A Northwest Indiana Life in the Spotlight: Michael Puente

MichaelPuenteWith the many changes taking place in the way news is reported, veteran reporters with a unique signature and natural talent for reporting are beginning to wane from the scenery. But a prominent figure still doing beat reporting is Michael Puente who works for WBEZ covering the NWI Indiana area.

Puente has two journalistic lives during his career - thirteen years in printed media and eleven years in broadcast media. He worked at the Post-Tribune of Northwest Indiana and the Daily Herald in Arlington Heights, Illinois, where he covered various political stories, the northwest suburban communities, and the Hispanic community. He also co-hosted the Latin Lingo show on WJOB 1230 AM in Hammond, Indiana in 2005.

Puente, born in East Chicago, Indiana, says at the age of ten he remembers being enthralled by the story of the CTA train that derailed in Chicago in 1977 and the fall of the Cline Avenue Bridge in 1982. There were a lot of news trucks and people covering the news. Seeing this gave him an increased desire to be first to inform everybody about what was happening.

Puente’s first paid assignment was with the Southtown Economist covering park board meetings. He recalls going to the meetings “decked” out like the journalists he had seen on television because he wanted to create the same image. His next position was with the Northwest Indiana Times covering their Illinois edition for the suburban areas south of Chicago. While in College in 1992 he worked as a freelancer until he became full time with the Post-Tribune in 1995 where he covered people stories in 2004.

Puente’s first hard news story was with Post Tribune in 1992 when two South Shore trains collided in Gary. Major media from Chicago and Northwest Indiana congregated near the Gary airport. Puente says he called his editor to ask what he needed him to do and was told that there was enough coverage. His first thought was that he wanted to be involved in some way or other and decided that he was not going to miss out on the opportunity.

There was a trailer park near the accident site. The staff writers were at St. Catherine Hospital. Instead of following the crowd, he interviewed the people at the trailer court, eyewitnesses to the accident and talked to a person who helped pull people from the train. Puente’s contribution to the coverage, along with other team members garnered the Post-Tribune several awards. Puente said he could have easily given up and gone back home, but this was the hard news, the breaking story that he was interested in reporting.

Puente feels reporters should always show gumption although the landscape is different than when he first started. Today you do not have to be associated a publication to report what is going on. Anyone with a cell phone and video capabilities can report a story that will go viral on YouTube. Puente added that these are only tools, not journalism. Journalism is facilitating the reader and ultimately building your credibility, says Puente. A good journalist has vetted the story and gained the trust of the reader. Stories reported through social media are only one sided and present a biased point of view because the writer is looking for you to take their side.

Puente says he was not trained in that manner and a good journalist does not allow presentation of only one side which can lead to a story being misinterpreted. People trust credible sources and it takes old fashion reporting to tell the story, Puente added that physically and mentally he places his integrity in reporting the full story.

When covering the inmate escape from Mississippi, Puente assisted the lead reporter with jail interviews. Because of his innate ability to get detailed, information, he was able to garner information that the neither the police nor prosecutors were aware of. As a result, he was subpoenaed to testify in the case. Puente refused, stating that he was a journalist, not a witness. The subpoena was squashed.

Other memorable stories included the opportunity to cover the Pope John Paul’s visit to Toronto for Youth Day, Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama as well as coverage throughout Illinois and Indiana. There have been lots of stories, he said.

Puente has received several awards and recognitions for his political stories. He said it was his coverage of the East Chicago political stories that elevated him to a higher level. Some of the stories were criminal but bled into politics creating an effect on the overall political scene not only in East Chicago but had an impact on county and state politics that ultimately influenced elections.

Puente’s job at WBEZ bureau transcends a lot of issues. He says the broadcasts are relational, stories for the Chicago listeners with common themes, not wall to wall or day to day Northwest Indiana coverage. Puente says that a lot of the things that happen in Illinois directly impact Northwest Indiana. We are part of the Chicagoland region, NW Indiana is an engine for Chicago economically and culturally with a different feel and a connection from the rest of the state.

Puente airs live mornings and afternoon over WBEZ, an independent news agency with four bureaus. Puente became a member of the Northwest Indiana bureau because they wanted to part of Northwest Indiana community, needing someone who knew the area with access to the movers and shakers.

Puente says his job is similar to doing recognizance reporting. The story must be told to give a different perspective. There are times when the boots on the ground may be too close to a story and miss the important picture. Puente says he brings a different perspective because they (the boots on the ground) see so many things on daily bases causing them to not be able to focus on the intricacies of the story. Journalists have to be cognizant and open to allowing themselves to take in new information.

Puente explained the transition to radio is a different type of writing. You have to report the story, it has to be put together in a different way, rather than repeating the same story everyone else is telling. You want to push it more. Generally his stories are three to four minutes, written and reported to make the person feel like they are at that place.

You must go to where people are hurting, capture them at that moment and make others understand the atmosphere. Puente says he did not get into the business because he wanted to meet famous people, but new and fascinating people.

Puente says that his father, Jesus Puente, loved history. He was a big influence on Puente’s reporting, telling him “that there are two, three, four and five sides to a story, you have got to get all angles.” Other mentors are cousin, Teresa Gutierrez (retired from ABC 7), Rich James and Bill Dolan who he worked with while at the Post-Tribune.

Puente has won numerous awards, including seven first-place awards in 2011 for his stories, including Best Investigative piece, Coverage of the Environment and Coverage of Minority Issues by the Indiana Society of Professional Journalists. He currently resides in Northwest Indiana with his wife Grace and daughters, sixteen-year-old Stephanie and ten-year-old Jessica.