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JOURNALISM IN THE AMERICAS Blog

Interview with correspondent Simon Romero: 15 years of covering Latin America for The New York Times



Simon Romero started at The New York Times in 1999 as a stringer in Brazil. More than 15 years later, he has covered almost every country in Latin America and this week his work will be honored by the Cabot Prize for outstanding reporting on the Americas.

He writes at length on topics as varied as the Brazilian tax code, the U.S.-led War on Drugs in Latin America, animal reserves in the Bolivian jungle, diplomatic relations between South American and Middle Eastern countries and the hunting of the llama-like guanaco in Chile.

“Perhaps Romero’s most compelling talent is to root out small and difficult chronicles — often in places where hardly anyone travels — to tell larger stories,” the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism said in the award announcement.

Romero and three other journalists will be presented with the Cabot Prize at Columbia University in New York City on Oct. 14.

Photo courtesy of Simon Romero

A Harvard University graduate, Romero served as The Times’ Andean bureau chief based in Caracas, Venezuela and now runs the Brazil bureau of the paper out of his home in Rio de Janeiro. From there, he covers not only Brazil, but also Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay. Prior to joining The Times, he worked in the U.S. and Brazil at various publications.

Ahead of the ceremony, the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas is speaking with each recipient of the 2015 Cabot Prize about their career and the state of journalism. We have spoken with Lucas Mendes of Brazil and New York and Bolivian Raúl Peñaranda. We spoke with Simon Romero about his path to journalism and the challenges he faces in covering and explaining the various countries under his watch.

Knight Center: When and why did you decide to become a journalist?  

Simon Romero: Working in journalism came to me a little later than many of my colleagues. I went into college, at Harvard, thinking that I would go to law school or business school, and hadn't given journalism much thought. But after studying during my junior year in Brazil at the University of São Paulo, I came away with a fascination with journalism.

This was in 1990 and 1991, a period when Brazil was going through a lot of changes upon reestablishing democracy after a long military dictatorship. There was still a lot of economic and political instability in the country, and I followed the situation closely by reading Brazilian newspapers like Folha de S. Paulo and O Estado de S. Paulo, along with the reports filed by foreign correspondents in U.S. newspapers such as The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. I gained a lot of appreciation for the crucial work that journalists do in deciphering very complex situations and explaining them in clear, accessible language to a wide variety of readers.

After living in Brazil, I ended up co-founding an alternative news weekly in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I'm from. Originally it was called NuCity; now it's called the Weekly Alibi, and it's still going strong. After that, I managed to get a lot of valuable experience working for the Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg News and AmericaEconomia (a business magazine published in Spanish and Portuguese) before starting with The New York Times in 1999 as a stringer in Brazil covering economic issues.

KC: You cover several countries for The Times. How do you keep up with the biggest political, social, economic and cultural issues for each?

SR: It's a huge challenge to cover such a big territory. Every day I try to follow the news from each country on social media and in the online editions of daily newspapers and magazines. When I'm at home in Rio de Janeiro, I read four newspapers every morning: Folha de S. Paulo, O Estado de S. Paulo, Valor Economico and O Globo. But there's really no substitute for meeting with sources from each place to learn about what's going on. Face-to-face meetings are an invaluable source of story ideas and insight into important news developments. 

Photo courtesy of Simon Romero

KC: As a foreign correspondent writing about Latin America for a global audience, what is the biggest challenge?

SR: I find that the biggest challenge is finding innovative and original ways to lure readers unfamiliar with Latin America into our coverage. While correspondents a generation or two ago were writing for an audience that was very much centered in places like New York and Washington, we're reaching for a much broader readership thanks to new technologies. This means that we have to think about readers in places as varied as Dubai, Jakarta, Hong Kong or Lagos, while still writing articles and producing multimedia that will resonate deeply with readers in the countries that we cover. For instance, we have a lot of readers inside Brazil who expect -- and demand -- cutting-edge and competitive coverage from The Times

KC: The awards committee noted your ability to write daily articles, small stories and “big picture contextual” pieces with “universal resonance”. Which do you prefer?

SR: This is a wonderful question. Each type of article is fun and challenging to write depending on the context. There's nothing like the thrill of a big political or economic story that takes the pulse of a country or of Latin America as a region. But I also find it fascinating to go deep into places that are rarely covered. In my previous posting, when I was based for five years in Caracas, I was able to write about everything from melting glaciers in Bolivia to Srnan Tongo, the lingua franca of Suriname. Now I find myself traveling a lot to the Amazon River Basin, a region which I find endlessly interesting, or places like the interior of Piaui, where I climbed rock escarpments to caves where people were living more than 9,000 years ago. It's always amazing to combine reporting, extreme travel and even a little bit of adventure to write feature stories for The Times

KC: What is the most interesting story you’ve written lately?

SR: It was an incredible challenge to write about Shigeru Nakayama, the guardian of the Airao Velho, an abandoned city in the Brazilian Amazon. I had heard about the Japanese-born Nakayama and long thought about writing a profile of him, but it was no easy task to find him. He lives a hermit-like existence in an outpost of ruins enveloped by thick vegetation located on the Rio Negro. Interviewing him was incredible as he guided me and Mauricio Lima, a photographer who works for The Times in Brazil and other countries around the world, around Airao Velho. Just getting there was a lesson in how grandiose plans often come undone -- especially if they involve trading settlements in the heart of the Amazon rain forest. 

KC: What does it mean to you to receive this award?

SR: It's an incredible honor to receive the Cabot. I grew up in rural New Mexico, often dreaming about traveling to different parts of the world. In college, I delved into the history of Latin America, cultivating a lifelong fascination with the region. After two decades of reporting from Brazil and other countries in the hemisphere, I've realized that Latin America and the United States are more similar than we imagine in many ways. I still remember reading about Latin America in stories written by previous winners of the Cabot who were from a range of different countries, not just the United States. We're walking in their footsteps, attempting to live up to their legacy. It's a great tribute to be in their ranks. 



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