Dawn Wotapka's Media Movers

Media Movers: CNN’s Gustavo Valdes

May 24, 2023

Posted by Dawn Wotapka

Gustavo Valdes of CNN

For years, I thought that CNN en Español was simply CNN news translated. Then I got to know Gustavo Valdes, a correspondent for CNN en Español.

The smaller-but-mighty sister network has carved out an identity as it represents and respects the varied cultures of its millions of viewers. It has bureaus in Buenos Aires, Miami and London: yes, London.

I’ve known Gustavo for more than a decade and watched him selflessly leave his family to cover breaking news and features that Spanish-speaking viewers worldwide need to know about. He — and everyone else who reports in languages besides English — doesn’t get the same attention as some better-known correspondents. But here’s to that changing and with that in mind, I talked to Gustavo about the differences in local and national news; how he landed at CNN; and why billable hours scare him more than standing in a hurricane:

Dawn Wotapka: What does your job entail?

Gustavo Valdes: I’m a correspondent for CNN en Español based in Atlanta. I cover pretty much any subject: politics, immigration or breaking news in the U.S. and Latin America are my main issues but I do features and fun stories when I can.

Dawn: How do you decide what to cover?

Gustavo: Some stories such as mass shootings or natural disasters are a given and we cover those no matter what. Others are based on the news value, connection to our audience or just interest levels. We also have to consider what might be news outside the U.S. Sometimes a story that might not resonate with the U.S. audience will be of interest in Latin America.

Dawn: Do your stories run on the main CNN channel or are they separate?

Gustavo: There is some crossover. A lot of information is shared across the CNN platforms, so you might not see me on CNN U.S. all the time but the information is there as part of the coverage. If I’m doing something outside the U.S., chances are you will see me on other CNN platforms.

Dawn: A lot of PR people read this column. How can they best work with you?

Gustavo: I get a lot of emails from PR firms. Typically if I do a story on a certain subject, I start getting emails from agencies pitching their experts on the subject. I guess they’re monitoring what I do and I don’t mind. I always tell PR folks to keep sending what they have. I will probably delete 95 percent of the pitches, but I might see something of value in some of them. By the way, the pitches don’t need to be in Spanish or about Latinos. I’ll read any pitch on any subject and often times I find an angle for our audience.

I have to admit that sometimes I get a pitch that plays up the Latino angle just to see if I bite. If it seems like someone is pandering or thinking that because there is a Latino or Latina involved I will be interested, I am more likely to delete those.

Dawn: What other issues should PRs be aware of before they reach out?

Gustavo: It used to be that I got pitches from PR professionals with little knowledge of the Latino market. Even when I called back to see ways to get the story they offered, I would find out the person had little knowledge on how to get it done. It was almost as if they were just sending one more release to bill the client but didn’t know how to make it happen. Now I’ve seen more people aware of their approach to the market; some might have worked in stations that share spaces with Univision or Telemundo affiliates so they have a better idea of what to offer. There seem to be more Latino journalists joining the world of PR.

Dawn: Why do so few news outlets have a Spanish-language operation when so many U.S. residents speak Spanish?

Gustavo: I think it’s because it’s a difficult market to serve. Many think we just translate what CNN does but that’s not the case. In addition to having reporters in each Latin American country with large bureaus in Mexico City and Argentina, freelancers can activate on short notice in Europe and Asia, and we have a team of correspondents in the U.S. generating original content. And the market is getting crowded. In addition to the two big Hispanic networks, Telemundo and Univision, there are a few smaller regional TV networks and the digital era has made it easier for new immigrants to keep up with news from their countries via social media.

CNN launched CNN en Español in 1997, and it allowed the company to establish itself as the news leader. In the U.S. we have the crossover bilingual audience that can pick its news in English or Spanish; new immigrants who watched CNN en Español in their countries and now watch CNN as they learn the language; and [viewers] south of the border where they get the best CNN has to offer in their language.

Dawn: How did you make the leap from Fox 5 to CNN?

Gustavo: I spent almost 15 years at the FOX affiliate in Atlanta behind the camera as a photojournalist/producer. I had a lot of fun and it was the best education a journalist can hope for, learning from very talented colleagues. I worked in radio, newspapers, and spent time as a reporter at Telemundo in San Antonio, Texas. At some point, I had the bug to explore stories in new places with new challenges.

The prospect of traveling to new places was also appealing so I jumped from Fox5 to CNN, where I started as an overnight assignment editor. I thought I would eventually find a spot as a producer or something like that. Instead, I went out and shot my own stories when I got a chance — and next thing you know, I was a correspondent on TV.

Dawn: What is the biggest difference between the two types of stations – national versus regional?

Gustavo: In local news, you start every day with a blank slate. You find a story or get assigned one at 9 a.m. or 3 p.m., depending on your shift, and you have to go get the elements, write it, edit it, and do a live shot that same day. It’s basically the reporter and photographer making sure you deliver on time. At the network level, there is more editorial and technical support, so you can focus on adding more details and context to the story. There is obviously more responsibility because if a story is picked up by a network, it’s because of national and/or international interest and every word you say, every picture you show, brings more impact.

Dawn: What got you interested in journalism?

Gustavo: My father, now deceased, was a newspaperman. I grew up smelling the ink and jumping on the gigantic rolls of paper. I was introduced to journalism at a young age: the idea of gaining access to people not everyone gets to talk to and the ability to go to different places and see with my own eyes the good, the bad and the ugly of our world.

Dawn: Who mentored you along the way?

Gustavo: I have been lucky enough to have met many wonderful people along the way: people who, knowingly or not, helped shape my career and my life. They range from the dean of admissions at a community college in Texas who helped me get into the journalism program, to the news director in Laredo who gave me my first chance in the business. The reporters,  photojournalists and managers at FOX 5 believed in me and allowed me to be creative and push boundaries; the managers at CNN continue to put their trust in me. Every line I write, every frame of video I shoot, every crazy idea I get for a live shot, is shaped by the care and friendship of many people with whom I’ve crossed paths.

Dawn: What advice would you offer a young person interested in broadcast journalism?

Gustavo: Make sure you can handle it. Over the years, I’ve met many young reporters who want to change the world. Most of them will start at a local station where most of the time, you’d be chasing a fire truck or an ambulance. You’ll work on weekends, holidays, cold days and hot days, making very little money and sacrificing personal relationships. But if you can survive all of that, people will notice and you’ll get to do stories that might not necessarily change the world but will resonate with the audience — and make a difference in the community. From there, you can grow.

Dawn: Many TV people go into PR or try something else, yet you’ve stayed in journalism. Why?

Gustavo: I have yet to get a call from an agency requesting my services and so far I haven’t felt the need to explore that option. I do hear from colleagues who’ve made the jump and say the money is better, and the stress is less. But I keep hearing this term “billable hours” and that frightens me more than standing in the middle of a Category 5 hurricane. The idea that I have to find ways to bill clients for my time to justify my salary just sounds stressful. I am used to working long days, being away from home for extended periods and going on with little sleep or food. But I’ve never had to worry about whether I can bill someone for it.

Dawn: What’s next for you?

Gustavo: What’s next is continuing to adapt to the new era of journalism, where a minute-long story on Instagram is just as valued as a 5-minute piece on TV. I will find ways to diversify the delivery of our news and make sure we maintain journalistic standards.

Dawn: Finally, what do you do for fun?

Gustavo: I enjoy cooking for my family. I get to eat a lot of different foods as I travel and I like to replicate them when I get home. My other hobby is the news. It sounds funny to say that, but it’s true. I’m always watching and looking for great storytelling, even on my days off.

Dawn Wotapka is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who loves to read and write. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children. She is a slow runner and an avid Peloton user. To submit tips for her Media Movers column, you can contact her at dwotapka@gmail.com. Be sure to connect with Dawn on LinkedIn

Subscribe to TBN

Receive updates about new stories in the industry daily or weekly.

Subscribe to TBN

Receive updates about new stories in the industry.