Sustainable Journalism: Russell Contreras, Associated Press
By The Garrity Group
Special Edition of the Perception Podcast focusing on the New Mexico First Forum: Sustainable Journalism: Preserving the Fourth Estate
Meet our Panelists, Leaders in New Mexico Journalism
Russell Contreras is a reporter with the Associated Press in Albuquerque. Previous work included the Boston Globe and Albuquerque Journal. Specialties include multi-media storytelling and enterprise writing.
Listen to these podcasts to get a behind the scenes insights on the upcoming New Mexico First program, Sustainable Journalism: Preserving the Fourth Estate! Tom Garrity, President and CEO of the Garrity Group talks with our First Forum panelists, New Mexico journalists Gene Grant, Russell Contreras, Jessica Onsurez and Michelle Donaldson. Tom serves as a member of the New Mexico First Board of Directors and is chair of the upcoming First Forum Lecture Series—we thank him for contributing his time and talent. The interviews are a part of Tom’s Perception Podcast through his firm.
Tom Garrity, The Garrity Group [00:00:05] Sustainable journalism and preserving the Fourth Estate, it’s a special edition of the Perception podcast, this time featuring Russell Contreras with the Associated Press.
Russell Contreras, Associated Press [00:00:17] This is Tom Garrity and the Perception podcast. These episodes are focusing on the New Mexico First Forum’s sustainable journalism, preserving the fourth estate. It’s all in advance of the June 6th, five 30 p.m event at the University of New Mexico. Tickets, by the way, can be purchased through an first dot com. I’m speaking with each of the different panelists to get their insights on the topic today. I had the chance to speak with Russell Contreras of the Associated Press. And good afternoon, Russell. As we’re talking out here on the terrace of the or the veranda of the Garity Group.
Tom Garrity, The Garrity Group [00:00:50] So we might have some construction noises behind us. But welcome. Thank you. Thanks for having me. Appreciate it. Now, while you and I have known each other for at least a decade, they don’t have the might necessarily perspective. So if you could just provide a little bit of background about how it is that you got to your position at the Associated Press?
Russell Contreras, Associated Press [00:01:09] Well, I started off as a study in education and in college I was studying history and English of wanting to to pursue a career in bilingual education. But I was told early on that I needed to know Spanish. So that kind of threw a wrench in that dream. But I was studying Spanish and studying education in history. And I started writing for my school newspaper with the University of Houston and the Daily Cougar, and I got hooked. And that developed over time. After I graduated, I was working as a writing teacher, but I ended up freelancing for the Houston Press, which was then our alternative newsweekly in Houston, and then later Atlanta landing a job at a daily newspaper north of Houston. Overtime, I just kept writing home, honing my craft, eventually moving to New York and going to grad school at Columbia, where I received an MFA in creative writing. And then I decided to apply for the AP internship, which was then in the late 90s, the premier internship. They throw you in to the fire right away. You write stories you wanted to do, interviews. You go for one minute covering a fire, the next minute interviewing the governor. In this case, I was New Jersey. So that internship and we’ll talk about this later, why those are so important and are now hard to come by because of the way the industry is structured. Set me up and I eventually came worked in the Associated Press, New York decided to take a pay cut to come to Albuquerque to work for the Albuquerque Journal covering Albuquerque public schools, which was another throw in the fire. Learn as you will at real time what journalism is. But that set me up. The stories that we wrote. I wrote there and were edited, helped me to land at the Boston Globe, where I came when Marty Baron, the legendary editor, was leading them the newspaper right after the series on the police priest abuse cases they did that came on the movie Spotlight. And then I went back to the AP and now here in Albuquerque.
Tom Garrity, The Garrity Group [00:03:20] Wow, what a fantastic backgrounder. Of course, during your time covering the Albuquerque public schools, that’s where you and I actually got a chance to get to know each other. Oh, yes. Yeah. I believe you were a superintendent at one point and became chief of staff to then we we just we talked there and you were always honest with me. So I really appreciate that. I was appreciated the coverage. So thank you. I appreciate that. So when we look at your passion for journalism and I didn’t realize until our conversation just now that about, you know, your whole time in Boston. But why is it that you’re passionate about journalism?
Russell Contreras, Associated Press [00:03:52] Well, journalism is a chance for you, for anybody, to practice what we call the blue blueprint of history.
Russell Contreras, Associated Press [00:03:58] The first draft, you’re writing things as they happen, whether it’s it’s something basic as as just tragedy or a meeting here. And you’re putting it in context for readers. And it could be in text form. It could also be in image form and not now in video form and audio form. But you’re you’re letting your viewers and consumers new news. What is going on in your community? And it’s not so much of what’s going on in Washington or what’s going on New York, but it’s what’s going on in and across the United States and places that people call flyover states. I mean, this is this is where real people live. They have real lives and they’re basically the drivers of the economies. So anytime I can get out and I’d love being out here in New Mexico and I’d love to be in Austin, Texas, and I love being out Massachusetts, you were covering various communities that can get overlooked, that most folks, when they’re consuming national news, may not take in consideration what’s gone on, say, Framingham, Massachusetts, and maybe overlooking things that were has to have historic connections.
Russell Contreras, Associated Press [00:05:03] Massachusetts, for example, one of things I covered there was the anniversary of the civil war was coming and a lot of celebrations of the American South. But there were nothing in the American North who happened to win the. You have won the civil war, so in writing you’re covering meetings, it would take a look, a walk outside.
Russell Contreras, Associated Press [00:05:21] So what is a statue doing here? What does it represent? It’s to the union soldiers. Why is it in in such a dilapidated state? You start asking those questions and you start looking at stories. And then I think those are the pieces that people appreciate because it it tells not only about our past, but also says something about our present.
Tom Garrity, The Garrity Group [00:05:39] The topic for the New Mexico first forum is a conversation about the free press and how and or why is that a relevant topic today?
Russell Contreras, Associated Press [00:05:50] It is. It’s probably very it’s highlighted. And when the most important topics that we have in the country going on today because of our polarization of politics, but also because the way the news media has contracted, we’re seeing layoffs across the country at news organizations, mainly newspapers, especially local and regional newspapers. They’ve laid off staff, not just reporters, but copy editors and editors and photographers and people who lay out newspapers, but radio stations, who’s well and television stations. They’ve cut back not just nonstop and in salaries.
Russell Contreras, Associated Press [00:06:29] So when one wants to find out to make it educated and intelligent decisions on what to support, on who to support, when you have this information, you’re walking into a voting booth, you’re walking into making decisions about your whether to purchase a home.
Russell Contreras, Associated Press [00:06:48] You’re walking into a situation where to move and where to put your kid’s school with with blinders on. You have you do not have all the information before you to make these type of decisions. So I always really, too, and we’ve all gone in the voter booth and you go to the lower elected official races or the races and you’ve got to vote on a judge and you have no idea. Think of that. You know, as you’re making a decision, you have no idea who the Congress people are, the city councilors are, because we don’t have the tools anymore to educate you as news consumers, as citizens. So it is vastly important, especially now that a free press is thriving, that it’s healthy and that it continues to sustain us as it has since the American Revolution. I mean, the press was essential and getting information out for the colonies, Holocaust response to the British, it was essential and getting abolitionists and other folks moderates to respond to what things are going on in the Civil War. And it was essential to understand why we’re entering war while two and the horrors of the Holocaust or with other free press. You don’t have an educated populace. And when one attacks, whether it’s an elected official or a celebrity, a tax free press calling it fake news or something that you can do without. I think that’s a dangerous precedent for us because democracy functions by information who have to have information to make educated decisions. And if we don’t have information, then one cannot connect. Democracy cannot sustain itself.
Tom Garrity, The Garrity Group [00:08:24] Good stuff. I mean, I can tell that, you know, one of the things that the listeners don’t have the opportunity to see is just your passion behind this and how much of a very important topic that it is to you. And I imagine that your colleagues also feel the same way or they wouldn’t be in the particular industry.
Russell Contreras, Associated Press [00:08:42] Yeah, we don’t get into this industry to make things at all and become rich. This is something that we do because the passion, just like a teacher, jumps in for and to become an educator, an officer goes into law enforcement. It’s something that still at our heart and for journalism, it is it’s a privilege for us to be in there, to write stories and ask questions and to gain the trust of the public. And when I ask someone to talk, talk to me and ask their name and give me their story. It doesn’t matter if it’s it’s about an accident that happened or an issue of the day. They’re trusting, trustme, that I’m going to be accurate, that I’m going to spell their name correctly, that I want to quote them accurately, and that I’m going to put things in context that is fair and accurate. And so there’s a level of trust that I carry and all of us carry when we walk into those situations without a roads and there’s no trust. And I approach someone if no one wants to talk to you because they don’t believe you and you don’t have the credibility, then then, of course, then, you know, our job is is has really faltered and then no longer able to do my job. But also news consumers and audiences aren’t able to get information. And then that’s where we have the problem. And I think it’s an honor to be in this field. And for many of us that they do practices, we realize that.
Tom Garrity, The Garrity Group [00:09:52] And we we hold a sacred Bloomberg has an article and we’re going to include the article in the show notes a link to it, just talking about the future of the news industry specific to the article. They’re talking about the nonprofit NEWSROOM. Just in generalization. Do you see. What what are your thoughts when you hear about a nonprofit newsroom?
Russell Contreras, Associated Press [00:10:16] Well, to be fair, I mean, the Associated Press is probably the world’s largest nonprofit news organization. So we’ve been that way since the Mexican war of U.S. Mexican War. So, of course, I work for one. But I do see and we were a news cooperative for many years working with newspapers and our and our broadcast members. But I do see it has been the last 10 years, the the growth of nonprofit news. And I think it feels a nation in it. It actually is a response to the economy and how news organizations are having to navigate this changing field because of the Internet and because of layoffs. So what do you think? I think of nonprofit news. I think a Texas Tribune, which does a tremendous job. I think ProPublica did do a lot of investigative work. I’m thinking of even our NPR stations, not our public radio stations. They’re nonprofit and they they function on listeners like you. So it’s not a new thing. But I think because there are so many news halls, there are many entrepreneurs and there are many advocates saying, well, let’s take a look at this model for many for many years, there was a newspaper out in Florida that this and I think it said it’s a good response, but it’s a challenge response because we don’t know fully how long this could sustain. You’ve got to constantly be fundraising. You have to get subscribers are partners. It depends on on how one Crossett and you have to rely on fout foundation money to keep this going. It hasn’t reached been able to reach the same levels as we’re in the 90s were matching the number of journalists that are out there at various newsletters or associations and outlets. But it’s it feels as if I see some of the strongest journalism coming out of these guard. The Guardian is another example that asked people to take part in this to be a partner on this. So I think it’s something that I’m excited to see where this is going the next five years.
Tom Garrity, The Garrity Group [00:12:10] Let’s talk about briefly about misperceptions of the media. I’m sure you had touched a little bit a couple of questions ago about the topic of fake news, but what would be some misperceptions that you’d want to be able to address right now?
Russell Contreras, Associated Press [00:12:25] Well, I would say when when I hear criticisms about the media or the news media, what people are usually are trying to articulate is you’re upset at cable news. They’re upset as the opinion news channels and I call them, because these stations make these these outlets may give you a set of news, but then they turn around for a show and have a panel where these folks are across political fractions, debate the news and go back and forth. And so that’s a form of entertainment. And it’s cheaper because when I was in college, these news organizations on cable used to have dispatch after dispatch out of dispatch stories. And that’s very expensive and it requires a lot of journalism, requires a lot of time. Now, the Marlos, you may get one or two stories. You get a quick interview with a senator, and then you go to a panel and you basically have people yell at each other. And where you stand on the political spectrum, you’ll respond accordingly. And so therefore, when someone gets mad at. One outlet, whether it’s a liberal one or conservative one. I walk in to a Trump rally and someone will assume that that is part of my model.
Russell Contreras, Associated Press [00:13:33] I’m not I’m there as a reporter gathered on both sides telling you what happened. Try my best to be a do it accurately. With no agenda other than the truth. And so I think because there are so many diverse media outlets with different goals and different business models.
Russell Contreras, Associated Press [00:13:51] Everybody everybody assumes that we have this. Well, we’re on the same platform. We’re going the same way. And that’s not necessarily true. So when I’ve been a political rallies and someone’s been upset about something that we wrote about their candidate or are not just we, but the media, we all get lumped in. And I think that’s a missed misconception, especially because, like I said, like at the Associated Press, we have a long history of being unbiased. I’ve been trying to be as accurate as we can. And if we do make mistakes, we have very strict rules on our accuracy. If I misspell Tom Garrity, for example, with one R and you say you misspelled my name. Don’t worry about no big deal. No, it is a big deal. I have to issue a correction if it’s the day after and saying in this news story, we reported Tom Garrity saying he loved the hot weather. We misspelled Gary, even though that may seem significant. We have to correct it because I may pick that name up later in the archives and misspell it again. So those are the standards that I have to live by and many outlets do as well. A lot of newspapers, a lot of television stations live by that outlet. So if we are, we do report something false. We are accountable to ourselves and accountable to our readers and our viewers because we live on trust.
Russell Contreras, Associated Press [00:15:10] So right now, what I see are politicians. When they get upset and they try to try to push a certain agenda or if they’re getting heat for anything a particular issue and there’s no way out. It’s easy to talk to media so that you can attack the messenger and then try to change the narrative. This is not a new concept. Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew did that when they were in office. They tried to Nixon especially tried to change this topic from Watergate. Spiro Agnew tried to change a topic phony who is facing indictment. So this is not a new console. What I think is new is that because of social media pushing the narrative that the media is a collective out what their particular agenda is of, it is really dangerous because it attacks the the fourth estate.
Tom Garrity, The Garrity Group [00:16:00] And in a structure that is allowed to give democracy information, earlier in our conversation, you were talking about internships and that internships are evaporating. What do you go to the future of journalism and the future of providing opportunities? What is there a way to change that? As far as providing more internship opportunities? I do think so.
Russell Contreras, Associated Press [00:16:24] What is happening because of especially newspapers? They’ve faced staff cuts and cuts and they’re seeing revenue fall. They’ve cut their program. They’ve looking across the bar is working. We cut. And one, the easy service is the internship program or they have internships. And they said, well, we can’t pay. Well, when you do that, what that does invite only more privileged or wealthy students who can afford to to take some time off, to develop some skills, to get the clips and get the repetitions and the photographs so they can show for the next job. So it’s it’s it’s fundamentally flawed. But I do think many organizations are reak reconstituting their internship, looking for diversity, looking for diverse skill sets. So one not just has to be someone who can write a story, but can also take video and edit video and take photos in addition. But I also think that in the case of New Mexico, there hasn’t been as much of a push to get folks to apply to internships as it were when I was in college.
Russell Contreras, Associated Press [00:17:30] For example, the AP internship, as I mentioned, one of the most competitive one is now a global internship. If you apply, you can get assigned to San Paulo, Brazil, or I go to Washington rather than go into a bureau. When I went, I went to Trenton, New Jersey. Those were my options and it was a big class. The class is smaller, but the opportunities are greater. You can go to Mexico City, you go to London, you go to Paris. Unfortunately, the last AP intern from New Mexico or from the University of Mexico was Susan Montoya Bryant, my colleague now, and she did it in the late 90s. So since then, she and I were going through the list. There has now been a University of New Mexico internship that we know of. Now, there may have been one or two, but we don’t know. So in the span of more than 20 years, around 20 years, there’s only been one. Now we’ve had a number of New Mexico State University interns who have. Ben, part of AP is internship, this is just one example, but not many. What that does is create. It closes doors for potential New Mexico students to get into the most competitive, the most coveted spots for training. And it prevents us from these journalism opportunities. And I think there are many reasons for that.
Tom Garrity, The Garrity Group [00:18:49] Finally, the New Mexico first forum is scheduled to occur on June 6th, 530 p.m. in Albuquerque at the University of New Mexico. Tickets can be purchased through M first dot com, Russell. Why should people consider attending?
Russell Contreras, Associated Press [00:19:02] I think we can have a roundtable discussion about people in media that can be honest. It’s can be frank, but it’s also going to be illuminating. When you get folks to talk about media like this in and around New Mexico. It’s a rare opportunity. It’s a rare chance because we don’t normally do this. Usually we’re all all of us reporters or journalists in our own little media outlets, our own world. We’re trying to get the news out because we’re we have declining staff and we’re trying to use as professionals can. So we never had the chance to come together and share ideas and so wouldn’t, from what I see, maybe different things, say, when my colleague Gene Grant says at New Mexico PBS. But I think when we shared it, we actual we can come and actually hear concerns of the audience and the concerns of regular citizens. I do know one of things I’ve noticed is that my patients are smaller. Are the short stories are shorter and we can tell more. There’s a reason why declining revenue and declining ads. But what are some things that we think we’re missing? I often go in in any situation with this preconceived notion that I don’t know everything. Even if I know the topic like the back of my hand, I’m going to go and prepare.
Russell Contreras, Associated Press [00:20:16] Then we’ll learn something new. And so with this form, I may come with some preconceived notions. And what I see is wrong media. But I’m also prepared to learn like, wait a minute, I didn’t think of this. There’s something else that we’re missing collectively. And I believe that that happens. And when you get people like this every time. And I think that’s could be looming for all of us.
Tom Garrity, The Garrity Group [00:20:38] Thank you, Russell Contraries with the Associated Press. Thank you so much for your time. If our listeners want to reach out to you, what’s the best way for them to do that? Best way is on Twitter@@ Russ. That’s our USS Contrasts. CEO in t. R. E. R. A. S. One word. Outstanding. This concludes the Perception podcast. Thank you for listening. This is Tom Garrity links to learn more about the event. And our guests can be found in the show notes. Be sure to visit about preception dot com for more podcasts like this.
Published May 15, 2019
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