Armando Durazo, senior editor at the El Paso Times in Texas, grew up in Tucson, Ariz. He was a reporter for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, The Record in Stockton, Calif., and the former Tucson Citizen. He was also an editor at the Reno (Nev.) Gazette-Journal, The Monitor in McAllen, Texas, and the Los Angeles Times before arriving in El Paso.
As a reporter for the Stockton Record he wrote a story about a teenager who claimed that a police officer forced him to confess to a killing he didn’t commit. The officer denied the allegations and sued the newspaper for libel. Eight years later, California courts ruled in favor of the newspaper, referencing the First Amendment and saying it was in the public’s interest to be informed about the dispute.
When Durazo was a reporter at the Tucson Citizen in 1985, he covered the devastating aftermath of the 8.1 magnitude earthquake in Mexico City that killed about 10,000 people. He arrived in Mexico the day after the earthquake and experienced the 7.8 magnitude aftershock. He still remembers seeing bodies piled on the outfield of a baseball field and ice thrown on them to keep them from decomposing. “It was a very sad situation to see all those deaths,” he said.
Durazo believes that journalists’ work comes down the events and the emotions humans experience.
“Journalism is about people,” he said. “It’s all about people and the tragedies that happen to them, the triumphs that happen to them, the celebrations.”
Below Durazo discusses his 40-year career, writing and the setbacks journalism faces.
Question: Why did you become a journalist?
Answer: It was an accident that I started to be journalist. I was in college and had an elective to take, and it turned out to be journalism. I asked a couple of my friends what journalism was. They said, ‘It’s about writing reports.’ I said, ‘OK, that’s good.’ Once I got in, that professor got me, fished me out and started reeling me in, and it’s been 40 years now.
What topic did you most enjoy covering?
I enjoyed police reporting and courts reporting. I covered prisons — that was pretty interesting. Police reporting is one of the best people stories you can get, from a tragic accident to a homicide. If you develop it right, it can be a front-page story.
How far along in your career were you when the Stockton Record libel suit occurred?
I was relatively young, probably five to six years in the business.
What was that experience like?
(It is) very, very scary to get sued. They want to send a chill through you as a journalist so you won’t write those stories again. But the truth has to come out. There was a genuine dispute in the Stockton community, and we decided it was better to write the story than not write it. That it’s better for society to know.
Were you confident in your reporting?
The reporting was solid both ways: from the officer’s perspective and also from the teenager’s perspective.
What did you learn from that experience?
That there are people out there who try to shut the First Amendment down. It takes place all over the place. People sue the media. It’s basically to send a chill down our spines.
As an editor, do you miss writing?
When stories come to me, I’m still writing, I’m still editing, I’m still changing leads. I have not left writing. I have won many awards for writing. The latest one was for feature writing here in Texas — first place for (an El Paso Times) story I did on the priests in Juarez (Mexico) and how they dealt with the (drug) war that took place there. How they find strength in themselves to give absolution, to bury people, sometimes having to do three or four a day, not knowing who they were burying, or who they were talking about. The priests are trying to do the right thing in helping parents bury their kids, husbands bury their wives. It was very enlightening that their faith is very strong. And they’re not afraid of the drug cartels. They’re pretty tough people.
What do you wish you had known about journalism earlier in your career?
I wish I had known that we would come to this particular spot in our business. It’s at an awful place now. People are being cut. Newspapers are cutting, cutting, cutting to the point we’re hurting our own credibility and our own authority in our communities. Publishers want to make money, money, money. Journalists want to get the information out. They compete, and fight, and normally the publisher wins. This is not just here at El Paso Times. Journalists leave and they’re not replaced. Old guys that have been in the business are let go. A young breed of journalists is coming, and they know the Internet and social media, but universities are not teaching the practical things they’re going to be covering. I joke and say young journalists don’t know the difference between an appellate court, a district court and a food court. When their stories come to me as an editor, it’s frustrating.
What kind of editor are you?
I’m tough. I expect certain things from reporters. I’m a teacher. I like to teach young reporters. I don’t care what people think of me. My contract is with the reader. If a reporter screws up, I’ll let him know. If it’s bad writing, I’ll let him know. I consider myself a writer still, and a reporter still. This is my passion.
Did you have mentors throughout your career?
Many. Editors that were hard on me, that demanded things from me. Sometimes I met those demands and sometimes I didn’t. When I didn’t, I was told. I’m a border kid, English was not my first language. I got into the business in the ’70s. There weren’t that many Latinos in the business. When I went to journalism school there were two or three of us that were Latino from the University of Arizona. After that, I went, ‘Whoa, journalism is not representing our communities very well.’ So it was part of my conviction also to get into this business and break through those barriers and be as good as I could be so that other doors could open for other kids in journalism. And they have. Luckily, (newsroom editors) thought diversity was important, and it was important for a (while). Now, with the economic downturn, it looks like diversity is taking a back seat again. That’s disappointing. Not here at the El Paso Times. El Paso Times has a lot of Latinos because we are by the border.
What has kept you in the business?
It’s still an exciting profession. Once you get hooked into telling a story, you will always be hooked on telling stories.
What’s a tip to improve one’s writing?
Reading, of course. You have to read. And you have to pick up on the nuances of good editing and good writing from the bigger papers. I teach young people that the most important thing about writing is the concept of your story. If your concept is solid and focused, then your story is going to be solid and focused. So your writing actually begins with the conception of your story.