Columbia J-School alums Alexander Hotz and Kristofer Ríos recently published a story about Puerto Rico’s drug addicts, a hugely ignored public health crisis on the island. The team spoke to Columbia Visuals about their process: from finding the story to teaming up, and getting it published.
How did you come across this story?
ALEXANDER: When I was a fellow at The New York World, I did an investigative story on a ministry that brought drug addicts from Puerto Rico to get treatment in New York City. The local police and municipalities in Puerto Rico had paid for these men to be shipped over, and once they were here, New York taxpayers essentially subsidized their existence with welfare, housing and disability checks.
I became interested in why these guys had come here. The answer, which I heard repeatedly from addicts in New York, was that Puerto Rico was simply an awful place to be an addict.
KRISTOFER: Alex was teaching the digital media news reporting class that I was in and one day he asked me what I knew about heroin use in PR. I told him I knew a little. I lived in Puerto Rico in the 80s and 90s when there was a huge crackdown on drugs. My father was a federal agent at the time ,and was part of task force that was trying to curtail drug trafficking in Puerto Rico, so I had some of the historical perspective. The rest was a tag team effort.
What did it take to get access?
ALEXANDER: We knew we couldn’t rock up to a shooting gallery and start filming, so we asked several private NGOs on the island if they would let us follow them while they worked.
KRISTOFER: It was a combination of building trust with health officials and health workers through our reporting, and having a strong historical and cultural perspective to address the addicts with sensitivity. Alex had experience working with drug users from his reporting in the South Bronx. So he had a good handle on what questions to ask officials in Puerto Rico.
I think it also helped that I’m Puerto Rican and understood the social cues. They didn’t so much see us as outsiders, they saw us as reporters genuinely concerned with the issue, which of course we were. But having the Boriqua cred for sure helped a bit.
How long did the production of the piece take from the initial idea to publishing?
KRISTOFER: About 1 year and a half to 2 years. It started with Alex’s hunch that something was odd about Puerto Ricans from the island seeking services in New York. Then it took lots of research. We read through epidemiological studies. We read through health data. We spoke with researchers who monitored the HIV/AIDS crisis in New York during the 90s. We spoke with experts on addiction. We ran the numbers by doctors to confirm what we were reading was actually a crisis. We consulted with fellow journalists who were used to health reporting. And this was all before we decided to buy the plane ticket.
Then we saved up our money. Gathered equipment. Borrowed equipment. And went deep into our savings to plan the trip. Once the tickets were purchased, we locked in interviews and scheduled ride-alongs for 10 days. And we got on a plane and went.
ALEXANDER: It could have been turned around faster, but both Kris and I were traveling and starting new jobs, so we didn’t have much time. We filmed the video in April of 2012, but shortly thereafter Kris started a new job at Univision in Miami and I started an internship at the Guardian in New York. Being at separate organizations was useful though, because we decided to pitch as a joint publishing option. If the Guardian and Univision both published the story, we felt it would have more impact. Both of our editors were receptive so it was just a matter of time after that.
You have some very graphic images in the final cut, how difficult was it to get these?
KRISTOFER: Surprisingly, not that difficult. Most of the addicts were forthcoming. There was a understanding that only they could explain the private, daily hell that they endure. And they all said they would never want anyone to go through the same. So when we asked, they never hesitated. They want people to see their world.
Was there a debate about using the extreme closeups of the characters shooting heroin? Did this make it easier or harder to publish?
ALEXANDER: No. I really wanted this video to show what drug use was really like. I think it’s a disservice to the audience to gloss over the reality. I think if we had pitched this to a traditional broadcast station the video might have been toned down. From the beginning we wanted this to be a web video so we wouldn’t have those constraints.
How did you go about publishing?
ALEXANDER: We pitched after we had shot the story, but before we edited the footage.
Are you still in touch with your characters?
ALEXANDER: The addicts, no. But we’re still in touch with the NGO workers.
Any words of wisdom for journalism students?
ALEXANDER: I certainly have a lot, but I suppose one thing I would highly recommend is to leave New York. It’s the best city on Earth, but for a reporter it’s a tough market to break into. What’s more, most New York journalists will end up in the pack, writing the same stories or taking the same pictures as their competitors.
KRISTOFER: You really have to want this. You really need a thirst for understanding the human condition and communicating that to others. It’s beyond being a good story teller or a good reporter. It’s beyond making journalism in the interest of the public. These are all important, but at the end of a really difficult day, none of that goes very far. There are plenty of great story tellers and reporters. And the public is generally cynical of journalists.
For me, it’s simple. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I’ve tried. But I’m happiest with a notebook and camera in my hand, using them as an excuse to talk to regular people about their interesting, or unbelievable, or extraordinary lives.
So the best advice I can offer is to be sure that you love perpetual self-doubt, pages of soul-crushing edits, hours of undoing and redoing work, and an infinite list of critical commenter feedback. There is no romance in making journalism. And yet the profession requires that we’re forever in love with the world.
Alexander Hotz is based in Bangkok and is the Editorial Director at Coconuts, a startup which is a network of local city websites in South East Asia. He also teaches graphic design, video, photography and digital media management at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. Follow him @hotzington.