3 Questions with... Ruben Rosario of the Pioneer Press
Editor’s note: Students in ThreeSixty Journalism’s Rookie Journalist Camp in July spent time writing a Q-and-A story about guest speakers who visited camp. Check ThreeSixtyJournalism.org for more of these profiles, as well as student blogs.
Rosario, who was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and raised in New York City, is an award-winning newspaper journalist who writes columns for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Rosario previously covered police, crime and courts in New York City for 11 years as a staff writer for the New York Daily News.
When writing stories, Rosario takes them in-depth, hitting stories close to home and relating them to readers on a personal level. He writes in a way everyone can understand.
“Hopefully they made people cry at the breakfast table, or they made people vomit at the breakfast table,” Rosario said of his columns. “If I can do that in the same column, it's pretty good.”
Q: How were you assigned your beat? Did you get to pick it or was it handed to you?
Rosario: When I was at the New York Daily News, covering cops is your entry point in becoming a journalist, traditionally back then. Which I actually think is one of the toughest beats right off the bat, because most cops don’t want to talk to you. … There’s always a friction.
So you send a nice little rookie reporter out to talk to these grizzled veteran cops who already have a chip on their shoulder. But you know what? It’s good because if you get through that, if you can bring it down to people level – I always say you need to know how to write well, how to report well, how to double-check facts, but you also need as a reporter or a journalist to have really good people skills. You can walk into a room and you can be comfortable speaking to a vice president, like I did, or to a killer ... and be respectful and be humble. And hopefully they’ll open up to you, regardless of what their political ideologies are, what their attitudes are – again, you want to bring it down to a one-on-one, human level. You break the ice by talking about common ground or something, and then you just sit back, don’t ask too many questions and let that person talk.
… Anyway the cop beat is the cop beat, and that’s how you start.
Q: Have you faced any challenges being a Puerto Rican journalist?
Rosario: Yes. I have to go way back to my dinosaur years as a rookie reporter. I used to be a copy boy. Back in 1976, I got a job as a copy boy with the New York Daily News. I had a college degree, nicely framed B.A. in journalism. I was going to be a reporter right away. You have to earn your dues and put your foot in the door of the place where you want to work.
… While I was doing that kind of work, I started to do freelance stories for free for the paper. Because they were all old fogies like me at the time, they didn’t know anything about Latin music, they didn’t know anything about street gangs, and I knew. The thing is, write what you know, so I knew about street gangs and I knew about Latin music, so I wrote stories for them about that.
After I did 60 stories, they were going to hire five reporters for a new edition called the “tonight edition.” I wasn’t picked. I did 60 stories with them while I worked as a copy boy. So I wrote a letter to the editor. I said, “Do I have to change my name to Chip Barnsworth to get a freakin’ job here?” I said, "I know the name Rosario doesn’t jive with your newsroom personnel" …
The next day, he calls me into his office and says “Kid, you’ve got a job.” That’s my foot in the door, because sometimes you have to blow your own horn. You can’t wait. Nice guys finish last – I don’t like that, but sometimes it’s true. Sometimes you have to stand up and say, “This is what I want.” That’s why I got my break. Was that because I was Puerto Rican? I don’t know, but I had to work twice as hard as the others. That was the way I was wired anyway, even as a kid. I came here not knowing one word of English, only was six years old. Imagine that? A kid who doesn’t know one word of English is now writing (for a newspaper). Anything is possible.
Q: As a person who deals with crimes and seeing horrific things and writing about them, how do you detach yourself from your stories and leave them at work?
Rosario: “You have to. … Sometimes I gotta go and hoop, play racketball to go and get that out, because you have to get it out somehow. You know what I do sometimes as a columnist: after the murder and mayhem columns, I do a funny one. I do something like: “After two hundred miles, my beloved car broke down and I have to give it up and donate [it]. Ah! Oh my god, I still have that bag of Cheetos under the seat.” You have to find a way to process it.
This transcript has been edited for length and content.