Is digital journalism still really about writing?

Reuters blogger Felix Salmon has an interesting take on Digital Journalism. He says

Digital journalism isn’t really about writing, any more — not in the manner that freelance print journalists understand it, anyway. Instead, it’s more about reading, and aggregating, and working in teams; doing all the work that used to happen in old print-magazine offices, but doing it on a vastly compressed timescale.

Graham Holliday, a social media trainer and consultant, says the same thing: freelance journalists in the digital age have to get used to more than just reporting and writing good stories. Graham says that skills like curation have become vital.

Digital is not the new Print. It’s about a whole lot more that is still not very well understood. And it’s new. Totally new.

Read more about Felix Salmon’s take on Digital Journalism at this LINK

On the way to the Ministry

February, BOGOTÁ – My driver suddenly lurched and made a hard right off the Caracas and into the heart of the Zona Tolerancia, into the streets of the whores. Into the crumbling concrete towering around us. Over cracked pavement and rubble. Past fat ones and black ones. Past fat black ones and sad fat ones. The saddest part is when their tits just hang out and stare blankly at you. And some whores – they don’t stand. They just sit. They sit in broken chairs and watch out from the door-less doorways. Are they really hoping you’ll stop for a visit? Probably. I mean, probably, right?

Señor… We’re going to the Ministry, right?” I asked, leaning forward, doubting his turn into Bogotá’s Zona Tolerancia, the zone where drug use is rampant and prostitution is legal and regulated, where the sadness and desperation of the whores and the blank men who roam the streets peeking at them is painfully visible, where I didn’t want to be.

“This is the way to the Ministry,” he said plainly. He didn’t even looked at me through his rear-view mirror.

Maybe my driver just wants this to be the way to the Ministry, I thought to myself.

I tightened my tie, tried to feel formal, and reviewed the address again.20120729-_DSC0072

When I got to the Ministry buildings, there were soldiers with automatic rifles stationed on the corners. I walked down a cobblestone street. The Presidential office Casa Nariño spread out in front of me. More soldiers, this time with bayonets pointing up into the sky at a sharp angle, marched in formation about the green on the other side of a tall gate. At the Ministry of Finance, I registered. They took a photograph of me. And then the elevator took me up.

It is easy to draw conclusions. It is easy to see tired old whores and say that they are sad. It is easy to see men roam and say that they are desperate. And it is easy to see heavy black sub-machine gun rifles and conjure up opinions about security and how much money is spent and it shouldn’t be spent and how safe you really are in the middle of all of this. But these are just symbols. Not truths. And symbols should be the fount of questions. Not close-ended conclusions. Concluding, not asking, is a mistake that is dangerous and so easy to make.

It takes discipline to ask.

The elevator lets me out. There is no sound. It is as if suddenly the noise of the street of the whores might be totally forgotten in a place like this. I wonder if it really is? Sometimes I really feel like asking questions like these.

Inside a plain, white-walled office there are three desks and three people waiting for me. They make up a perfect formation. The man stands. The women sit. They are all staring at me. Their faces are stone, but their words are cordial.

I introduce myself, we chat, we trade contacts, and then I thank the older lady. I use the usted form. Formality. This is the Ministry of Finance, after all. My assumption is that formality comes first.

“Ximena, please,” she says to me in return, killing my usted. Our hands are clasped in a shake when she says it. She gives me a thin smile.

“Ok, Ximena,” I say.

And then I leave, out the way I came. And the elevator has its way with me again. And I descend, out through the doors, and finally I’m back on the streets and the cobblestones make noise as I trod across the government grounds. A homeless man catches my stare and reaches out his hand. I hurry past. My face tightens, like always, when that pleading, desperate, filthy hand reaches out and begs me for coins. Just a few coins. Please, Señor! But who knows what he’ll do with my money? Right? I mean, right? It’s impossible to assume he’ll use them to eat. This is a hard thing to do. Sometimes it hurts. But it’s better: make no assumptions.

UK, Colombia strengthen ties in education, infrastructure, development

April 23rd, BOGOTÁ – (Colombia Reports) – Top British and Colombian officials on Monday celebrated a new partnership that promises to strengthen ties in higher education, science and business.

Colombia’s recent economic transformation, coupled with better security and a prospect for peace has ushered in a wave of trade interest from other countries. A British mission led by Minister of Universities and Science David Willetts brought optimism for Colombia’s future, as well as prospects for increased trade between the two nations.

“We have been looking on with great respect and admiration at the transformation of Colombia in the past years as Colombia becomes a modern, liberal democracy,” Willets told a packed roomful of Colombian business leaders, policy makers and officials. Continue reading at Colombia Reports…

Cartagena’s Getsemani neighborhood, alive with new transformations and old charms

April 17th, CARTAGENA (Colombia Reports) – As parts of the Getsemani transform, this once dangerous and seedy neighborhood in Colombia‘s port city of Cartagena still keeps its stubborn, extraordinary charm alive.

A barefoot man sweating bullets from his shirtless back pushes a cart caked in blue peeling paint down a cobbled stone street inside the walled city of Cartagena’s old town. The cart’s three metal wheels shake and shiver until finally the man stops for a rest to fight against the oppressive heat that so defines Colombia’s coast. The barefoot man and his rickety cart, loaded with miscellaneous goods — often with odd things like bricks, scrap metal, even tangles of yucca root — are a staple of Cartagena’s old town, a relic of the past which has stubbornly remained a constant since colonial times.

 Cartagena's Getsemani neighborhood  Cartagena's Getsemani neighborhood  Cartagena's Getsemani neighborhood  Cartagena's Getsemani neighborhood  Cartagena's Getsemani neighborhood  Cartagena's Getsemani neighborhood

Cartagena’s Getsemani neighborhood sits nestled inside the south-east corner of the city’s ancient walled fortress, a beautifully preserved colonial district, whose architecture has earned itself a place among UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites. Traditionally a gritty, working class neighborhood, it was once recently burdened with a reputation for thieves, prostitutes, and drug dealers. Recently however, the neighbourhood has undergone a resurgence, and such unsavory elements have been pushed to the fringes. What remains is the grittiness of the locals, and the faded grace of the neighbourhood’s worn out pastel facades, which still exhude a dilapidated charm into the lives of travelers who wander through. The change has not gone unnoticed by backpackers, many of whom find the neighborhood to be a refreshing change over Cartagena’s more touristy neighbourhoods, like Bocagrande.

It’s not hard to see why, as Getsemani is a feast for the senses, alive with colour and vitality. On a street corner, beads of sweat fall off the faces and bare backs of two men selling empanadas that are as spicy as the tropical juices sold alongside them are succulent. Their clients, a hungry crowd whose members lounge on a cracked concrete curb across from a worn yellow church, are a mix of Europeans, Americans, Colombians, Australians, Venezuelans and Italians — these old street vendors don’t discriminate.

Beyond strolling the beauty of Getsemani’s streets by day, travelers will find the neighborhood’s nightlife to be equally vibrant, fuelled by a delicious mix of cocktails and humming with a heady mix of music and dancing. Café Havana (Calle de la Media Luna con Guerrero; 57-310-610-2314; is a Latin jazz café dripping with atmosphere. Live music performances start late, and the place fills up fast, but the mojitos are rumored to be some of the best in the city. Others, like the Bazurto Social Club (Avenida del Centenario Carrera 9,30-42), a place named after a nearby rambunctious market, lets your ears and body feast on traditional cumbia music to Afro-Colombian sounds from the 70s.

While you wait — nightlife starts late in the Getsemani — there’s no better place to relax than the stone steps that spill out onto the plaza in front of the Parroquia de la Santisima Trinidad church (Carrera 10 with Calle 29). This is where the people of Getsemani come to meet each other, where children play games of pick-up soccer, musicians serenade their lovers with their fast, intoxicating ballads, and lazy grandmothers station themselves on park benches to keep track of the throng.

The next morning, hip joints like Ceiba Juice Bar (Calle Guerrero 29-75; 57-310-660-4114), where fresh tropical juices are hand made and the coffee is reminiscent of tight Italian-style ristretto, will revive you once again. Horacio Perez, Ceiba’s owner, is Colombia’s only wholesale vendor of Acai berry. You can get wifi with your acai here as well.

Accommodation is easy. Hostels and small hotels are sprinkled along Calle de la Media Luna. Hostels, like Hostal Casa Baluarte (Calle de la Media Luna No. 10-81 Diagonal Iglesia; 57-310-664-2208; ), offer a range of room choices, wifi, and consistent, responsible security. Prices range from $10-20 dollars per night.

As Cartagena gains recognition with events like its annual celebration of literature and arts, Hay Festival, and as Colombia continues to become safer for travelers, Getsemani should become a more attractive destination for those seeking a little more character and wonder in their traveling experience. The increase in popularity will inevitably lead to a certain degree of gentrification, and the regrettable price increases that come with it. However, the precious things that make the Getsemaní what it is, like its ancient, rickety, colored carts, still pushed by men and their brute force – these real-life enchantments – are unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

Financial sector resists adopting central bank rates

April 5th, BOGOTÁ (Colombia Reports) – Colombia’s financial sector has resisted lowering mortgage rates in accordance with the central bank interest rate cut to 3.25%, the bank’s most recent cut in March.

“The central bank has developed an expansionary monetary policy since July 2012, but the interest rate cuts have not yet been transferred to the rates of financial institutions,” said international market analyst Cristian Lancheros of Acciones y Valores, a Bogota-based brokerage firm.

“This scenario requires a greater commitment of financial institutions with reduced rates to encourage consumption … it will not deteriorate significantly household demand,” Lancheros added.

Worries of rising new real estate prices, which increased by 2.4% in the latter trimester of 2012, have fueled a fiery debate over the severity of the housing sector’s impact on the Colombian economy.

Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas recently called on banks to be more responsive with the central bank in order to decrease interest rates in accordance with the cut, and in turn decrease the cost of mortgage lending for buyers.

“We are planting our concern with the financial sector regarding this situation … it doesn’t seem that the financial sector, let’s say, is helping in proportion to the central bank’s interest rate cut,” said Cardenas.

Cardenas, however, has kept the focus of Colombia’s growing pains toward the peso, naming it “the mother of all problems”. A strong peso, he has said, is the culprit behind a sluggish manufacturing sector and struggles in the agriculture business, which in turn is flaying the country’s exports.

Yet some experts disagree about where the problem is, saying that the most important risk to the Colombian economy right now is soaring housing prices.

Economist at the University of the Andes Marc Hofstetter told Colombia Reports that “the most important risk is that the central bank is lowering rates, but housing prices are still high.”

“By lowering rates, the central bank intends to stimulate the economy. Most of the economy needs a stimulus, but the housing sector does not need a boost in the middle of rising prices,” Hofstetter added.

Although lower interest rates intend to kick start the economy the central bank says it is growing below its potential, lower mortgage rates could further drive up prices in the housing sector. That could be dangerous for consumption.

And that potential danger is the same concern that was recently investigated by a handful of central bank researchers. Earlier this month, a report published by researchers at Colombia’s central bank warned of a housing bubble in Colombia’s market that could mirror the same conditions which led up to the United States mortgage crisis in 2008.

“We find evidence of a bubble (defined as explosive behavior in a sub-sample of the series) during the second semester of 2012,” Jair Ojeda-Joya, co-author of the central bank’s research said to Colombia Reports.

MORE: Colombia’s central bank warns of possible housing bubble

Rich Holman, a real estate broker and founder of First American Realty Medellin, is not convinced though. He says that the worry over Colombia’s housing market “is uniformed diatribe” and declares the idea of a bubble is nothing more than a “myth”.

“Is Colombia being overbuilt, is there too much inventory, is the property market overvalued and is Colombia having a real estate bubble?” asks Holman. “The answer is no, not yet.”


The Source Files No. 1: Recording bullets

One of the first times I interviewed someone, I sat down in an empty classroom in the middle of the California desert. The source I was interviewing was an ex-marine. He was anxious and rough around the edges and had a voice that sounded like steel grinding on cement. He talked fast too. Bullet fast.

When I asked him if he’d mind whether or not I record the interview, he said, “You better record this. You don’t know shorthand, do you?”

I recorded the interview.

Reuters publishes an excellent handbook for ethics and guidelines on the matter of developing sources called The Essentials of Reuters Sourcing. Here’s what they say about recording information:

Record the information a source gives you, either by taking notes or by printing out a hard copy of notes made on a computer, or by tape recording conversations. Reporters are encouraged to learn shorthand. Reporters should keep notes, tapes, video or other information for at least two years. Remember that it may be necessary to for you to prove the accuracy and fairness of your story in court.

If using a tape recorder, obtain the source’s permission; undisclosed taping can be illegal in some jurisdictions. If conducting an interview by phone with a broker or analyst, remember that most banks, funds, or brokerage houses routinely record incoming phone calls. Sources can check the accuracy of their quotes by replaying in-house tapes.

If you interview a source over the telephone and are writing the quotes directly onto a screen, save the results and make a printout. You should not write the story directly from the screen onto which you wrote the quotes but instead work from a copy. Otherwise you destroy evidence that could be crucial to you in a lawsuit.

Whether a telephone interview, a face-to-face where I use shorthand, or pulling bits background off the web, I follow Reuters’ rules like religion and document everything. Leave no holes.

Read more about good sourcing at the following LINK

Here’s an early profile piece I did on the ex-marine LINK

What hurts. Just write what hurts.


Hemingway said you should “write hard and clear about what hurts.”

I think this matters more than anything for a writer. Any writer. You’ve got to feel some hurt for what you’re writing about. There has to be a deeper connection to your subject. There’s got to be concern. Deep concern. Deep, dug-in, unquestionable concern for what you pay attention to and what you report.

After getting involved with Colombia Reports, my editor said that he needed someone to report from Bogotá. I said I would. He said OK.

When I came to Bogotá, though, my editor wanted me to cover National politics. But I told him I wanted to cover business and finance instead. That’s what concerned me: how is the world is doing business, who is making money, how are they making it, how are they spending it, who wins and who loses?

The thing I like about my editor is that he understands what really drives people. He knows that if I’m deeply concerned with my beat, then I’m going to work hard to get the stories that circulate around that beat. If he pushes me into something I’m not deeply concerned about, I’m going to drown in apathy. My stories will suffer. We both lose that way. He knows it. I know it. You’ve got to write about what hurts.

Be rigid. And then be bold.

Wesley Tomaselli 2013

Credit: Wesley Tomaselli

January, 2013 MEDELLÍN – Only now do I realize the value of being part of a newsroom. It’s critical. To tell a story well, first you’ve got to know whether or not to tell it, when to tell it, and how to tell it. This is a process. What I learned right away during my first week in the Colombia Reports newsroom is that it is a fiercely social process at best. And you’ve got to be rigid with yourself.

I was assigned a story on the Hay Festival – a literature and arts festival with Welsh origins that happens once every year in Cartagena, Colombia’s Caribbean port city. It’s important. But we had already written a piece on it earlier.

So the first question was whether or not to write the story. I went to Adriaan and asked him how relevant Hay is to our readers. “It’s a huge deal,” he said. “Write it.”

Solved. With efficiency.

The second question was when to publish the story? That was a harder question to answer. We decided to publish it on a Sunday, considering most interested readers would set aside time for an article on literature and arts during a Sunday morning over coffee rather than in the midst of week day chaos. We shot for Sunday.

The third question, though, was what’s the angle? Like I said, we’d already published a piece on Hay. So we needed a fresh angle. I went to Adriaan again. “Get an interview with the Director,” he said. “Ask her why Colombia and not another Latin American city. See what she has to say. If she says something interesting, we’ll publish.”

This is the painstaking process with every article. It’s fiercely social. And it’s got to happen fast.

Now that I report solo from my desk in Bogotá, the newsroom is still present – virtually, but the effect is not as strong. What I realized is that being in a newsroom surrounded by your peer reporters makes sharpening an article more efficient than ever.

You can kill an article with a quick question across the desk to find out whether or not there’s a conflicting story already written. Or you can get a quick run-down on the history of a beat that someone else has covered but you haven’t. You can get ideas on angles from the newsroom in a flash. And the pressure, of course, is on. The virtual equivalent works, but it doesn’t cut it like the real deal.

I learned that you’ve got to be extremely rigid with yourself before writing an article. And a strong skepticism with questions like Do my readers really want to read this? is probably the hardest question to answer well and quickly when you’re starting out.

Then again, I realized that once you confirm an article, you have to be bold. You have to get a source as fast as possible. Picking up the phone with immediacy is easier now. It wasn’t then.

Finally I got a hold of the director of Hay via a skype call. She was in London at the time. Then I boldly faced a 30 minute interview in Spanish. Not Colombian Spanish. Catalan Spanish. The Director is from Barcelona. That wasn’t what I expected. Then again, it never is what you expect when you’re a journalist. In fact, I think it’s usually better not to have these silly things – expectations – at all. Better to just be bold, listen, and try to understand your sources. A story will come.

Read the article I wrote on the Hay Festival at this LINK

Careful notes about everything…

I’m reading Andy Rooney’s memoir My War these days. It’s good medicine. And what I mean by that is that Andy’s voice is familiar. It’s sharp, stings of dry humor, at times cold, skeptical, and always honest. I think that when you’re isolated from your culture and the voices you used to tell stories and say expressions as you grew up, it’s easy to forget how much they define you.  But Andy’s voice and the way he sifts through anecdotes reminds me of the voices I grew up with. Strong medicine.

Credit: USA Today

Andy Rooney was an Upstate New York boy too. Raised in Albany. Then educated in a small town called Hamilton, just a stone’s throw from where I grew up. You could say that Rooney became a journalist almost by accident when he was yanked out of the army and sent to the old Times office in London. That is where the U.S. Military was setting up a newspaper to report on the war and G.I.s’ stories during World War II. Andy was the youngest, most inexperienced of The Stars and Stripes staff. The war is what made him into a legendary war reporter and a great story teller.

But there were times in those early days when he was not a great reporter. And he knew it. This anecdote about locating a story in a press conference reminds me of my first interviewing experience: not enough skepticism, too much transcription, not enough urgency. It speaks magnitudes.

…Eisenhower spoke for about ten minutes. He began by announcing several appointments to important jobs. I wrote them down. He told us about a new plan for cooperation between the British and the Americans and I wrote it down. He made half a dozen statements that didn’t mean much to me but I made careful notes about everything. Gladwin Hill of the AP asked Eisenhower whether there was any schedule for the invasion of France. Eisenhower was vague and talked all around the question, but toward the end of his answer he said, “Within the year.”

Credit: Tony Pierce

I went back to the office and, almost literally, started to transcribe the notes I’d taken, in the order in which I’d taken them. Before I’d finished, Gladwin Hill’s story came tapping in on the AP wire.

“General Dwight Eisenhower announced today that the Allied invasion of France will take place within the year.”

The story said nothing about new appointments or cooperation with the British. I had taken for granted that the invasion would be within the year, and it hadn’t occurred to me that Eisenhower’s saying so made it a story.

That was the day I learned you don’t report statements made at press conferences in the order in which they were given or in the order of importance assigned to them by the person holding the press conference. I wouldn’t want anyone to think everything went smoothly in my new career as a journalist.

And I don’t want anyone to think it went smoothly as I started out either. Because it didn’t. And from here on out, I know it won’t be all smooth and lovely. Let’s just say that there’s a lot of mud to tromp through. That’s OK though. I grew up playing in the mud.

Check out My War at this LINK