Helping Create Data Journalists in Latin America and Beyond

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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.

Michel listened.

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.”

Mission accomplished.

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2010 in review

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:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads This blog is doing awesome!.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

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.

1

Chronicles of a News Entrepreneur Part I September 2010

2

Why Watchdog Forever? August 2010
5 comments

3

Cell phone contracts, debt collectors and the dead November 2010

4

About August 2010
1 comment

5

My work August 2010

Cell phone contracts, debt collectors and the dead

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.

I didn’t.

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?

 

Investigative Shortfall

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.


The News Entrepreneurial Journey

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.


Chronicles of a News Entrepreneur Part II

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.

News of our grant circulated rapidly through industry blogs and social media.

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.

As we brainstormed and consulted with colleagues across the country, we determined that we needed to be different from other nonprofit news organizations.

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 watchdogfund@fcir.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.

Chronicles of a News Entrepreneur Part I

I was in Chicago a couple of months ago where I taught several sessions during an Ethnic Media Workshop held by the Investigative Reporters and Editors organization.

Mark Horvit, IRE executive director, asked me to talk about multi-tasking and juggling daily work while working on in-depth and watchdog stories.

During my years as a beat reporter, I was raising two children, now grown (thank God), and I was a military wife. My husband was gone most of the time.

And as I juggled work, the kids soccer games, karate and ballet lessons, I slowly became a master at planning. And with time I realized that planning is a discipline. Embracing this concept made my life easier as I approached complex stories, covered the daily stuff, and handled my personal life.

There are things you can’t control in life like the weather or breaking news. But planning your week ahead of time gives you flexibility and control. It could be a small task such as making a couple of calls, reviewing a sample of data or making an open records request.

During the past 15 months, I had to be extremely disciplined to accomplish many objectives while working on freelance stories, writing blog posts and working behind the scenes for EdMoney.org, traveling around the country training journalists and being part of efforts to build a startup from scratch.

Other duties included planning IRE annual conference (oh yes, I’m on the conference committee) and judging this year’s IRE contest, a labor-intensive job.  But wait I’m not done. I also managed to be attend a criminal investigators training-internship program where I’ve been investigating cases for public defense attorneys.

Sounds exhausting? Not really.

The day has 24 hours. That’s a fact. So that means that there are so many things you can do in 24 hours let alone eight if you plan accordingly. I know…I know…you need to sleep.

In essence, the secret to multi-tasking is simple and lies on three important words: planning, organization and discipline.

You must have the discipline to be organized and plan your days.

You must be organized because you can’t plan and follow up if you are not. And you must be disciplined because without discipline to focus, you can’t do any of these things.

Period.

So how do you become a disciplined person? You do that by following a task and coming back to finish if something happens and you don’t have the time to finish that specific task.

Successful athletes are disciplined by nature. They trained every day to reach their goals. So do musicians –I’m one since I was 9 years old—and they practice for hours and hours to perfect their techniques and become better. Our military forces are disciplined too and those who do well are the ones who succeed in the military world.

You can be disciplined as well. You need to focus and follow what you started. Is not impossible. If it doesn’t work today, tomorrow is another day. Write a list before every week ends. Plan phone interviews and make appointments the week before.

I usually write a list by the end of each day. I mark my appointments on my blackberry calendar to receive alerts.

My goal? To complete each of those tasks before the day ends. I take pleasure completing one after the other. Sometimes I don’t reach my ultimate goal and that’s okay.

Tomorrow is another day.

Don’t be a procrastinator. Become a master at multi-tasking. You’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish when you set goals and focus.

Stop plagiarism on the Web

The Web is like the Wild Wild West: what you find is what you get. And because of that factor anybody can steal a journalist’s work and distribute as his/hers own. I don’t know about you but that’s unethical and plain wrong.

So how can you stop it or at least be aware of it before you begin propagating something that has been plagiarized by someone else?

Rebecca Aguilar, a friend and board member with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, might have a solution about this. And she blogged about this issue for the Society of Professional Journalists this week. Rebecca has found a good Web tool that targets plagiarism.

I think there should be a law against plagiarism, but that’s just me.  I’m a journalist.

Thanks Rebecca for sharing this with us. To read the blog post go here.