Tag Archives: reporting

Dudley Althaus and the Mexico City scene

When I moved to Mexico City in 1994, the guy who knew most about the country, had covered it most completely, was Dudley Althaus. He was from Ohio. He moved to Mexico years before for the Houston Chronicle, where he did amazing work. A few years ago, he went on to work for the Wall Street Journal.

Dudley just announced that he’s leaving the Journal and newspaper work. His final story is about a priest who mediates disputes among narco clans, trying to protect communities from their wrath, in the ferocious state of Guerrero.

I arrived in Mexico fresh from a newspaper-reporting job in Seattle that did not fit me. I had gone to Mexico really to study and improve my weak Spanish. Shortly after the assassination of a Mexican presidential candidate, a job opened at an English-language magazine called Mexico Insight that had already purchased a freelance story of mine. I got the job, though it meant a massive cut in pay. I’d always wanted to be a foreign correspondent. I figured this was my chance. I was ardently single. So I happily returned to Seattle, sold all my stuff, and moved permanently to Mexico. Within a year, the magazine went under and I became a freelancer, selling stories to papers and magazines in the states.

I was lucky to spend 10 years in Mexico with an ever-morphing corps of U.S. journalists that were of the highest caliber. I was always amazed at the people who were down there, who came and went over that decade: Jose de Cordoba, Alfredo Corchado, David Luhnow, Elizabeth Malkin, Mary Beth Sheridan, James Smith, Joel Millman, Ginger Thompson, Gerry Hadden, Brendan Case, Geoff Mohan, Phil Davis, Julia Preston, Sam Dillon, Steve Fainaru, Mark Stevenson, Tim Padgett, Tim Weiner, Lynne Walker, Susan Ferriss, Ricardo Sandoval, Alan Zarembo, Anita Snow, Hayes Ferguson, Colin McMahon, and the late Phil True and Paul De la Garza – as well as my freelancing homies Leon Lazaroff, Franc Contreras and Keith Dannemiller. (Pardon if I’m missing a few.)

I believe in the creative power of scenes. I first saw it in the punk rock scene that developed in the late 1970s, when I was at UC Berkeley, where I produced punk shows. An effervescent agglomeration of the similarly intentioned. At UCB, I wrote my senior history thesis on the jazz scene that emerged in Harlem in the 1940s, where hundreds of musicians converged to compete, collaborate, improve, and produced an entirely new form of music – with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie leading the way.

Scenes – or communities of like-minded people, trained, nearing the peak of their careers, interested in the same things, highly motivated – are where creation takes place. That’s how it felt to be in Mexico City during the decade I was there. It was a great thing for a young reporter to be a part of. I consider myself lucky that it was at a time in my career when I was ready for it, prepared to benefit from the challenges the country posed.

Dudley was the dean of us all, a friendly face, with a generous attitude and great knowledge of the country. The guy who shaped a community, kept us together, organized Friday nights at the Nuevo Leon cantina in the Colonia Condesa, where you could learn a ton about Mexico. I always tried to keep in mind that whatever story I was working on, Dudley had probably already written it a time or two. He was, you could say, the Dizzy Gillespie of Mexico City.

Given U.S. newspaper budgets, it’s hard to imagine that kind of scene emerging today in any foreign country, though the need for it, if anything, is greater than ever.

I left Mexico in 2004 to work for the L.A. Times in Los Angeles – quit that in 2014, and I’m a freelancer again.

Yet I always consider my decision to take that magazine job, and that 95 percent cut in pay, to be among the best I ever made (thanks Mike Zamba and Lonnie Iliff for offering it to me). For it allowed me to spend the next nine years covering a country in complex transition with some of the best reporters our country produced – and at the top of the list was Dudley Althaus.

Photo: Keith Dannemiller (Dudley Althaus, Houston Chronicle reporter, heading upriver to PEMEX installations on the Rio San Pedro y San Pablo in the Mexican state of Tabasco.)

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Thank You!

The last few days have been tumultuous for my family and me – and filled with strong emotions.

But I wanted to say how much I appreciated all those who wrote in, via various media, with kind words, words of support and encouragement. Tens of thousands read the blogpost below. Thousands of people shared the post below on Facebook. Hundreds more tweeted it. I received many e
mails, and (now that my WordPress comments section is fixed) comments on my blog.  Many folks wrote in on the 60 Minutes website and the show’s Facebook page to object.

It means so much that you would do that. Thank you!

“People can see the truth,” said one editor and friend. I think that’s probably right.

Journalists and writers sent me notes with their own tales of how 60 Minutes and other shows had taken their stories/books/articles/reports and redone them without giving credit.

“This has been going on for years,” said one.

Maybe, but that doesn’t make it right. I hope writers/reporters will speak up when this happens in the future.

I hope my public objection, calling them out, means that a show like 60 Minutes will think twice before it appropriates the work of others without giving them credit. Television in particular seems afflicted with the weakness for taking the stories of others.

To those who would do that, I say, fine. Just give credit. It’s common decency. Show the work the real reporters did. Show respect. Don’t pretend, as 60 Minutes did so brazenly, that you’re blazing some new trail.

All that show had to do was mention my name, my work, my book, and that I did indeed help them.

That seems unlikely now, given the comments of the show’s spokesman. Let me say for the record: I spoke up not to promote my book. I spoke up because I had to defend my work. Because if I didn’t defend my work, no one else would. 60 Minutes was profiting from my work. I spoke up because this was work that 60 Minutes had not done by themselves. I had and I did it when almost no one in the media cared about this issue; early on, some questioned my judgment for even getting into the topic. Who cares about heroin addiction?

I spoke up because we’re in a new world, where if you want to do good journalism you almost have to go independent. And if independent journalists are routinely, and with impunity, scavenged by predators without the interest or energy for doing the work themselves, then we are doomed.

I spoke up because 60 Minutes, while taking what I’d taught them in phone conversations and in Dreamland, displayed no interest in advancing the story, taking it new places, teasing out new angles. None of that. Just the “Cliff Notes,” as one retired cop told me, to my book.

After 30 years in this business, three books and more articles than I can count, I’m accustomed to seeing stories that I scooped get picked up by other news outlets. I barely flinch. It’s part of the job. It’s even happened with many news outlets since Dreamland appeared. Everyone seems to be talking about the heroin epidemic in the last six months. Time Magazine, New York Times, Sports Illustrated. That’s great, and one of the reasons I wrote the book.

I called out 60 Minutes because it was such an egregious violation.

They could have gone anywhere in the country and done this story. You’d have to ask them why they didn’t. I suspect they went to the place I told them to go (on the phone and in an email) and where a major part of Dreamland was set  – Columbus, Ohio – because it was cheaper to do it that way, with the roadmap I provided them.

The night of the show, I was proud of the parents who were interviewed, several of whom I know. They spoke for millions of mothers and fathers like them across the country who have suffered this nightmare of watching their kids transformed into something like zombies under the influence of pills and now heroin. They pushed along this  awakening regarding the opiate epidemic that has been gaining strength across the country in the last six months.

But I also found myself dumbfounded, then outraged as I watched,  remembering all the work I’d put in on this topic, the time I spent away from my wife and daughter – all of which 60 Minutes just appropriated as if it belonged to them. After it was over, I apologized to my daughter for my outbursts during the show.

“You don’t have to be sorry, Daddy,” she said.

So I’m not.

But I am grateful. Thank you!

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Leaving the L.A. Times

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Today was my last official day at the Los Angeles Times after 10 years at the paper.

It was a sad thing. I’ve been a reporter for 27 years. I was very happy to have worked at what amounted to my hometown paper.

I’m very proud of the stories I produced while I was there (see below). But I decided it was time to move on, so I resigned.

Journalism, you may have heard, is changing, and I want to see if I can change with it. So I’m heading back to my freelancing roots.

I’ve got a heroin book to finish, then a podcast to start, my Tell Your True Tale workshops to teach, this blog to write — and other stuff. I hope you’ll follow it all as I wrestle with this grand experiment.

As these LAT farewell notes to colleagues have become almost a genre in themselves, I’ll add mine:

Adios Amigos –

Though I’ve been gone for many months writing a book about the (suddenly recognized) heroin epidemic in America, today is officially my last day at the paper.

It’s been great fun writing about Cambodian doughnut kings and palm-tree trimmers, Oaxacan hamburger chefs and stolen tubas, about transgender hookers and hellacious windstorms, kidnappers in Phoenix and Indian toothbrush gurus in Buena Park, about gangster matriarchs on Drew Street and the Mexican Mafia in every barrio around.

Such a great town. So many sublime stories to tell. …

 So here’s wishing you all the best.

 See you on the street, or wherever those stories happen.

 Sam

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