conferences. We need investigative journalism more than ever, but we also need to make sure that IRE is a sustainable organization capable of serving future generations.
“As a news entrepreneur who co-founded a nonprofit organization in Florida, I know too well about sustainability challenges. Building and growing a new organization is a rewarding and demanding experience. Since Florida Center for Investigative Reporting launched in September 2010, the organization has produced hard-hitting investigative reporting that has won 12 national, regional and state awards.
“I believe that the only way investigative journalism can thrive and evolve in our fast-changing media ecosystem is to engage young journalists. As an organization, IRE must continue to educate and train young people to ensure that investigative journalism survives and thrives. I’m doing my part not only by mentoring young journalists at IRE’s annual conferences, but also by offering internships to young journalists at FCIR.
“I care about IRE and its future. I hope you will consider me for your vote.”
Mc Nelly Torres is the co-founder and associate director of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, the first bilingual investigative nonprofit in the Sunshine State. Previously, Torres was the Stimulus Team Leader for EdMoney.org, a project of the Education Writers Association. She has also collaborated with journalists in Puerto Rico on investigations. Her journalism has won state, regional and national awards, including from the Education Writers Association, National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the Society of Professional Journalists.
Torres has worked at five daily newspapers across the United States. She was a consumer writer for the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, where her reporting led to the conviction of a businessman with a history of defrauding customers, a state probe of a foreclosure-rescue firm and changes in state laws governing the foreclosure-rescue industry.
At the San Antonio Express-News in Texas, Torres covered four politically contentious school districts and uncovered corruption that led to the conviction of a school building architect. At the Morning News in South Carolina, Torres won local and state awards for her investigative work on the state’s hog-farm permit-filing process.
A native of Puerto Rico, Torres has lived around the world while following a military husband who retired in 2005.
She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Colorado State University-Pueblo, formerly known as the University of Southern Colorado. Last year, Torres became the first Latina to be elected to serve on Florida Society of News Editors’ board of directors.
The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:
The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads This blog is doing awesome!.
A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 1,400 times in 2010. That’s about 3 full 747s.
In 2010, there were 8 new posts, not bad for the first year! There were 72 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 4mb. That’s about 1 pictures per week.
The busiest day of the year was September 6th with 92 views. The most popular post that day was Chronicles of a News Entrepreneur Part I.
Where did they come from?
The top referring sites in 2010 were facebook.com, twitter.com, WordPress Dashboard, linkedin.com, and fcir.org.
Some visitors came searching, mostly for mcnelly torres, consumer stories, stop plagiarism, mc nelly torres, and mcnellytorres.com.
Attractions in 2010
These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.
Chronicles of a News Entrepreneur Part I September 2010
Why Watchdog Forever? August 2010
Cell phone contracts, debt collectors and the dead November 2010
About August 2010
My work August 2010
The Ugly Truth About Contracts After A Love Ones Dies
We canceled my father’s cell phone service the same day he died in July.
His death was sudden and we were shocked by the news.
Days after I returned from my father’s funeral, cell phone bills began to invade my mail box. Debt collectors began to call my home number asking for my father by name. I explained the situation over and over again.
Nobody listened. The calls didn’t stop.
The issue was simple: My father died on July 8 so any contract he had with the cell phone provider died with him. So it would be impossible for him to pay the $221 bill in fees and fines the cell phone provider was attempting to collect for terminating the contract.
My father paid all his bills and he had no debts when he died. This bill was ridiculous.
I knew that I needed to provide proof so I faxed his death certificate when they asked. I called two days later, but they claimed the fax never arrived. I mailed the death certificate and waited for a couple of days before I called again.
In my attempts to document everything and have proof at hand, I requested a letter indicating the company received the document (Yes, they finally admitted to have received two copies of my father’s death certificate).
“We don’t do that,” a woman on the phone said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Sorry we just don’t do that,” the woman replied.
Two weeks later, I received another call from a debt collector. Another bill arrived that afternoon.
Don’t they talk to each other? Are these people incompetent?
I had about enough at this point. I was not going to allow these bullies to intimidate me.
I find this to be a coincidence but I had just written about debt collectors early this year. I interviewed consumers who vividly described the abuses they suffered at the hands of scrupulous debt collectors.
I’m well aware of state and federal regulations and common abuses. I kept meticulous notes about each call with dates, information and what it was said. And I was on the verge to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and Florida Attorney General’s office.
But I decided to wait.
Not surprisingly, other consumers have gone through this wrenching experience. I’m sure people make up all kinds of lies to escape a contract, but people die as well. It is a fact of life. Companies should be a little sensitive, and at the very least, efficient to resolve these issues fast.
And it was clear to me that these guys (debt collectors) didn’t care.
So I didn’t waste my time with them, but I was very clear: My father’s contract with the cell phone provider ended when he died. I didn’t care if the cell company wanted to slap him with a $221 early disconnection penalty. The contract was between two parties and one party had expired.
The contract was not legally binding. That was my legal position and I was going to stick to that.
It was that simple.
After my brief conversation with the debt collector, I called the cell phone provider and was transferred to the consumer relations department. I explained the situation to a woman who was nice and helpful during the call.
She advised me to write a letter directed to customer relations and explain the situation. I should enclose a copy of my father’s death certificate, she said.
I wrote the letter that same day (Sept. 22) providing all the information. I did request some sort of acknowledgement from them, an attempt to obtain a record for future reference.
Was that too much to ask?
Two weeks later, another debt collector called. I threatened to file a complaint.
He said: “There’s no need to threaten me. Why don’t you call the cell phone provider?”
Déjà vu all over again. I was livid.
I dialed the number one more time. The man on the phone was nice and apologetic after I explained my predicament.
“This should go through the next billing cycle,” he said. “It should be fixed by Oct. 14 after the next billing cycle closes. You will receive a letter showing a balance of $0.”
By Oct. 22, another bill arrived on the mail showing a balance of $221.
I ignored it. I don’t even know why.
Then last week (Oct. 27), a letter from the cell phone provider arrived.
The envelope didn’t look like a bill. I waited for a while before I opened the letter dated Oct. 20. It offered condolences for my father’s death and noted that my father’s account had been canceled. The remaining balance had been removed, the letter said.
I can’t explain how I felt, but I got the document I needed.
The real irony here is that my father hated that cell phone.
The cell phone kept me connected to him. That’s how we communicated. And even though he criticized the technology, he would answer my calls.
And there were days that he seemed to be waiting for my call. He lived alone and I knew he was lonely.
I could be driving to work in the morning and I would dial his number. Or after a bad day at work, I would call him as I drove home. We talked about everything, politics, money, work, history, the family and the economy.
It was unreal. We never had these types of conversations before.
The cell phone he hated so much gave me a level of comfort that I can’t explain. It gave me memories about those last years of his life.
I’m happy to report that I have not received any calls from debt collectors. Yet, I couldn’t help to wonder: Will they call again?
American Journalism Review magazine published a series of stories in September exploring the decline of investigative journalism around the country. I was surprised when I discovered that the writer decided to lead with me on the main story when I had been part of another article, The Withering Watchdog, a PBS series published last year.
Yet, I commend American Journal Review for spending the time and ink to show how investigative journalism has been affected in recent years.
The article, by Mary Walton, also highlights the explosion of investigative nonprofit centers across the country. Interestingly, this is something I had devoted a lot of energy during the past 15 months, building the framework of Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.
I’m hoping this will be the last article I read about the decline of investigative journalism though. Many of us are working hard to produce investigative journalism that matters. We are committed to our work because we believe that this is the future of investigative journalism. At least for now.
Think about it: if you don’t know what the government is doing with your dollars, or if corruption is running amok, how would you know? It’s the media’s job to keep you informed about these issues and more. But as resources shrink in newsrooms across the country, so has the ability to dedicate time and energy to produce in-depth reporting.
We can’t allow that to happen. I care too much about my community to ignore all these facts and that’s why I’m proud to be part of Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.
I hope the future holds more stories about the growing trend of investigative nonprofits around the nation and how these new start-ups are seeking new innovative ways to become sustainable.
But more importantly, how they are using all the technology available to produce stories that cause change and make this world a better place.
Community News Sites should engage their users, use quickly social media tools, tease out contributors rather than train citizen journalist in advance, according to a new J-Lab report released this week.
I found this J-Lab Report, which culled lessons learned from five years of funding community news startups, to be informative and worth reading. If you are thinking about becoming a news entrepreneur, take the time to read this report. It’s about 36-pages long.
The following is an excerpt of the press release and a link to the report:
The report, “New Voices: What Works,” documents the track record of 48 community news projects launched since 2005. These projects were created with small grants from J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism at American University. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation funded the grant program.
“One of the most important contributions of all of the New Voices community news sites is not that they replaced news coverage that has been constricted – rather they added coverage that did not exist before, not even in the heyday of American journalism,” said Jan Schaffer, J-Lab director, in releasing the report.
“The report shows that New Voices projects have added perspectives to community debate while serving as important experiments,” said John Bracken, Knight Foundation’s director of digital media.
Among the report’s 10 key takeaways:
- Engagement, not just content, is key: Robust and frequent content begets more content but it’s the engagement with users that make sites successful.
- Citizen journalism is a high-churn, high-touch enterprise: Citizen journalism math is working out this way: Fewer than one in 10 of those you train will stick around to be regular contributors. It’s better to nurture frequent site visitors to generate content.
- Social media is ushering in a new era for community news startups. Sites that build on friend networks are launching with lightning speed.
- Sweat equity counts for a lot: Projects built on the grit and passion of the founders have created the most promising models for sustainability.
- Community news sites are not a business yet. Income from grants, ads, events and other things falls short, in most cases, of paying staff salaries and operating expenses.
The New Voices program, launched in 2005, awards start-up funding to news entrepreneurs to create community news sites. Through 2010, 55 projects were funded from a pool of 1,433 applicants. The report examines the 46 projects funded from 2005 through 2009. Nine other sites funded this year will launch over the next six months.
Go here to view or download the report.
KDMC alums celebrate grants for investigative startups, offer tips on the entrepreneurial journey
Michele McLellan writes: As foundations step into a larger role in supporting investigative news, two journalists who left traditional newsrooms in 2009 are helping start new watchdog organizations in 2010. Laura Frank of The Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network and Mc Nelly Torres of The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting share what they’ve learned so far on the start up road.
Congratulations to my colleague, KDMC fellow and dear friend Laura Frank on her latest accomplishment: winning the Knight Community Information Challenge Grant.
Thanks Michele McLellan for the support. Read more here.
From an Idea to Reality: Producing Investigative Journalism in Florida
Last week, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting became the first nonprofit watchdog in the Sunshine state to receive a $100,000 grant from the Oklahoma City-based Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
FCIR is the nation’s first nonprofit, digital and bilingual investigative journalism organization.
But FCIR’s success in fundraising didn’t happen overnight. In fact, we have worked for more than a year to grow FCIR from its seed as a simple idea to a viable journalism organization.
That idea was to meet a growing demand in Florida by producing investigative journalism about one of the nation’s most populous and diverse states. To accomplish this, we’d use the latest technologies and storytelling techniques to connect with diverse audiences throughout the state.
Why? Because Florida serves as the gateway to Latin America and the Caribbean and its communities are among the most complex and diverse. FCIR needed to appreciate that complexity and reflect that diversity. For that reason, we made an early commitment to produce journalism in both English and Spanish.
Among our initial tasks was to recruit a strong, diverse board of directors and an advisory committee. Each of our board members brings a unique skill set, which includes journalism, management, nonprofit administration, digital media and law. As we grow, so will our board and advisory committee.
In addition to an accomplished and committed board of directors, FCIR needed a home. The International Media Center, a nonprofit affiliated with Florida International University’s school of journalism and mass communication, system offered us that.
IMC has an impressive, 20-year history of training journalists in Latin America and the Caribbean. It is a perfect marriage. FCIR’s partnership with IMC will allow us to create a substantive internship program that will help train the next generation of investigative reporters in Florida.
Yet FCIR will never lose sight of its mission to be a content provider of investigative journalism. For that reason, FCIR has established a network of ethnic and traditional media outlets that will publish FCIR’s journalism and at times collaborate on projects.
By collaborating with English- and Spanish-language media, FCIR can reach Florida’s diverse audiences on all available platforms– online, broadcast, radio, print and mobile.
What’s more, FCIR’s partnership with the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee will foster collaboration with citizen watchdogs around the state. We believe that engaging the public is crucial to make this new model of investigative journalism successful.
Although FCIR began as a simple idea, it has grown into a public- and foundation-supported nonprofit organization with an important mission — to work in Florida’s public interest by exposing corruption, waste and miscarriages of justice.
Note: FCIR is seeking watchdog projects from Florida journalists to fund this year. Deadline is Sept. 30. Proposals can be e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mc Nelly Torres is the associate director and reporter of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and a board member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors organization. Torres has been a member of NAHJ since 1998. This blog item was also published by NAHJ Sept. 13.