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Wednesday Q&A: Susan Glasser on heading to Politico, the state of foreign reporting, and balancing blogs and longform

The editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy talks about taking the discussion beyond “a hundred guys in gray pinstripe suits,” and the benefits of being a niche publication like Politico.

susanglasserSusan Glasser always welcomes a new challenge. As editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy, Glasser led the effort to bring the magazine into the modern era of online reporting and to use the web to revitalize the debate around international news. Now she’s moving on to Politico, where she will be editor of a new long form journalism and opinion project, including managing Politico’s new magazine. It’s a project that could be just as ambitious, as Politico tries to reorient its fast-paced news-breaking apparatus toward deeper dives and diverging viewpoints.

In our conversation, Glasser and I talked about her new role at Politico, how blogs play a role in foreign policy debates, her approach to finding new writers, and whether longform journalism ever went away. Below is an edited transcript of the discussion.

Justin Ellis: First off — Politico! What was it that made you want to take on that job now?
Susan Glasser: I should say I love Foreign Policy. This has been an incredible project and something I’ve really immersed myself in for pretty much the last five years, day and night. I really have loved the chance to reimagine a venerable brand for the digital era, and the chance to create a whole different kind of international affairs conversation online at ForeignPolicy.com, as well as rethinking how the print magazine fits into that. It’s been an amazing project — I’ve never had a job where I learn so much every single day from so many people.

The team at Politico, John Harris and Jim VandeHei, are old friends of mine, and I’ve long been an admirer from the sidelines of what they’ve done building something literally from scratch into an extremely dominant news organization here in Washington. Over the years we’ve had conversations, so when they came to me this time, there was such an exciting proposal on the table — to create something from scratch — that the part of me that likes to create things really felt like it was an ambitious and exciting proposal. Especially harnessed to this very successful, pulsing, news-driven organization they’ve created.

Ellis: That seems to be a theme with you. When you joined Foreign Policy, from what I’ve read, they posted one story a day and had one blog. What was the situation, and the challenge facing you, when you started there?
Glasser: Starting in the summer of 2008 — The Washington Post Company decided to buy Foreign Policy. That happened in the late fall of 2008. As Don [Graham] and I had talked about what we thought was the opportunity there, we both were very well aware there just wasn’t something in this space on the web — that there was a huge opportunity out there for a smart, daily, vibrant, web magazine and conversation around international affairs and the world. It just didn’t exist at the time.

This is back when people did blogs — and I know there’s been a big conversation now about whether blogs matter anymore — but back then the idea of taking someone like Tom Ricks, a guy on two different Pulitzer Prize-winning teams, a New York Times best-selling author, a longform guy, with high-impact enterprise reporting, and saying he was going to be a blogger? This was at a time when I think people, especially in the more fancy-pants rarified world of foreign policy circles, still viewed bloggers as slightly dubious graduate students in their underpants in their basement.

Our idea was: Don’t blame the medium. There’s nothing inherently bad or stupid about blogs. Why don’t you get some really brilliant bloggers on Foreign Policy? Why don’t you create the vibrant conversation and use the web in the way we knew it could be used to connect people and create a community around this, as well as a bunch of new journalism.

That was another significant change, I think, just in the mindset of this publication. The idea that it could support, for the first time in its 40 years, original reporting and breaking news and scoops. Being the convener of first order — not just offering a new kind of great insight and analysis of the news, but actually leading the conversation when it came to the making of foreign policy in the Obama era and that intersection of Washington and the world.

Ellis: In your memo about leaving the magazine, jumping back to ForeignPolicy.com’s relaunch, you called it a “guerrilla launch.” Why’d it take a guerrilla undertaking to bring the magazine up to speed?
Glasser: We bought the magazine, but we didn’t have a big budget, or plan, or technical team behind us or anything. We had very little resources. People plan news sites and relaunches for months, even years, but it seemed so urgent that we get ourselves out there and start to be seen in the way that we wanted the new ForeignPolicy.com to be.

I was there for about a month, trying to figure things out and putting a print issue out. We were sitting around, and I’m not a technical person myself at all, and I was trying to describe what I hoped for in this website and somebody said, “You know, we could just do that. We could just design a new homepage and sit it on the top of the existing site. We already have one blog on Drupal, we could build a new network of blogs, all these new blogs you’re talking about.” It was like this light went off, and I was so excited — I said, “Of course we should do that! We’ll just do it!” The key insight was they said we could design the homepage to anything we want — it’s okay.

So that’s what we did. In six weeks, we designed and built a new homepage, which is still more or less that same homepage we have now. We created the homepage, and this new, very visually driven sort of magazine-y homepage with a real sensibility to it, and we created this network of Drupal blogs.

Ellis: You mentioned before the notion of blogs being viewed as lesser than “serious journalism.” How has that changed in your time at Foreign Policy? How do you think blogs can contribute to a discussion on international news and policy?

Glasser: First of all, I’ve always been a believer in the idea that it’s about the content and the subject matter, the kind of journalism you’re producing, rather than software. Often people use blogs as a real umbrella term. To me, some blogs are very reported and there’s not much difference between a traditional news story in a newspaper. We’ve always treated our reported blogs in that way. They’re editing and handled in that way.

Then there’s opinion-y, quick takes on the news kind of blogs, which is often what people refer to. There are link blogs like Andrew Sullivan’s. So I feel like that term tends to conflate a lot of different things. It carries a lot of baggage. Adding original reporting was what I wanted to do more than adding “blogs” to the mix of Foreign Policy. Finding ways to deepen and engage readers in more of a conversation was another goal of the site.

We also found that there was a “If you build it, they will come” quality to the experiment. People didn’t know Foreign Policy was open for business on the web. One of my first weeks there, Peter Bergen, a colleague who I had gotten to know in Afghanistan, sent me a piece and said, “It’s great you’re at Foreign Policy, would you like to run this piece today?” And it was on some newsy subject. And I remember going into Blake Hounshell’s office next door to me and saying “Here’s this piece from Peter Bergen, but we’d need to do this right now.”

When we set up shop, we just found we had unlocked so much more conversation and discussion, and that people saw us immediately as a different kind of venue. It’s really snowballed from there.

Ellis: Is that what led to traffic increasing? Since you’ve been there, traffic has continued to go up. What do you attribute it to?
Glasser: There’s just been an explosion in the ambition and reach of the website, and the kinds of contributors we have. And that’s definitely been reflected in the traffic. I’ll give you a few numbers to give you a sense of it.

We saw a dramatic jump right away when we added the network of blogs in January 2009 and became a daily site. The first year, we had about 50 million pageviews. Last year was by far our biggest — in 2012 we had 200 million pageviews. We had basically about a few hundred thousand unique visitors, on the eve of the relaunch. We just had out biggest month ever in terms of unique visitors, with about 4.5 million. There’s a big constituency of people who are interested and engaged with the world. There are many stakeholders.

About 60 percent of our audience is in the U.S., the rest in pretty much every single country in the world. That’s the amazing thing about the distribution networks that already exist on the Internet: We were able to really quickly and effectively, basically with no cost, get the word out about this new project. Our ability to do this was a product of all the tools that have been developed on the wider Internet.

Ellis: With international news online, you can often go directly to the source. If you’re looking for news about China and read Chinese, you can read Chinese websites. Do you think your readers are doing this, or do they still rely on places like Foreign Policy or others that can do the analysis and put context behind stories?
Glasser: Initially maybe there was a wrong assumption that we’ll just cut out the middleman now, and the future of news is that everyone can access everything in real time from the point of origin. Of course, that doesn’t make sense, right? The way that an Israeli newspaper covers something in Israel, it’s a local story. The way that the Georgian war is covered in Georgia or Russia, it means something completely different. Not only are the politics different, but it’s a local story. It’s that village being invaded by Russian troops.

The needs of a reader in a globalized capital, whether it’s Washington or London or Brussels or Beijing, is very different. You want to have context. You want to have some dramatic reportage. You probably want to know the best of what the local media is saying in a way that’s accessible to you. So I think that actually the role of mediators, and people who can apply what somebody needs to know from a distance, or a leading policy maker or decision maker, a business person, it’s a totally different thing that they need to know. They need the context to understand the event much more than they need the kind of breaking news coverage.

Ellis: How has foreign reporting and reporting on policy has changed in the time you’ve been with the magazine? Have there been significant changes?
Glasser: Absolutely. It’s changed really dramatically. I was a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post based in the Moscow bureau with my husband for Vladmir Putin’s first term — basically the end of 2000 to the end of 2004. That was the period of 9/11, the war in Afghanistan and in Iraq, which we covered as well. Every single news organization whose reporters I traveled with around Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2002 and 2003 more or less are entirely out of the foreign correspondent business — except for The Washington Post, which has significantly scaled back the number of correspondents it has.

I went around Afghanistan with someone from The Boston Globe. I drove as an unembedded reporter into southern Iraq in 2003 with someone from Newsday. Zero foreign correspondents in both cases today. From Newsweek — which no longer exists. You could go on and on. So it’s been a dramatic change.

At the Pulitzer Prizes, the number of international reporting entries has gone down fairly dramatically. I was on the jury for that over a couple of years recently, and The New York Times won both years. It’s getting stronger and stronger — it’s something they already dominated just because the numbers are disappearing so quickly.

Ellis: People like to describe outlets like Foreign Policy and Politico as niche publications, but sometimes to me that seems like a nice way of saying they have smaller audiences. Do you think that’s the case? Even if the audiences aren’t that large, what should publications do to get the most out of their audience?
Glasser: First of all, if your niche is the world, as we like to say, it’s not a very limiting or confining space to be in. That’s part of what made Foreign Policy so much fun as a project, actually, because it was such an incredible range of journalists, and contributors, and subjects that we could cover on a given day. It’s an incredibly rich space to be in.

I think that’s true of Politico too, by the way. The subject of American politics, power, policy, writ large, is a fairly grand canvas on which to work. I think it’s great from the point of view of a journalist in not feeling limiting. Jim VandeHei, the executive editor of Politico, is really smart on this subject about why, actually, being a niche publication is a real advantage to something like Politico. Because you have the ability to build, potentially, a really solid business foundation around it. This is something that a core number of people need to do their professional work.

I think that’s something that both Foreign Policy and Politico have in common, and they don’t suffer some of the more existential questions surrounded by a more traditional metropolitan daily newspaper, which was designed to serve a vast array of disparate audiences. Everybody from the proverbial bus driver in Prince Georges County outside of Washington to the president of the United States was, in theory, reading The Washington Post of old. It’s really hard to serve all those different constituencies well. It was the old department store model. The great 19th-century department store in which everybody could buy something at their price level. This is a much more boutique-y era, and we’ve been given an incredibly array of tools to serve particular audiences much more deeply, and thoroughly, and immediately than ever before.

Ellis: One of the jobs you’ve had while with Foreign Policy is to try to find more bloggers and other contributors. That sounds like that’s something you might also be doing for Politico. How do you try to find new talent? How do you pitch them on the idea of writing for you?
Glasser: The amazing thing about this project has been the chance to meet and get to know incredibly brilliant and interesting people who have a lot to contribute. I found that to be probably one of the most rewarding and interesting parts of building up Foreign Policy over the last few years, the diverse array of contributors.

It’s the kind of website where you have everybody from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minster of Turkey, but also presenting them along side this fearless, brave reportage by a 28-year-old who went to Syria as a freelancer. And you’re putting that next to incredible, historical photography of Afghanistan in the 1960s. And you’re putting that next to this great column by Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown law professor who went and served as a high-ranking defense department official in the Pentagon for the first few years of the Obama administration and has come back out to write about it.

That’s the part I think was so rewarding, to see the incredible range of people who had something to contribute. And in many ways I have felt that the project was about opening up the foreign policy conversation of old. Too often in the past, you could find these very learned, foreign policy conversations in which it really seemed like it was by and for a hundred guys in gray pinstripe suits. If you look at the diversity and range of contributors we have now, I feel like that old world has been exploded and we’re just expanding the range of voices that are part of the conversation. There’s a lot more work to be done, I should say. But that to me is really the fun part of the job.

Ellis: Since you’re moving on to a job that will involve long-form journalism, I wonder about your thoughts about this idea that there is a resurgence of longform. Do you think that’s the case? Is it really coming back, or did it ever leave? Does this have more to do with the metabolism of news online right now?
Glasser: I guess I’m one those people who believes that it’s just a good thing for journalism if people are embracing this idea of long-form journalism. We’ve certainly found at Foreign Policy that old conventional wisdom was wrong, and I never believed it, that people only read piece of X number of words on the Internet. There are a lot of people who had pronouncements like that. We definitely found that people could get excited about a great piece of writing or journalism of varied lengths.

My old friend, Leon Aron, who’s a beautiful writer, a thoughtful writer about Russia and the biographer of Yeltsin, did a cover story for us a couple of years go about “Everything You Think You Know About the Collapse of the Soviet Union is Wrong.” It was a 4,000-word essay about that. And it got hundreds of thousands of readers. I always saw that as a positive sign.

Not all of these things have a huge audience, certainly, but in general I’m a believer that quality does rise to the top on the Internet, and that ambitious journalism, narratives telling stories, and long-form investigative accountability reporting, tends to be a way that a news organization can differentiate itself.

Right now, we are competing for people’s time and attention, to be the convening power for our subjects. It’s a great way for a news organization to stand out and to own the story in a way. News has become increasingly commodified — Twitter is so incredibly good at getting the word out on anything so quickly. I think it has left an opening for the kind of original, high-value reporting and investigations that means so much to me and that I love to work on.

                                   
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