Monday, December 20, 2010

Digital journalism center takes hold in Guadalajara with new leadership

Una versión en español se encuentra aquí.

On a Saturday in December, the 15th class to pass through the Digital Journalism Center in Guadalajara, Mexico, had its recognition ceremony. It was also my last day directing the program begun in 2008 by the University of Guadalajara and International Center for Journalists.

Participants in the last class came from Venezuela, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia and various parts of Mexico. 
Each participant in the Public Service Journalism course had spent five weeks studying online.  The best were invited to Guadalajara to begin work on a final project. For example:

  • Elizabeth Estevez, agricultural reporter for El Diario in Bolivia, is planning a multimedia report on the shortage of wheat production in her country.
  • Luis Daniel Palmillas, a radio and print reporter in Rio Bravo, Mexico, on the U.S. border, is working on a website that would allow citizens to lodge complaints about city services, track the response and hold officials accountable.
  • Carlos Andrés Valencia Masso, who lost his father in the armed conflict in Colombia, has plans to expand his web-based reporting on movements of peaceful resistance to violence.
In Guadalajara the participants received hands-on technical training in use of video, audio, mapping, marketing and other techniques of online publishing. I was impressed with their commitment to serving their communities.

Journalists from 22 countries participated

Over two years, the Center, a project of the Knight International Journalism Fellowship program, offered 15 online training courses in Spanish to some 430 journalists from 22 countries as well as in-person technical training to 279 of the best performers.

My job was to get the Center started and turn it over to the University, which is now in the process of selecting a successor. For 2011, the five courses on the calendar include "Writing for the Web," "New Financial Models for Journalism" and "Digital Tools for Public Service Journalism."

Innovative course: entrepreneurial journalism

The Financial Models course mentioned above is really about entrepreneurial journalism. I taught journalists how to run a publishing business online. They had to propose a media project, create a marketing plan, business plan and then a prototype.

They learned concepts that are foreign to journalists who work in traditional media, such as sales, branding, customers and profits.

The course attracted a lot of attention. I gave it three times online and was invited to give a seminar version of two or three days in Chile, Colombia, Mexico City and Monterrey, Mexico.

Webmaster Luis Fernando Gonzalez Fernandez and administrator Norma Lilia Cerda Martinez, both employees of the University, are keeping things running until the new director is announced.

My wife, Cindy, and I headed back to the States for the holidays and prepared for the next chapter in our wandering life, which will probably continue somewhere in Latin America.

Designing courses for professionals

When I arrived in Guadalajara, the University already had an established distance-learning program but there were no online courses in journalism.  I worked with Carmen Coronado, one of the University´s experts in designing courses for virtual platforms, to prepare courses for the Center.  She helped me understand how to create engaging activities and lead discussions in the online environment.

Experienced professionals need a different kind of learning environment than college students.  We made every participant´s work visible to every other participant, and they had to comment on each other´s work.  This kind of feedback from peers was at least as important to participants as my comments.

In all, I designed six courses in Spanish for the Center and taught them online. I  invited experts in digital technologies to teach the in-person courses.

In the process of participating in the course forums, I learned a lot of colloquial Spanish.  Each country has its own version of newsroom slang. But journalists are pretty much the same anywhere in the world: irreverent, smart, funny, committed and passionate about their work. I love hanging out with them, even when it´s just online.

Sustainability: Online master´s degree in digital journalism

Manuel Moreno Castañeda, rector of distance learning at the University of Guadalajara, urged me to create an academic team in the second year of the program to assure sustainability.

We invited professors to participate in the courses, and a team of a half-dozen academics also helped design a master´s degree in digital journalism.  This master´s, which has a heavy emphasis on participants creating their own digital media, will be one of the few online programs in digital journalism in the Spanish-speaking world. (Descriptions of the proposed courses are here.)

Safe practices for journalists covering violence

Mexico has become one of the most dangerous places in the world to practice journalism because of the linked interests of druglords and corrupt public officials.  Reporters and media outlets that reveal corruption put themselves at risk.

As a response, the Digital Journalism Center, with grants totaling $55,000 from the U.S. Embassy, created an online course on "Safe practices for journalists" for 95 Mexican journalists and then held three in-person seminars.

Jorge Luis Sierra (left), an editor with decades of experience covering border issues, designed the course. Another Mexican journalist, Darío Dávila (second from left), who reports for several international publications, gave the course online.

Both of them participated in the in-person training attended by journalists like Claudia Beltrán, reporter for the daily Noroeste (next to me at the recognition ceremony).

Participants in the courses created all the content for a website that contains tactics and strategies that journalists can use to reduce the risks of the profession while still providing useful information to their communities. They also created another website with current information about the risks journalists face.

After hearing the stories from course participants about the daily threats and dangers they confront, I was particularly gratified that we were able to offer them some help. 

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Fewer or less: which is correct

When I see misuse of this, it makes me crazy, for some reason. The worst offenders are the ones who are trying to be meticulously correct and impose "fewer" in places where "less" is really the appropriate word.

Newspaper copy editors have come up with rigid rules of usage that lead people to abominations such as this one from the Wall Street Journal:

Fewer than three years later, Mr. Slim earned more than $500 million in profit when Verizon Communications Inc. bought the carrier...
Ugh! I can just hear the Wall Street Journal´s copy editor saying, "You should use 'fewer' with things that can be counted."  The editor would be right in saying that years can be counted but would be wrong in applying the logic to this phrase.  Three years is a single measure of time, a unit, not a series of three discrete units. 

It should be, "Less than three years ago..."  

Here´s another abomination, from a story about Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt:
It took him fewer than 10 seconds to run 100 meters but at least 10 minutes to complete his victory lap. 
Again, 10 seconds is a period of time, a single period of time, not 10 individual units.  

It should be, "less than 10 seconds".  "Fewer" doesn´t even sound right. Again, the editor is applying the rule of countable units inappropriately. 

Here is another, from the New York Times:
An $11 fare to drive a passenger fewer than four miles was all D.Y. Kim had to show for his morning's labors.
Four miles is a distance, and in the context of the story is meant to signify a single unit of measure, not four. 

It should be, "less than four miles."
Here are some examples of correct usage:
Less than 1 million barrels of oil spilled from the tanker. Correct

There was more than 3 feet of snow on the ground. Correct. 

The robbers took less than $50 from the till. Correct

After the storm, the farmer had less than 10 acres of corn available for harvest. Correct

The bridge has clearance for vehicles less than 8 feet high. Correct 

I´ve visited the online AP Stylebook and reviewed its "Ask the Editor" section, where people seek advice on how to apply this rule. Most of the time, the editor applies a fierce kind of logic that results in bad advice being given. Here´s an example:

Do percentages count as numbers or amounts? In other words, is it: "Fewer than 3 percent of the country's stores..." or "Less than 3 percent of the country's stores..." – from Los Angeles on Mon, Oct 08, 2007
Editor's reply: The example seems to refer to individual stores, so fewer would be correct.
I could not disagree more. In this case, 3 percent is an amount, a quantity, a single measure, not a series of three countable units. With editors giving advice like that, it is no wonder that the abominations continue to proliferate.

As I learn every day in my struggles to speak perfect Spanish, language resists logic.  For every grammar rule that exists, there are other rules that countermand it.  We need fewer editors sticking to the logic of a single grammar rule, and more understanding the context of the rule.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Some indicators of corruption

Yesterday I was reading Mural, one of the better local dailies (there are five here), and I came upon this startling statistic: In the past 18 years, Mexico´s Secretary of Public Affairs has levied $3.3 billion dollars in fines (that´s correct, 40 billion pesos, or $3.3 billion dollars) against government officials for corruption.

That amounts to about $190 million dollars in fines a year against corrupt officials.

But the government has actually collected less than 1% of those fines. Why is the collection rate so bad? According to the article, the appeals process can be dragged out indefinitely, and, if it appears there will be a final resolution against the appelant in the case, he merely unloads all his assets so the fine can´t be collected. Perfectly legal.

Unbid contracts represent 97% of the total

On the same front page was a story about the handling of public contracts under the mayor of Guadalajara, Aristóteles Sandoval, who was recently elected on an anti-corruption platform.

As it turns out, the new regime has a worse record than the previous one in terms of awarding contracts not subject to a public bidding process. Under Sandoval, direct contract awards, made by the head of public works, represent 70% of total contracts, and another 27% are awarded to invited bidders.

Evidently the rules that require public bidding are open to interpretation. Juan Carlos Uranga, secretary of public works, says he alone decides who gets contract awards and who gets invited to make proposals for these unbid contracts. "And there is nothing untoward about it," he says.

The previous administration had 13% of contracts open to public bid, compared to this administration´s 3%.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Low pay, little opportunity here

An article in the local paper said the highest paid college graduates are those who study civil engineering (construction of highways, water systems, etc.). A new graduate can expect to make $10,700 a year.

Other recent graduates:
-- Marketing, $8,300 a year
-- Computing, $7,700
-- Elementary school teacher, $5,000
-- Law, $4,000
-- Accountant (bookkeeper might be a better description), $4,000

There aren´t a lot of jobs being created here outside of the government or political parties.

At every busy intersection you find people selling stuff to motorists -- toys, windshield wipers, candy, bug zappers, TV trays, you name it.

Many adult males are "cuidacoches", a type of informal valet parker who helps motorists find a parking spot or pull out of one, and offers to clean your car while you shop, for anywhere from $2.50 to $10. If you´re just getting help with parking, it´s considered polite to pay 5 pesos, or about 40 cents.

There are some beggars, mostly old women in country dress or very young women with babies.

Mexico is cheaper than the U.S. for many things but it´s not cheap to live here. I don´t know how many people keep body and soul together.

Monday, November 01, 2010

The Elegant Dead: Mexico´s catrina tradition

An ecologically conscious "catrina" with a skirt made of garbage bags.

Mexico´s Day of the Dead celebration is a mix of indigenous and Spanish cultural traditions, and in Guadalajara this year, it meant that the main street was lined with "catrinas".

The elegantly dressed skeletons (a "catrina" is an elegant woman) were designed by high school and college students and had a variety of themes.

A catrina in native dress captured an admirer.

The goddess of Death and the depiction of skulls go back thousands of years in Mesoamerican culture. There is an Aztec altar composed of hundreds of images of skulls (calaveras) in the heart of Mexico City, next to the main cathedral. Little sweets made in the shapes of skulls, called calaveritas, are part of the modern observance.

But the catrina tradition was made popular in the last century by a Mexican artist and caricaturist.

This catrina is outfitted in handkerchiefs.

The Goddess of Death is condemned by the Catholic Church but is worshiped by the lower classes and by narcotraffickers, who set up shrines to her.

Even young men want to pose with a catrina.

Some of the best catrinas were set up in the square around the cathedral so families out for a Sunday stroll could appreciate them.

The elegant dead like to garden....

...and to play with puppets.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Guanajuato, another magical place in Mexico

Mexicans put lots of color into their streetscapes. Brightly painted stucco was part of the architecture long before the Spaniards arrived.

Guanajuato spreads itself on hillsides that have been mined for silver for centuries. Many of the streets tunnel beneath the city center, so there are really two cities. Navigating in a car is extremely difficult, with all the underground routes, one-way streets and hairpin turns. We parked ours and took cabs.

It´s a labyrinth, as you can appreciate on this map.

A cablecar takes you up to a scenic overlook of the city, which has about 100,000 residents. Cindy remarked that its wrought iron balconies, narrow streets and palatial homes reminded her of European cities we´ve visited, like Genoa.

The city is a Unesco World Heritage site, largely because of its well preserved colonial buildings.

There is a famous granary building in Guanajuato where the heroes of independence won their first battle with the Spanish in 1810. Later four of these heroes, including Miguel Hidalgo, Mexico´s George Washington, were captured, executed, and decapitated and their heads were displayed from the granary´s cornices for 10 years.

The former Hacienda Barrera is today a museum and has a half-dozen impressive gardens with various themes.

The gardens at the Hacienda.

Guanajuato takes its name from the Purépecha language. It means hill of frogs, and there is a plaza with statues of frogs in many styles.

Our Easter candy used to come in baskets like these on display in the city market. Mexico must have been the source.

Cathedrals are colorful here.

Our hotel, the San Diego, was in what used to be a palatial home in the center of the city. Many of the hotels we´ve stayed in in Mexico have been marvelous to look at. Many have high ceilings, french doors, balconies and other nice architectural touches. For $80 a night, the beds are probably harder than Americans are used to, the bathroom is functional but probably small by American standards. High-speed internet access was free. I´ll take this type of place every time over a Holiday Inn, despite a few rough edges.

We´re suckers for archeological sites. This ceremonial center, known as las Plazuelas, thrived until about 1,100 years ago, when it declined for unknown reasons. Maybe invading Chichimecas.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Visit to José Cuervo distillery in Tequila

Today was our 40th anniversary, and we hadn´t planned anything special. We took a drive up to Tequila, a town where they´ve been making the José Cuervo beverage of that name for more than 250 years. The brand is older than the country. Older than the U.S. too, for that matter.

We´ve driven past the town of Tequila half a dozen times on our way elsewhere. It´s a Unesco World Heritage site and one of Mexico´s officially designated Magical Towns (Pueblos Mágicos).

It´s only about 35 miles from our apartment in Guadalajara so we thought it was time we stopped and visited. It lies in the heart of the blue agave region, which is used to produce tequila.

Blue agave fields are visible all around the state of Jalisco.

So we ended up going to the tequila museum and touring the José Cuervo distillery, where we had a couple of shots and some margaritas as part of the tour ($8 per person), and then had a nice dinner.

The piñas remain after the spiky leaves are removed from the blue agave plant.

They make tequila from the heart of the blue agave plant, which is a mass of starch that weighs about 75 pounds. This starchy bulb, called a piña, is cooked for a day and a half, which converts the starch to sugar. It is then crushed and pressed. The liquid is the base used for fermenting and then distilling into the liquor.

Mostly these kinds of tours don´t grab me, but I was struck by the figure tossed out by the guide: that particular distillery turns out 72,000 liters of tequila a day.

Two happy couples in the Museum of Tequila.

Of course, the tour bus for the town of Tequila has a distinctive styling. The shirt is for the Black Lions fútbol team of the University of Guadalajara.

All the towns in the state of Jalisco can use the name "tequila" on their distilled products of blue agave, as long as they meet certain standards. The designation of tequila is a "denominación de origen controlada" restricted to certain parts of Mexico, much like champagne and burgundy can only be used on products from those regions.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Mexico´s crisis looms over bicentennial

I´ve just finished reading Mariano Azuela´s gritty novel about the 1910 Mexican revolution, "Los de Abajo".

He uses a stark realism to depict one of the bands of anti-government forces who fought the federales.

The peasants who rise up against the landed gentry and hacienda owners lose their ideals along the way. Hardened by the war, they see the lofty goals of land reform and democracy as dreams of fools. The people´s army degenerates at times into a pitiless gang of thieves and murderers.

It´s a dark tale about the pointlessness of war. The author, who is a native of the state of Jalisco, where we live, served as a physician in the forces of Pancho Villa, one of the revolutionaries. He knew what he was talking about.

A revolution every 100 years

That´s the saying in Mexico, where revolutions were launched in 1810 and 1910.

Mexicans are now celebrating their bicentennial, but there doesn´t appear to be another revolution on the horizon.

Enrique Krauze, a Mexican historian and newspaper columnist, wrote recently in the New York Times:

Despite a bloody mythology that venerates the great protagonists of 1810 and 1910, most of whom met brutal deaths, the common denominators of our national history have been social, ethnic and religious coexistence; the peaceful construction of cities, villages and communities; and the creation of a rich cultural mosaic. Many of us want to believe that we are living through a nightmare from which, one morning, we will simply wake up, once again at ease.

Krauze tends to be an optimist. More than a year ago, he argued passionately that Mexico was not a "failed state" about to fall apart because of the growing power of the drug lords. Obviously, he has maintained this confidence.

At the very least, Mexico´s state is being seriously challenged. Every day there are examples of increasingly audacious defiance of authority by drug lords, who execute mayors, police officials and anyone else who gets in their way.

The cry of freedom in 1810

Mural depicting Miguel Hidalgo, father of the 1810 Revolution, here in Guadalajara. The artist was Clemente Orozco.

So reflections on where Mexico is going are part of the 200th anniversary celebration of the uprising that threw off Spanish control.

The priest Miguel Hidalgo is regarded as the George Washington of Mexico. The revolution he started began in the deliberations of a book club (tertulia) in the town of Dolores, where he was assigned.

(Skip down to the heading "Involvement in Queretaro" to see how the Insurgentes, sort of the Franklin-Adams-Jefferson-Hamilton-Washington of Mexico, got started in a book club.)

Trained by the Jesuits, Hidalgo was an unconventional priest. He had relationships with several women and fathered at least five children.

Here is Krauze´s assessment of the revolution Hidalgo started:

From 1810 to 1821, the war for independence cost about 300,000 lives in a population of around 6 million. Afterward, state income, agricultural, industrial and mining production, and, above all, the availability of capital for investment did not reach their pre-1810 levels until the 1880s. And the material desolation was followed by almost five decades of insecurity on the roads, political instability and grievous civil and international wars.

It was in this church in Dolores that Hidalgo made his call for independence from Spain 200 years ago. This speech sermon is now referred to as El Grito (the shout).

Hidaldo was executed the next year, but not before the revolution was well under way.

We visited Dolores Hidalgo in March with my sister, Nancy, and her husband, Tom Lukens. In the photo below, Nancy and I are at the statue of Hidalgo.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Falcon Lake in Manitoba: relaxing family vacation

The family of Bridget´s partner, Phillip Ens, invited us again this year to their lodge on Falcon Lake, Manitoba, about an hour east of Winnipeg.

Lovely place. We had lots of sun, warm temperatures, perfect for swimming and biking.

Christine, Bridget, Emily (Patrick´s partner), Patrick, their dog Sheva, Phillip (standing, Bridget´s partner), Alex (Phillip´s brother-in-law) and Johanna (Phillip´s sister).

The blue marker is Falcon Lake.

One day we took the boat and two kayaks to an island in the lake for a picnic, egg salad sandwiches and a couple of beers. That´s me, Phillip, Bridget and Patrick.

Bridget and Phillip went fishing one day and caught a couple dozen walleye and pike, which we feasted on over several days. Sweet corn was fantastic, as were the bison burgers, country sausage and saskatoon berry pie. Cindy and I each gained five pounds in 10 days.

Schlitz Gold beer, very tasty, had something to do with it.

We all used the kayaks at one point or another. It´s very peaceful to paddle along in the early morning, stop and listen. The loons sometimes paddled close before diving for fish. They can stay down for about a minute. Bald eagles like to occupy the highest spot on the highest trees on some of the islands in the lake.

Christine and Em

Patrick and Em bundled up on one of the few cool days. Mostly it´s warm in Manitoba in August, but you´re 400 miles north of Minneapolis. Six years ago during our visit the temperatures were in the 30s and 40s and we saw the Northern Lights.

A deer offers Phillip a carrot.

Em, Bridget and Patrick play a board game. Dominos were also a nightime diversion.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

A swing through Toltec ruins and provincial towns

We had a couple of days free and decided to swing down toward Mexico City. We made a big detour around the state of Michoacán, which has been a hotbed of drug violence, and stayed in Querétaro, which is famous for, among other things, its 275-year-old aqueduct.

On Sunday it provided the venue for sculptures of fanciful creatures.

The town of Bernal is noted for its crafts market. We went on a recent Sunday and bought our quota of lovely things.

Mexico has hundreds of charming towns, 35 of which are given the official designation of Pueblos Mágicos, and Bernal is one. We´ve been to about a fourth of these towns and all merit the designation.

While we were there, we saw a group of men marching down the street. The men were singing praise to the Virgin of Guadalupe, who is perhaps a more important figure than Jesus in Mexican religion. The priests might contest that but the people have their own way of worshiping, especially in the countryside.

In the background you can see the huge monolith known as the Peña de Bernal, which rises more than 1,000 feet above the town.

Exorbitant tolls

Incidentally, traveling by toll roads is safer but costly. For a 500-mile round trip mostly on toll roads, we paid about $75 in tolls, which works out to about $15 per 100 miles.

Americans would rebel against tolls that high. Rates on the Ohio Turnpike, for example, are about one-third as expensive.

The four imposing Toltec warriors are among the attractions at the archeological site of Tula, about 60 miles northwest of Mexico City. We hadn´t seen any statues like these before.

This site sprang up in the 8th century after the collapse of Teotihuacán, the massive cultural center to the east. It´s notable that these statues are of warriors. Historians say the warrior class replaced the priestly class as the dominant one in many Mesoamerican societies around this time. Prayer was less important than making war.

The Tula site is like a park, with lots of cactus plantings leading from the parking area up to the pyramids and ball court.

Marching like young warriors, a Scout troop takes in the sights. We saw an awards ceremony for a troop the next day on top of a pyramid.

Cindy is my tour guide. She figures out itineraries, reads the history to me in the car and takes a lot of the pictures.

Getting to these sites is complicated by the fact that signage is spotty and inconsistent. You´ll see 10 signs that say, "Don´t leave rocks on the roadway", for every one that gives you a hint about where a major historical site might be.

Back to Teotihuacán and the huge pyramids

We had visited the city of Teotihuacán almost two years ago but both wanted to go back. The massiveness of the pyramids and the sacred plazas takes your breath away. This one is the Pyramid of the Sun. The specks on top are people. We climbed to the top. That also takes your breath away. The stairs are very steep.

In their original state, the stone surfaces of the pyramids were covered with a thick plaster that was painted white and red.

Not much is known about the people who built this place. It thrived from around 2,000 years ago to its collapse in the 7th or 8th century. Historians think it might have been a combination of drought and then an uprising against the ruling priestly class that led to the city´s demise.

In the palace of Tetitla are impressive murals of priests and gods that are about 1,500 years old.

All around the sacred city are residences that are still being excavated. Depending on who is making the estimate, the city might have been home to 80,000 to 250,000 people at its peak.