Interviewer: Esther Kezia Thorpe
Esther: What have you been working on at The Atlantic since they announced their global expansion and brought you on board a few years ago?
Prashant: There are a lot of things I had to learn to begin with. I think one of the things about The Atlantic is, I think moving from one us organisation to another is always a bit of a culture shock, because different organisations have different values, they have different goals, and also, they have different styles.
So I think moving from one newspaper to the next may not be as difficult, but to move from an organisation like the New York Times, which is a daily newspaper, or a newswire where I worked previously to – of course, the New York Times is more than a daily newspaper now – to a place like The Atlantic, it is a bit of a jolt.
So I think that took me some time to adjust to the cadence, but also the mindset of what is an Atlantic story. So I spent a lot of time early on thinking about, what is our focus: what should we be covering? How should we be writing about it? Thinking very deliberately about, what is an Atlantic story, so what do we do that, for example, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, the Financial Times, the Washington Post, that others don’t do. So I spent a lot of time doing that.
And then as we got a little more comfortable – this is still a learning process, I’ve only been at the Atlantic for about 18 months – I think then we had to move on to hiring and thinking about expanding our freelance network, and what is it we’re looking for from freelancers.
And then concurrently all through that we’re trying to get a sense of who our readers are, what do they want from us? And I don’t think any of these is like step one, then step two, then step three, I think you kind of try to do all of them to some degree concurrently, which may slow down a lot of it at once, but that is in any case what we decided to do.
So that’s been the general kind of thing that I’ve been doing at least.
What does that Atlantic story look like on a global stage? How do you decide what to focus the global coverage on because I mean, global is…massive!
Yeah, that’s exactly right. I think again, I reflexively, of course, as everyone does, I contrast it with my own experience. So if I compare to being at a newswire and then being at the Times, there is something, I mean, obligation is the wrong word, but people go to those news organisations for something very different than what they come to The Atlantic for. They’re coming to catch up, they’re coming to prepare.
I think a lot of readers of the New York Times will read it in the morning, because they’re trying to get ready for the day, and they’re trying to find out what happened overnight, all of these kinds of things. Whereas for The Atlantic, so one, we don’t have to cover the entire world. People don’t come to us to find out what happened in the past 24 hours around the world. That is kind of freeing but also kind of terrifying, and then that means that we have to have, as you kind of alluded to, a defined sense of what we do.
So we have these thematic and geographic priorities. But then in terms of what an Atlantic story is as well, we talk very deliberately about what is it we’re trying to accomplish with an Atlantic story. So if it’s just a summation of what’s happened, that’s not providing value or depth to our readers, and our research with our readers suggests that what they want is to be challenged, to get more depth, more nuance, they don’t want their existing biases confirmed.
So we talk a lot about are we are we enriching a debate? Are we making a bold argument? Are we making a provocative argument, and not unnecessarily provocative and polemical, but trying to really further the cause of something in terms of furthering understanding. Are we making a reader delighted with curiosity? Are we picking up on something that is unusual about human behaviour? I mean, these are the kinds of things we’re often trying to grapple with in our conversations.
And then in terms of topics for the international section, in keeping The Atlantic is a values driven, mission driven organisation in terms of how we think about our journalism, and so we do think very deeply about what is the future of liberal democracy, and then adjacent to that, how are populism, nationalism, authoritarianism developing?
And then in terms of geographic priorities, Britain is obviously interesting to us and important to us, one because Brexit was such an epochal event before coronavirus! But then beyond that, we think China and China’s impact on the world is just, I mean, it’s important is an understatement.
Are there still geographies you want to explore and you want to go out to over the next few years?
We think about that, but I think the pandemic, the business impacts of the pandemic are still being…we’re so early in it, that understanding that means that I think all of that is certainly a conversation for another day.
So at the moment, what we’re trying to do is sort of keep what we’re doing working and making sure we’re finding one, our understanding of those stories that I described in terms of enriching arguments and this kind of thing, and seeing how we can cover the pandemic, internationally by getting into this idea – still most of our readers are in the United States, and so what can we learn from countries around the world?
So as an example, we did a story about a month or two ago, where one of our writers in Hong Kong worked with a writer who specialises in family and education topics, and they did kind of a roadmap for what happens to schooling and taking care of kids at the two week mark of a lockdown, at the two month mark of a lockdown, and then so on. And what can we learn, because Hong Kong was much earlier in the pandemic than the United States was.
So at the moment at least, we’re trying to sort of leverage the international reach we have to best understand this.
I definitely want to get on to your Coronavirus coverage in a bit. But I’ve got one question from Peter, which I can’t take credit for. Do you see your job as bringing the Atlantic to the rest of the world? Or are you more focused on bringing the rest of the world to the Atlantic?
Yes! I don’t see that as an either or. I think both to some degree build on the other in the sense that one, of course, you know, we want to reach new audiences.
I think one of the things that’s fascinating about the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times is their subscriber numbers in total are bigger than they ever have been right? Because they’ve been able to reach audiences that just didn’t have access to these fantastic new sources.
And I think that’s not dissimilar from the opportunity that we have, which is, I think when people come into contact with The Atlantic, they really do see a quality of writing, a quality of journalism that is, over and above typically what they see at their home news organisations and elsewhere. And so I think there is value of bringing The Atlantic to the world.
But then there is also an enriching kind of view…and it’s not that The Atlantic has never covered international journalism, right. I mean, the Atlantic has a long tradition of international journalism, it’s just we’ve never done it at this kind of cadence, and with this deliberate kind of staffing people overseas, and keeping people abroad. And so there is a value to that, because Atlantic readers, I think, do want to understand how the world around them works.
And it’s almost cliche to say now, and the pandemic is such a great example of this – great example is perhaps the wrong term – but how interconnected everything is. And so to sort of concentrate on just one country in terms of how news events and trends and developments play out is probably unnecessarily constraining. There needs to be a better understanding of how things work in China, how developments are happening in India, so we can help our readers and ourselves connect dots and make more interesting connections.
And part of making that global coverage really good is about – a lot of people have cited – you’ve got to have diverse viewpoints, you’ve got to have people that you wouldn’t necessarily normally reach. So what does that look like in practice at The Atlantic; have you got a lot of diverse freelancers, what does your newsroom look like?
Yeah, that’s such an important question. So one, I think, intrinsically at The Atlantic, we’ve never been a place that has a house style or a house view. It’s a very kind of debate-driven organisation. We want arguments from different points of view, from different parts of the world. And that’s something that we’ve always had. So there is a sort of respect and desire for diversity of viewpoints at The Atlantic.
In terms of diversity of staffing and freelancers, that is something that we do monitor and we do constantly work to improve. There’s a, I think it was a Nieman Lab story from a few months ago that talked about the promotion of our executive editor, Adrienne LaFrance, who’s the first female executive editor at The Atlantic. And of course, we should celebrate that Adrienne is amazing at her job.
But also, I think there’s a lot of concentration from Adrienne and from everyone in the Atlantic to really think deliberately about, are we diverse at all of our levels? And not just in one facet, for example, not just to have gender diversity, but also to have ethnic diversity.
And so one of the things we did last year in my section was, we tracked all of our bylines and all of our sources. We haven’t been able to do that this year, because the pandemic has kind of moved things around in terms of what we’ve been able to do in terms of free admin time, available admin time. And that is a shortcoming of my own, I’ll admit, but I think what we found was, we were getting better at getting female bylines, but we were still over indexing on male sources.
And especially when you sort of really think about, there was one example of a story we did about violence against women around the world. And in that situation, yeah the vast majority of sources were women.
But it’s also being kind of thoughtful and considered about the fact that it’s not just having diversity of sources, but making sure that those sources are authoritative. So you’re not just citing minorities or women in positions of vulnerability, but you’re citing credible experts to, you know, really diversify, who you’re relying on for expertise.
And that’s not just important for us in terms of providing diversity, but is also important from a reporting point of view in that, you want to have a diverse list of sources. If you’re just talking to the same people over and over again, what are you gaining from that process?
Your role now is much more of an editor than a reporter. Do you miss the reporting side of it?
Hugely. I really enjoyed reporting. I’ve wanted to be a journalist my entire life. I wanted to be a reporter since I was like 12 years old. And so I think reporting is just a fantastic job. And I do miss it.
But at the same time, I think being an editor, it helps having been a reporter, I would like to think of course, I would say that! And then I also think these, these jobs kind of build on each other. So I like to think I’m a better editor for having been a reporter, particularly in stressful situations, and I often think that some of my best editors were the kind of people when things were really kicking off.
I lived in Baghdad for five years, and sometimes it was really gratifying when I used to call our headquarters and things were getting really tense and the other end of the phone was just somebody who was incredibly calm, and who was saying, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll figure this out, and we’re here to help.’
And I think I do miss it, but at the same time I valued the experience and I think it’s made me a better editor as a result.
Okay, so on to coronavirus. At the time we’re recording, the coronavirus crisis broke seven weeks ago now? I don’t know, I don’t know what day it is now. What do those conversations look like when you’re looking at global…not necessarily global coverage, but that global angle on coronavirus? Because governments are issuing all sorts of different advice, nobody really knows what’s going on. What does the approach look like internally when you’re looking to do these stories?
Yeah, so I think you touched on a couple of interesting points there. One is that, I think there’s so many iterative developments that are happening right and it is overwhelming to a lot of people. And I think other news organisations have covered those developments incredibly well, and it’s important that they do.
But that is not really our have space to say, x thing has happened in the last few hours. As an example that we have staff writers in Britain, the daily press conference in Britain is is interesting and important, but we tend not to cover it as a news event. We tend to sort of mine it for ideas, for trends, for interesting developments that we want to kind of keep thinking about.
So what we often do is – and the thing you sort of talked about was that there is an element of like, not just writing international stories, but thinking about international themes – and I think one of the things I often think about is, my section looks at International Politics and International Affairs, but leave aside the pandemic, a story about Facebook’s data privacy practices, that’s not an American story, that’s an international global story that touches all of us. A story about Amazon and France and the restrictions against Amazon in France, that is not a French story, that is Amazon around the world. That is a labour rights story.
And so thinking more broadly about how some of these themes and topics affect us, I think has been helpful. And so one of the things we do is, we have really regular brainstorming sessions, because the Atlantic – I think I risk coming across as something of a broken record in talking about our values and how we came about, but it is really important – we do talk about this a lot. We are an ideas-driven publication. And so it is really important.
We have lots of brainstorming meetings over Zoom, and we are constantly talking about what interests us and then somebody will throw out an idea, and then somebody else will be like, you know, what, I’ve noticed that in this other way, and it becomes the germ of an idea for a story.
And so much of it is, of course, you want brilliant people who are talented writers, but also you want to kind of put them in a room together so that they can bounce off each other. And so we do that a lot.
We’re trying to constantly think of new ways and not be just beholden to the news cycle, because as I said earlier, I think it’d be very easy for us to fall back on that. But that’s not what readers want from us.
It’s easy to get sucked into that.
Exactly. And there’s so much news about the coronavirus. We’re just not the kind of news organisation, we’re not big enough. And I don’t think that’s what readers want from us.
And actually, I know the Atlantic, it’s made headlines earlier this month in Nieman Lab and things because you’ve actually had a huge surge in digital subscriptions despite lifting the paywall on that coverage. Do you think there’s a single reason for that, like are you bringing new people to the journalism, or is it a bit more complicated?
So I think it can be both of those things to some degree. So first off, I think one of the things we’ve seen and I think other news organisations have seen is, readers want a credible source of news and they’re looking for credible sources of information. And so we’re really grateful that we benefit from that and also grateful that these people are paying for us. That’s amazing.
I think there are a couple things that seem to be happening. One is, yes, I think people come to The Atlantic and they read, for example, Ed Yong on science, and they’re just blown away because he is just such a high quality writer and reporter, and somebody who synthesises such complex things, and he’s such a great communicator. But then if it was just Ed, I think a lot of those readers would just come for Ed and leave, and they wouldn’t hit the five story metred limit.
And so so much of it is having a momentum and a cadence, and then a large collection of talented writers who are bringing different things to the table so that after you read Ed Yong you see there’s a fantastic piece by Helen Lewis, or you see another piece by Amanda Mull or Kaitlyn Tiffany, and these are all amazing writers of ours who write about different topics, from technology to culture, to science to politics. And using that collection of writers to help readers build up something of a habit so that they come to us more than once, more than twice.
And then also, you know, I think lots of news organisations are doing this, we’re far from alone this, but it’s not just about the writing, it’s about bringing readers in and sort of helping them understand The Atlantic and the quality of work we do in multiple ways. So we’ve had two podcasts for a long time, Crazy/Genius and The Ticket; Crazy/Genius is about technology and its impact on society; The Ticket is about politics, mostly American politics. But then earlier this year, we had our first episodic feature podcast, which is about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Floodlines.
And then, because of the coronavirus, we spun up a new one called Social Distance. I think that has really helped us interact with readers in a lot of different ways. The New York Times again, often says it’s about The Daily, and we found this as well; introducing people to our writers beyond just the writing provides another level of connection.
Finally I think the fact that the Coronavirus has forced us to put a lot of our events online, and that has also provided us a different venue for readers to interact with us, with our readers, with our journalists.
And so all of those things in tandem, I think do help build that habit and that connection to The Atlantic. So when they do subscribe, they feel like they’re not just logging on to the Atlantic every so often. They’re interacting with us through newsletters, through podcasts, through live events, and that provides them with something more of a holistic connection.
There was something you said in a recent Reuters webinar you were part of: you said you saw The Atlantic as a second subscription for global audiences. Can you explain a little bit what you mean about that, because I thought that was really interesting.
Sure. So we need to define competition, right? When we think about who we are and where we are in the landscape. So in a very broad sense, we’re competing with everybody.
Like, if you’re reading us on your cell phone and you get a notification from Netflix, then we’re competing with Netflix in that moment to hold your attention. We’re competing with Candy Crush, we’re competing with any number of different things that are you know, as people read more and more on mobile…
You see Candy Crush as competition?!
Well, I mean, if you see what I mean, anything that provides a notification on a cell phone is competing with what you’re reading for attention. So that means that we have to be at least conscious of the fact that readers have multiple demands on their time and their attention.
And they’re perhaps not reading us in the way that they used to read The Atlantic or a newspaper, right? They’re not reading us in one fell swoop with no distractions, like the equivalent would be if you’re reading The Atlantic, and you have the TV and the radio on at the same time, which very few people I imagine used to do.
And so we have that breadth of competition, but then in the narrow sense, if we think of just journalistic organisations, we have to understand what we are providing to readers. And certainly in our research, we found that readers don’t read us to catch up on what happened last night overnight. They don’t read us to hear what just happened in the Trump press conference or the daily British press conference. They’re reading us for depth, for nuance, for context.
And so it’s not surprising to us that, for example the BBC is not a subscription, but obviously people pay through the licence fee. Or the Guardian in Britain that they read those news organisations first before they come to us.
So then we need to be honest about what it is we’re providing in that sense, that we are not going to be a provider of news in the kind of daily news sense, which then also feeds into how we should perceive ourselves, and what kind of services we provide to readers.
Talking of coronavirus coverage, you’re actually getting your running shoes on for journalists in September. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
Yeah, so one of the things I really think about a lot is, I’ve been a journalist for 15 years now – a professional journalist for 15 years – and so I’ve been very lucky to work for staffed news organisations my entire life. Staffed news organisations can be befuddling and frustrating in 100 different ways, but there are a couple of huge benefits, one of which is I get my salary at the end of every month.
And then I’ve worked in some pretty sort of sketchy places, and each of like those places where I’ve worked, I’ve had access to security resources, I’ve had access to any number of different resources that mean that I can just concentrate on the work, and I don’t need to worry as much about some of the security implications of working in a place like Baghdad.
And so, this pandemic is, we often say it’s almost cliche to say now, but it’s kind of revealed a lot of inequities in the system, and it’s revealed a lot of fragility in the system. And there’s so many freelancers who are struggling at the moment, or so many people who’ve been laid off.
So I’m running a marathon, I’m running the Brighton marathon in September for the Rory Peck trust, which supports and trains and advocates for freelance journalists around the world with emergency grants and supports for families. They’ve got a COVID hardship fund at the moment for people who need just small bits of money to make it through the month.
One of the things we do try to do at The Atlantic is, you’ll see it in all of our job adverts, we advocate a spirit of generosity. Again I risk coming across as ridiculously earnest with all this stuff, but this is actually something we do advocate internally is a spirit of generosity, of belief that we serve a greater purpose, and we have to sort of think beyond just winning subscribers and getting readers, we need to be doing something bigger for society. And so this is part of that.
So it’s my pinned tweet on Twitter, and if you go to https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/prashantruns you’ll get to my page, so any donations would be hugely appreciated, but also, even if you could just share it, if any of your readers share it, that would be also just fantastic.