By Julieta Chiquillo / Photos by Nikki Villoria
Michael Quintanilla, an award-winning journalist of more than 30 years who used to cover the cops beat at the San Antonio Express-News, had to get something off his chest.
Clad in a white suit, black shirt and metallic shoes, Quintanilla leaped on top of an equipment case on stage, bent his knees and pointed to the sky as a disco ball twirled over his head, casting strobe lights on the wall.
“My name is Michael Quintanilla, and I have a confession to make,” Quintanilla said, the BeeGee’s “Stayin’ Alive” playing in the background. “I’m a disco maniac, I live in the ’70s and my two favorite gal pals? Poly and Ester.”
The crowd burst out laughing as Quintanilla, 54, reminisced about his disco nights when he was a young crime reporter at the Express-News.
But after the laughter died down, Quintanilla reminded journalists to remain in touch with their humanity despite the upheaval in the industry.
He said it’s a good thing to move forward and keep up with the technology as the industry evolves, but it’s important to remember why journalists go into that profession in the first place.
“After all, we call them human interest stories, don’t we?”
It’s important for journalists to relate to the people they write about, not just on an intellectual level, but an emotional one, Quintanilla said. Journalists should look for the details that will prompt an emotional response from readers, and the best way to do that is “hanging out,” he said.
“Observe and write with your eyes,” he said.
Quintanilla said he learned to “hang out” from his mother.
When an editor at the Express-News interviewed him fresh out of school, Quintanilla told the editor he had a car and a driver’s license, even though he didn’t, because he wanted the job.
“Without the editors knowing, my mother and I covered the police beat together,” Quintanilla said to roaring laughter.
Quintanilla’s mother would drive him to crime scenes in a baby blue Rambler. While he reported, his mom would just “hang out.”
“During the drive back to the station, she would feed me better information than I had because she snooped around,” he said.
Quintanilla, now senior features writer at the Express-News and former fashion and entertainment writer for the Los Angeles Times, said care for the human condition led him to several human interest stories that struck a chord with his audience.
For the Los Angeles Times, Quintanilla chronicled the last months of Raphael Cordero, a man who had become too sick to raise money to help his elderly friends because he was dying of AIDS.
For months, Quintanilla would go to Cordero’s home after work. Cordero’s mother flew from Puerto Rico to care for him but she didn’t know English. Quintanilla kept a diary for Cordero’s mother, which was published as a story, with her permission.
The caring and passion that comes out of those stories is what readers like about journalists, Quintanilla said.
“When you feel, you reveal,” Quintanilla said, “and that advice comes directly from my mom.”