Ben Olivo has been on a quest for journalism truth for over 25 years. He has had a lifelong connection to downtown San Antonio that started on Sept. 1, 1978, when he was born at the Nix hospital that sits along the River Walk.
Four decades later, he works daily to tell the city’s complete stories at the San Antonio Heron, a local online newsroom that serves as a training ground for aspiring journalists, including communication students at Texas A&M University-San Antonio.
“Mentoring local students should be every news organization’s priority,” Olivo said. “For the student, there’s no better teacher than the professionals in their field. For the news organization it’s about nurturing students interested in storytelling, who are born and raised in a community, so the institutional knowledge can continue.”
As a teenager, Olivo said he was intrigued by Spurs-related stories in the San Antonio Light, a daily newspaper that closed in 1993. After graduating high school in 1996, he attended San Antonio College and worked for The Ranger, the school newspaper. Through a connection, he was also hired by the San Antonio Express-News to report high school football stats on Friday nights. Working both part-time jobs, he continued to look for new opportunities to gain experience in his field. He quickly picked up work on the Express-News business desk and later the metro desk.
In the summer of 2000, Olivo received an internship covering the malaria beat at the Cambodia Daily. By accepting the three-month internship abroad, he knew the Express-News would have to fill his positions. However, the newspaper was so impressed with his work, they promised that he would be able to come back in some capacity when he was ready. Upon his return, he resumed his part-time position at the Ranger and three years later returned to the Express-News as an editorial assistant. After working this entry-level position, an opportunity opened for him to work as the weekender calendar editor. From there he began writing lifestyle stories, which secured him a full-time position. As the Express-News launched its online version MySA.com, he moved into an editor position in the Arts and Entertainment section.
Olivo was the first one to dive into multimedia at the Express-News, starting with video production and podcasts. In June 2008, he decided to launch the Downtown Blog to tell the stories he was learning about area development. He admits to not knowing how to create a blog when he took on this new role but has created a following of nearly 80,000 followers across social media platforms throughout the years.
“At the time everybody in the newsroom was experimenting,” Olivo said. “I didn’t know what I was doing, but it ended up being the most popular blog on MySA.com and I would venture to say that for a few years there, it was the most popular blog in the city.”
Olivo left the Express-News in 2016 and shifted into government communications. Six months later he was recruited by the H. E. Butt Foundation to write for a journalistic project called Folo Media to tell true stories of inequality in San Antonio neighborhoods. From 2016 to 2018, he ran a blog called the Tacoist that focused on finding the best tacos in San Antonio and explored the roots of tacos which “most of us take for granted, but know little about.”
In June 2018, he co-founded the San Antonio Heron, and made a commitment to tell complete stories of downtown San Antonio development and its impact on adjacent neighborhoods. As editor, Olivo has control of publishing comprehensive, meaningful stories for his audience. The Heron’s mantra is, “Everything we do is for the reader.” To Olivo, that means every story needs to be the appropriate length. He believes that publications that do not provide the complete story are not serving the reader.
“The reason newspapers will eventually die is because they are trying to truncate the story to fit the designated news hole,” Olivo said of most news outlets.
Olivo said he is adamant that stories should never be written in the hopes of receiving an award. He knows this is an unpopular opinion among his peers, but it is one he is unwilling to change. He always keeps a 1980s international news debacle, “Jimmy’s World,” in the back of his mind. The Washington Post story about an 8-year-old heroin addict was written by a woman named Janet Cooke who was in search of a Pulitzer Prize. The story did win the prestigious award but was quickly met with skepticism. Upon investigation, it was determined that Cooke fabricated the story. Bill Green, an ombudsman for the story wrote an article about the fiasco and concluded with 15 lessons learned. Olivo holds one of those lessons near to him.
Lesson 8: “The scramble for journalistic prizes is poisonous. The obligation is to inform readers, not to collect frameable certificates, however prestigious. Maybe The Post should consider not entering contests.”
From a reporting perspective, Olivo says getting the full story from his sources is not easy. But he works to ensure that lingering information in a story is addressed whether the reporter was able to secure an answer or not. He wants the reader to know every attempt was made to tell the full story.
The Heron also serves as a nonprofit organization, which is combining two business models into one. Like most nonprofits, monetizing its value is difficult. The Heron relies on funding from its readers and grants to stay afloat. While trying to stay true to journalism, funding has proven to be challenging for Olivo and the board.
“We don’t ever want there to be the impression that a sponsor is dictating our reporting,” said Crystal Darby, vice chair of the board for the Heron. “It is the biggest problem in journalism and it happens a lot these days.”
Over the holidays, Olivo took a hard look at the business and realized that he had been running it the wrong way all along. He admits to initially thinking that if the journalism is “kick-ass” then the rest of the business would work itself out.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Olivo said. “You have to spend time on the organization building the other departments. Then you have to spend time on the entrepreneurial aspects, which is you as a leader and a visionary.”
When creating the online newsroom, Olivo had one final goal in mind. He has always enjoyed mentoring young aspiring journalists and teaching them the correct method of complete storytelling. He wanted to carry on the tradition at the Heron so that true journalism would continue to thrive well into the future. Jose Arredondo, a past mentee from Folo Media and A&M-San Antonio communications graduate now working for Spectrum News, still remembers what an impact Olivo made on him.
“There are moments in your career where you think you’re the shit, and then there is an editor that humbles you,” said Arredondo. “Ben is a very ethical guy. He always gave us homework. He was all about having us grow. He always wanted us to know that we had a voice in the newsroom.”
Rocky Garza Jr., a current writer for the Heron, said he is grateful for the chance to work with Olivo.
“His mentoring means a lot to me,” Garza said. “He could have hired someone with more experience. I feel like I will eventually take what I learn from Ben, and one day be able to mentor someone like he did for me.”