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Manuel Pérez, former editorial director of CNN Digital, dies at the age of 57

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“They were extraordinary gardens that he built in the last three or five years,” said Mitch Gelman, a former senior vice president and executive producer at CNN who worked with Perez for much of his career. “Everything he touched flourished in this environment.”

Perez, who died Monday at the age of 57 after a four-month battle with cancer, had the same impact on the people he worked with on CNN. He had an extraordinary ability to cultivate the talent of colleagues who flourished under his leadership in a way that was never expected.

“Working for Manuel meant waiting every day for work. It was demanding, no doubt, and Manuel had a high bar because he was an ambitious, talented and thoughtful journalist,” said Jan Winburn, a former CNN senior editor. .

“But he also understood what it was like to be human, to make mistakes, not to meet deadlines, to fall short. So while he taught me to be a better journalist, with his example I also saw what it meant to be a person. affectionate and compassionate. person “.

He took an unlikely path to journalism

Perez devoted his professional life to journalism in a distinguished career that took him from Newsday to The Washington Post and CNN.

It was far from its roots in a fishing village in northwestern Spain.

Pérez was born in 1964 in Ribeira, a coastal town in the region of Galicia. His father died before he was born. His mother, who wanted more opportunities for his only son and son, emigrated with him to the United States when Manuel was 7 years old.

They settled in Lakewood, New Jersey, where their mother found a job industrial kitchen, making blintzes and other kosher foods. Her sacrifice and work ethic were an inspiration to her son.

“He said that no matter how sick or tired he was, he never lost a day of work in his entire career,” Gelman said.

Perez graduated from a local high school and won a scholarship to New York University, where he intended to study business before a journalism class changed the course of his career. He got an internship at New York Newsday, which soon became a full-time job as a journalist covering the city.

Manuel Pérez in an official CNN profile photo.
Perez was part of it a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for coverage of a night subway derailment in Manhattan that left five passengers dead and more than 200 injured. He was one of the first journalists to arrive on the scene and sent the details of the tragedy to the newsroom.

When the New York Newsday closed in 1995, Pérez went to work as a journalist for The Washington Post, covering the suburbs of the country’s capital. He made the leap to digital news in 2001, when Gelman – a former Newsday colleague – hired him to head the Washington office for what was then known as CNN.com.

A year later, Pérez moved with his family to Atlanta to help lead CNN’s digital operations.

“It brought high standards,” Gelman said. “Manuel was the backbone of at least two or three generations of leadership that allowed CNN to be as respected for its digital journalism as it was for its television news.”

He earned respect as a leader and mentor

On CNN, he was the soft-spoken, spectacle-wearing man in the elegant high-necked sweaters who roamed the digital newsroom with a Starbucks coffee in hand. “Manny,” as he was known to many employees, always seemed to have the office door open to anyone who wanted to chat.

Newsrooms are often run by type A personalities full of grandiloquence. But Meredith Artley, senior vice president and editor-in-chief of CNN Digital Worldwide, said he never saw Perez lose his temper. It was always accessible, regardless of anyone’s job title, he said.

“It made everyone feel listened to,” Artley said. “He didn’t listen more to people who had power than to those who didn’t.”

Amanda Barnett, a former CNN producer who worked with Perez, recalls an incident when, in a hurry to break the breaking news, she and other newsroom leaders issued an alert that contained an error of fact.

Instead of scolding her, Perez calmly helped her create a new alert with the right information.

“There were no recriminations. Neither shouting, nor judging me for being wrong,” Barnett said. “We did the best we could with the information we had at the time. Then we corrected our mistakes. That’s how it should work.”

On CNN, Pérez helped oversee news coverage, editorial priorities, and relaunch of CNN’s desktop and mobile platforms.

Rachel Clarke, senior editor of CNN Digital, recalled that while Perez was sometimes silent in conversations and meetings, his words carried a disproportionate weight.

“I was amazed at how the 8th meeting sometimes had big debates and we would all jump in with thoughts and ideas and walk around everywhere,” he said. “And then, in the end, or sometimes in the middle if I wanted to move on, Manuel put it all together in one sentence or direction that was always better than everything we had been discussing.”

Manuel Pérez with --from the left-- Meredith Artley, Kate Sandhaus and Rachel Clarke in the editorial staff of CNN Digital during the relaunch of CNN.com in 2009.

People who knew him best remember his kindness and his cunning and discreet sense of humor. Perez had an easy smile and a big laugh that filled a room. He was such a crossword puzzler and such a formidable poker player that some victims dubbed him the “silent killer.”

Linda Rathke, editor-in-chief of CNN, recalls her first job interview with Pérez in 2007. She was full of adrenaline, bombarding him with ideas and questions.

“A little over half of our interview,” he said, “Manuel shifted in his chair, smiled, looked over his glasses, and asked,“ Is it okay if I ask you questions now? “”

They both laughed and Rathke got the job done.

“The nervousness I felt has faded,” Rathke said. “That’s how talking to Manuel has always been: easy, straightforward, often funny and always smart.”

As an immigrant, Pérez understood what it was like to feel like an outsider. Many former colleagues cited his role as a mentor to employees who feared they did not belong to CNN.

Valerie Streit, then a young producer, said Perez taught her to navigate office politics.

“Manny’s support lifted me and so many others who were underrepresented in the newsroom, helping me overcome the imposter syndrome and insecurities about how to claim my authority and inhabit my voice,” he said. Streit, which now works for Google.

Although many CNN employees mentioned Pérez’s journalistic intelligence, he praised him more for his human management style.

“When I talk to young aspiring journalists, I give them this advice: more important than the specific job they will do, more important than the prestige of the organization they hope to work for is the values ​​and character of the person who will be the “No,” said Winburn.

“And when I say that, I think of Manuel.”

His last days brought an outpouring of affection

Pérez left CNN in 2016. He eventually retired early to his home in rural Tiger, Georgia, with his wife, educator Gabriela Ortiz-Perez, who runs a small Montessori school near.

The two had met in 1990 at a wedding of mutual friends in Mexico – “It was instant. We fell in love,” she said – and married a year later. They had a son, Joaquín, and spent part of each summer visiting Pérez’s relatives in Spain.

Manuel Pérez with his wife Gabriela Ortiz-Pérez and his son Joaquín.

Perez’s cancer was diagnosed in August this year, but it spread quickly. This fall, as his health was declining, Gelman went to Pérez’s house to visit him. He asked Perez if his friends and classmates could write to him.

Perez, who was having difficulty speaking at the time, said yes.

Then Gelman made a joke: Was there anyone you didn’t want to hear about?

Perez smiled at him and said no.

That response reflected the kind of life he lived, Gelman said.

“He didn’t have anyone he didn’t like,” he said. “And he found something he liked in everyone he knew.”

Perez died peacefully on Monday morning at his home, surrounded by trees and gardens. Gabriela was by his side. Joaquin, now 24 and a graduate student in Miami, arrived later that day.

In the last few weeks, as the news of Perez’s illness spread, letters, letters, and emails arrived, full of gratitude and fond memories.

“History after history, hundreds of them,” Gabriela said. “The outpouring of love was overwhelming.”

He read aloud many of the tributes to Manuel, editing some of the longer ones as he became weaker and more difficult to concentrate on. But she printed out all the emails and put them together with the other messages so he could see the stacks of paper, feel them in his hands, and understand how many lives he had touched.

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