Graeme Wood: Vanishing Career Paths for Foreign Correspondents

The following transcript is from Graeme Wood’s lecture on Journalism and Risk hosted by the Center for Media at Risk. He spoke on January 30 at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania.

I write about a lot of different topics, but I’m going to speak today about one that I’ve never written about, and that I’m actually not especially qualified to talk about, which is the fortunes of foreign correspondents, the careers, the career paths. What I perceive as a slight, but maybe not as doomsday as some people may think, trajectory for those careers and the possibilities for them.

Sometimes, I’m asked by younger journalists or by others about, “How do you become a journalist?  I’m afraid I don’t remember who gave this analogy, but I think it’s an apt one — You’ve ever seen one of these action films where the hero is running across a bridge, and the bridge is exploding behind him as he goes?

It does sometimes feel like that—where any advice I could give, any description of my own paths, and how I’ve done what I’ve done is describing a bridge that is being destroyed behind me and a path that couldn’t be replicated by anyone else because of things that have nothing to do with any talent that I may or may not have but just features of the world that have changed, that no longer exist or existed only for a particular moment that I was in.

What I think I’ll do is describe, nonetheless, what that exploding bridge has looked like for me. How my career has shaped out, where it started, where it’s landed me and a few thoughts on what the characteristics of those paths have been. A few thoughts too on what that means for people who are looking to go into the same line of work.

I should say first that I am—although we’re partially talking about media at risk—I’ve been very lucky. At only one stage in my career have I been writing for a publication that was systematically at risk, that was in constant fear of closure and where, at any given moment, it was possible that journalists would be targeted physically for their work. That was actually the first place I ever worked as a journalist.

That was the Cambodia Daily, where I arrived in 1999, worked for less than a year as a reporter who was on a political desk but really just writing about anything that could fill the paper. It was a small English- and Khmer-language publication in Phnom Penh, run in a money-losing but aspiring-to-be-profitable kind of way by a former Newsweek correspondent, Bernard Krisher, who sort of watched it from afar in Tokyo and was happy to have it continue to contribute to the civic life of Cambodia even if it cost him ten grand or so a month.

This, I say, was the only place where systematically it felt like I was being threatened. The publication was being threatened. At the time, the way that we dealt with this—there was no acute threat during the period when I was there, but it was known that if, for example, our printer was going to be threatened; if someone was going to say, “If you print this issue of the paper we’ll firebomb your print shop.” The main defense we had was the plan to print elsewhere. There was a reason that this newspaper was on 8½ × 11 or A4 sheets rather than tabloid or broadsheet, more traditional format, was because any printer, any Xerox machine hidden in any basement in Phnom Penh could be used to print it if the main line of defense failed.

I did that briefly, went back to college. Then after that, found myself in much the same position that anyone who was looking to break into this industry might find himself, which is not really knowing at all what the next step is. There are so few jobs doing exactly what I wanted to do, that is report and especially report abroad, and most of them seemed not to be even advertised.

I commenced a long period of just wandering. Just looking for stories anywhere I could find them. I was given advice early on by someone who is now a colleague of mine at The Atlantic, who said, “What you want to do is go where other journalists are not going. If there’s a story that’s bringing people all to the same place, then go to some other place where no one else is.” He didn’t mention too that the places where no one else is are also the places where no paychecks are, and there’s no appetite for those stories on the part of editors.

On the other hand, it was actually pretty good advice. I tried to find any spot that I’d never read a story on. Never seen a dateline from this part of Iran. Never seen anyone comment on what was happening in this part of Afghanistan. I went to them, and over and over and over I found fascinating things. Over and over and over again, I failed to interest any editor in any story that I could offer.

There were stories that, to me, I couldn’t imagine someone not being interested in—what it would be like to do a ride along with Iranian Shia pilgrims going to Karbala after the fall of the Saddam regime. I couldn’t even get a “no” on this kind of story. I couldn’t get an editor who would write back and say, “We have no interest. There’s no market for this story.”

I just kept on doing it and doing odd jobs along the way. Doing the kind of analysis that nobody was reading for publications like Jane’s out of London, which mercifully signed me on the basis of language skills alone, just to write analysis of what was happening in Iraq, Kurdistan, but it’s a kind of wonderful time.

There’s a line, I think it’s in Balzac, where he says that, “If you’re young enough, the characteristic of a student or a young person is that you can afford only luxuries.” That very much felt like what my life was. That you can make a bit of money, and you can enjoy yourself on it pretty well. If you’re lucky after enough time, you’ve discovered that you’ve built something that is building toward a career. Maybe never actually getting there.

After a while, I was spending a lot of time around Iraq and then in Iraq, and still finding it more or less impossible to make anything but this kind of paltry living as a freelance journalist. That also brought me to a point, in 2004, when it was also becoming, in addition to being fiscally preposterous to do this, physically insecure. It was dangerous to be traveling around, hitchhiking around Iraq and looking for stories, and hoping that it paid off eventually with a job that would include things like kidnapping insurance, say.

I took a job with DHL, delivering things. I happened to run into someone who was working for DHL, and DHL said, “Yeah, we’ll allow you to use our airplanes to get around Iraq if you want to see different things. We’ll allow you to fly off and write stories wherever you want. Just make sure our packages arrive where they’re supposed to go when they get sent to Iraq.”

I did this for two years, freelancing pretty aggressively all that time. During the time that I wasn’t delivering packages, there was a very generous vacation policy where, I think it was about four and a half weeks on, two weeks off, with a plane ticket paid. For a freelancer, this is a pretty darn good deal. It would allow you to just say, “Yeah, I’m going to spend those two and one half weeks in Paraguay. I’m going to go to one of those places where I’ve never seen a dateline from, and I’m going to try to find out what the stories are,” and I could do that over and over and over again, in different parts of the world, and write those stories.

That was my life until from 2004 to 2006 and through really dumb luck, my byline being observed by friends of friends of friends who happened to have the ear of people who could hire, and The Atlantic moving from Boston where it had been for almost 150 years to Washington, D.C. Many of its staff not wanting to migrate with it meant that there was a gaping hole in the masthead of The Atlantic and a need to hire up.

There were a lot of people brought on at that point, but someone noticed, much to my benefit, that they were all being hired at the highest level. They were top-of-the-masthead correspondents whose names would be familiar to most people in this room, but it probably would be a good investment to hire at least someone at the lowest rung of the totem pole, just in case the top ever needed to be filled by someone on the inside. I’ve been there, to one degree or another, either on staff in the office or with a close freelancer arrangement. That’s been my life.

Now, what are the characteristics of this path? I invite anybody to — At this point if you’ve got any questions, if you want to interrupt, please do. This is the interactive portion — But I would say first of all, it was, as I say, impossible to duplicate. This is a weird path. It’s not the one that anyone would have described to me, or that I would have imagined ex ante. It’s how someone finds a way in long-form narrative journalism.

In fact, it wasn’t the craziest idea that you would go looking for stories and then eventually someday be able to write them, but it did seem like a preposterously arranged way to make one’s way in this world. That said, on arrival I asked others, “How did you get here? I know how I got here, but how about you?” There were some people who were lucky enough to get hired out of college. Didn’t have much to do. It’s a pretty small book to fill, so they didn’t have much to write, but they had just been through the intern class, hired on.

There were others, and I couldn’t help but notice that I was not the only one who had had a somewhat bizarre path to get there. It seemed like serendipity was actually one of the better ways to get on the staff of the magazine. There were people like William Langewiesche, now Vanity Fair, but he had been until a couple of months before I arrived one of the name brand correspondents of The Atlantic. He, ironically enough, had come to The Atlantic by sending in a freelance submission. The freelance submission I believe was read in total he sent on spec with a cover letter that said, “Here are four pieces about Algeria. Sincerely, William Langewiesche.” He was hired onto the staff of The Atlantic after, like me, working in the logistics industry as a cargo pilot in Algeria.

It seemed that the normal paths, at that point anyway, were leading toward certain kinds of staff jobs, but the ones that I was actually aspiring to do were, again, the product of really serendipitous paths. They were serendipitous experiences that seemed improbably to be useful in the production of the kind of stories that The Atlantic was publishing and that I wanted to write.

Other aspects of this, though, luck and serendipity—I could just go down the list of the different stories whose seed was planted by weird circumstance. When I was in Iraq during those long periods, those four and a half week periods when I was working for DHL, at night, no one went anywhere. It was a very dangerous time to be out. I just had a lot of time to read.

Almost every time I flew out of Iraq, I would fly to Istanbul and there was a copy shop. I was just there about four weeks ago, still there, where a few Turks who spoke not a word of English would take a wheelbarrow full of English books from Bosphorus University, bring it to the copy shop, and then photocopy them, bind them and sell them. Through that, I would buy. . .  They were extremely cheap, so I would come back to Iraq every time. One time they happened to have pulled back to their copy shop a wheelbarrow full of books on Islamic law. Very esoteric interest at the time, but now after the last couple of years of writing mostly about ISIS, something that has been absolutely essential to the direction that my writing career has taken. This is just because they happened to choose that bookshelf rather than another one the week that they were doing that act of mass piracy.

Another characteristic though of this path, which I think is perhaps more worrisome, is that it was possible for me to do really only because I had time and money. I didn’t require very much money to live, but there were certainly people who, for whom this path would have been absolutely impossible because of debt, because of situations that they were in and that I happen not to be, as someone who was able to graduate from college without any debt trailing me and without any need to do anything but make rent in a $60 a month apartment in Cairo.

This makes that serendipity a lot more difficult to benefit from. I was also really favored by the fact that I’m more able to handle myself, I suppose, in some physically dangerous situations than some others would be. I didn’t feel especially threatened in any given situation as some others might. I had also a passport, a Canadian passport, as well as an American one that would allow me to get to places like Iran that would have been almost completely forbidden for an American correspondent.

More than anything else, though, it was a path that really favored risk taking. Anyone who is unwilling to hazard at least time and perhaps some money would have a lot of trouble actually doing this. I was at physical risk repeatedly. I was willing to go places that my current self, if I could speak to that former self, would say, “Bad idea. Don’t do that.” Especially with the hindsight and the memory that we have of names like James Foley or Steven Sotloff or Christopher Allen. This is a kind of personal danger that meant that the only people who could even contemplate going on this path are people who were foolish and heedless. You’re looking at him.

Now, to finish by talking about this issue of systemic career paths, even if it were true that the path that I’ve described was one that could be replicated reliably, as you can tell, a lot of it is chance. A lot of it is serendipity. The idea that you could subject yourself to that is — It’s hardly really replication. It’s more like putting yourself into a kind of risk pool.

When I first started at The Atlantic, I asked one of those senior correspondents, “What are the dangers that journalists face? How do you know whether you’re going to be able to make it in this field?” His answer was, “Oh, you’ll do fine. The main obstacle for journalists is law school. If you can resist the blandishments of law school, then you’ll put yourself well into the top 90th percentile of people in this profession. With the pool of people you’re competing against thus reduced, you’ll be all right.”

Now, when I observe some of the younger staffers at The Atlantic and at other publications, I give them the same advice. That the most talented of them, if they could avoid being diverted to law school in particular but to other things as well, then that is probably the single most important thing in their being able to actually proceed.

Those blandishments, though, I have come to notice often are of a different type nowadays. It’s not just law school but a number of, we could call them journalism-like occupations, seem to be equally appealing and divert them from what, to begin with when they first arrive, they seemed to want to do. By this, I mean types of writing that have nothing to do with the reporting that they began with the aspiration to.

Many people who I think, if they had been in my age cohort, they would have started as a fact checker, started as a cub reporter. Then at some point, either be shown the door by a well-wishing senior editor and told, “All right, now is the time when you go off and do your own reporting.” Now, there is a whole range of different jobs that they are asked to do. Unless they are very aware of themselves, very aware of the danger of what they’re being offered that they often cannot resist.

Again, they are jobs, they’re good work. They are not, though, what they were came in to do. They are analytic, sort of columnist-in-training types of journalistic work, but are not the kind of “go to the place, see what you find, interrogate it and report back what otherwise you wouldn’t be able to see if you hadn’t been there.” That kind of thing ends up getting left by the wayside.

The other type of diversion that I’ve observed and even felt myself is I at least perceived to be a greater call toward specialization. Repeatedly, I’ve had editors say to me, “Okay, now is the time in your career when you choose the topic that you will be reporting on for the rest of your life. This is it. Are you going to go learn Korean, find out about nuclear issues and then become the DMZ guy? Are you going to become the ISIS guy, and that will be the end of reporting on other things.”

At first glance, for a lot of people, this is a path to success. It means that they have something that they can own. A topic that they can own. It means that they might get their first book out of that. They might become the thing that they are.

I find, though, that for a lot of them, they put themselves in danger of becoming what we might call a single use journalist. That is, the story is there, it is the story of the DMZ, it’s the story of nuclear issues, it’s the story of ISIS. When the next story comes up, they’re left in the dust. They’ve become the experts that in the past I think a lot of journalists would have turned to.

I don’t want to discredit the idea of specialization completely or of expertise, but what I’ve conceived of my work as doing is reporting on things for which there is no expertise. Finding stories where if I were to look for that expert that some journalists find themselves becoming, I would find absence. I would find a void of knowledge.

For a journalist to be able to have, in the cliché, the first draft of that knowledge, the first draft of it, is a good start. It is what we do. Having the ability to move from topics of systemic ignorance like that to other topics of systemic ignorance, and then leave it for the specialists, is a kind of specialization in itself — one that I think of as sort of the hallmark of many of the great works of the journalistic profession.

Lastly, just to analogize when I talk to younger people who are trying to make it in the business, I try not to tell them that the likelihood of success is any greater than it is. They’re trying to break into a profession that is, I think we all know, and I’m talking about foreign correspondence that is diminishing in its numbers. Bureaus being closed, various types of threats faced, rates going down and so forth. If that deters people, it probably should deter them. The numbers themselves (unintelligible).

I mean, how many people are foreign correspondents? Perhaps someone in the room knows the answer to that. I do not. Think of it as in the order of magnitude or the number of people who are training to go into outer space. Astronauts. This is a very, very winnowed and small group.

Now, if you were, once upon a time, to hope to go into outer space, then what are the career paths that you would have chosen for yourself? Go to the Air Force Academy. Get a PhD from MIT in astronaut stuff. These are the things that you would do. If you tried any other way to get into space, you would be a kook and probably a fool. I’m not sure that’s true anymore.

If you wanted to go into outer space today, one way would be to go to the Air Force Academy and then MIT. Another way would be to build a rocket or join a start-up that was trying to do the same thing for recreational purposes. I think of it the same way now where there was a path to doing foreign correspondence work in the past and it was probably the one that I had in mind when I graduated from college and was looking for ways to do that and that I found impossible to follow. That is, get a job with the Washington Post and then hope in time that you are sent overseas. That would be the equivalent of joining NASA. Doing that Air Force Academy path.

Now, I think that there are at least other ways that this can be done—many of them requiring being fueled by the serendipity that I described in my own path, so not impossible. In fact, in some ways, there’s just more ways in. How many of them, though, lead to ways to that endpoint? I would hate to speculate. I think most of them don’t, but there are more chances now than there were in the past. With that, I’d love to hear your interest, your questions, anything that you want to talk about.