Journalist in Crisis Learns the Digital Ropes

The last time I saw Rebecca Aguilar in person, it was early October of 2007. We were both at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ Noche de Triunfos awards banquet in Washington, D.C. I was presenting an award and she was receiving one — NAHJ Broadcast Journalist of the Year for her work at the Fox affiliate in Dallas, Texas.

Two weeks later, that same station suspended the Broadcast Journalist of the Year after people began talking about her story on an elderly business owner who shot and killed two alleged burglars in the space of three weeks. Aguilar tracked down the man in a parking lot after he had bought a brand-new shotgun (the police had confiscated his weapons in each shooting). The story reported that in Texas, the business owner had the right to protect his property and would not be charged. However, it happened twice within a month to the same guy. One of the things Aguilar wanted to know — in a question asked, not shouted, of the man as he was getting into his car in a public area — was if the owner meant to kill the burglars.

By the time the news clip made its obligatory appearance on YouTube, comments on longtime Dallas TV critic Ed Bark’s Web site and other Dallas-based blogs were piling up and reaching the name-calling stage. As Bark put it on his blog:

“The interview had been hotly debated in both Dallas and around the country. Some accused Aguilar of ‘ambushing’ a feeble old man; others said she had been aggressive, but not unduly so, in getting a story that rival stations also wanted on their newscasts.”

Other newsroom employees had approved the script, and they were suspended for a week; Aguilar sat at home for five months before the Fox station decided to terminate her contract.

“I did, conservatively speaking, more than 6,000 interviews in those 14 years” at the Fox station, Aguilar told me over the phone this week. “And I’m fired over one interview. And the only one fired over that story. No managers, nobody else.”Aguilar contends her firing is related to her struggle with station management to get more people of color hired as newsroom managers. She has filed a lawsuit to that effect and the trial is set to begin next year.

Going Digital

This column isn’t about the controversy over the story or her lawsuit. (Given the nature of some of the anonymous postings about Aguilar on the Dallas blogs, the fact that I’m even writing about her may set off brushfires in comment-land.) I’m more interested in what’s she’s done with her time on the beach since getting fired — the lesson it may impart to other traditional journalists who are either also out of work due to the lethal combination of the recession and technology’s impact on the news business, or fear they soon may be on the pavement.

For Aguilar, the decision to check out digital media started shortly before her suspension, when her station asked reporters to start blogging. “I said, ‘What the hell is that?’ No one explained blogging. No one said it was an electronic conversation. That’s when I realized, oh my God, I don’t even know what a blog is. But I didn’t want to show my true colors and admit that I didn’t know what a blog was.”

Then after the suspension, it was almost as if the decision to dig deeper into new media was made for her. “I said, ‘I’m not going to sit at home, I need to keep the brain going, I need to do something.'” She began researching classes in Web design, programming languages and digital video tools, and ran into the same blizzard of acronyms and tech terms now being contemplated by other out-of-work journalists: HTML, CSS, Adobe Photoshop, Final Cut, CMS, WordPress.

“I used to think a Web site was easy,” Aguilar said. “I didn’t know there was a language behind it. Here I am, the award-winning journalist, I’m supposed to know it all.”

Learning the Language

After discounting offers to attend digital media classes in New York City for US$1,000 (not including airfare and hotel), she settled on a more-affordable Introduction to Multimedia Class at a local community college. She found an instructor who inspired her. “I’ve got 28 years in the business, and someone is inspiring me.”

She began taking other classes, and suddenly found herself surrounded by 20-year-olds who weren’t intimidated by the technologies but were instead cowed by the classroom setting. “They know everything, and I didn’t even know what a junk drive was. But after the first semester, all the students were coming up to me and saying, ‘Thank you for asking questions,’ because they were shy. While I had the confidence to ask questions, because that’s what I do for a living, they didn’t. They had the knowledge, but here it is, two different generations exchanging information. I was slowing everybody down asking questions but I helped them and they helped me.”

That was last year. Now, “I know CSS, I know Photoshop, I’m at the beginning of Flash. I know how to edit on Adobe Premiere and I’m learning Final Cut. It’s all out there, all you have to do is look for it.”

I know Rebecca, having found her to be a formidable competitor during my time in the Dallas market. And I’ve spoken to her at enough NAHJ events to know what an old-school, capital-J journalist she is. To hear her rattle off tech terms and talk about her excitement for the new digital opportunities in storytelling should be considered off-the-charts encouraging for other traditional newsies who are awash in the digital tide.

Those in denial, who refuse to retrain, may be motivated by the same fears she faced — that of the unknown, and of failing. “No one’s told them how to deal with it. I think it’s about getting down to basics. If you don’t know, ask. It’s okay, don’t be embarrassed. The bottom line is this new technology is here to stay. If you’re not with it, bye-bye, you’re gone. It’s only going to make you better.”

Who Are the Real Journalists?

The silver lining in the digital transformation of journalism? “The people fighting this right now, especially in broadcast, the people who say, ‘Don’t ever ask me to do that,’ this is really going to weed them out — the people who just want to be on TV from the people who are real journalists. The real journalists, you hand them a camera, they’ll say, ‘Sure, I’ll go shoot that fire.’ The newsreaders who just want to be on TV, they’ll say no, they don’t want to ruin their outfits.”

Of course, it helps that the cameras these days are smaller and cheaper yet can still capture audio and video close to professional quality. Aguilar recently took her Sony Cybershot camera with video capabilities and, parlaying her deep Rolodex of law enforcement sources, went on an unusual prostitution sting with Dallas police. Those arrested were given the option of enrolling in an innovative rehabilitation program designed to keep them off the streets. Aguilar turned it all into a compelling digital slideshow with audio that she produced for free for, a North Texas-based hyperlocal news Web site.

Aguilar has also taken to Facebook and other social media. During the height of the Sonia Sotomayor hearings, she created a Facebook group, Wise Latinas Linked, that has grown to more than 1,200 members in less than a month. It’s become another wellspring of sources for those within the group looking for story ideas, job leads, journalism resources. But the best validation of her new direction in life may have come within the past two weeks: Aguilar has been asked to join the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Digital Media Committee.

Not bad for a woman who didn’t know what blogging was two years ago.

“Every time I learn a new digital tool, I think I can apply this, maybe one day have my own new site with journalists who have been let go from other companies,” Aguilar said. “Then there are other days when I think I would love to be on the multimedia team for a major newspaper like The New York Times or Washington Post, but work in the South because being bilingual would be a benefit. And some days, I think I would like to teach about old and new media.

“It may sound like a cliche, but it’s like being on a whole different journey,” she added. “I think, wow, this is so much fun. I don’t have a set plan, but I’ll have the tools when the plan pops in my head.”

TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.

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