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June 17, 2015, 10 a.m.
Reporting & Production

“This is my dream job”: How one journalist became The Daily Signal’s first foreign correspondent

Foreign correspondents are few and far between these days, but the conservative site produced by the Heritage Foundation just hired one based in Ukraine.

Nolan Peterson spent last week embedded with the Ukrainian army. He is the first American journalist to do so. But Peterson isn’t a foreign correspondent for a major newspaper, network, or wire service. Rather, he’s the first — and only — foreign correspondent for The Daily Signal, a year-old news site run by the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank.

Nolan PetersonPeterson, 33, is a former United States Air Force special operations pilot who fought in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. After leaving the military, he got his master’s in journalism from Northwestern. His resume is the only one I’ve ever seen that includes “220 hours combat flight time as a U-28A mission pilot,” “Master of Arts; French civilization, culture and society,” and “Ran a full marathon across a glacier in Antarctica to raise money for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation.” (The resume also includes a list of the dozens of countries he has visited, broken down by continent.)

“People don’t really understand what the world is like outside of America,” Peterson told me. “When I had the opportunity to leave the military and thought about the career I would choose next, I wanted to do something that would give people a bit of the perspective I’ve acquired.”

In case it isn’t obvious, Peterson isn’t really suited to a desk job. He first went to Ukraine for a few months in 2014 as a freelance journalist. When fighting broke out again after he’d left, “I had some friends who were journalists who were caught in the battle, telling me about things that were going on. It was basically a massacre,” he told me, “and I desperately wanted to get back here.”

Peterson began emailing with the Heritage Foundation. “I tried to convey the fact that this war has not been getting the amount of media attention that it should,” he said. “The seriousness of what’s going on here isn’t being accurately translated to people back home. There is World War II-style combat going on in Europe right now, and most people seem to be unaware of that.”

“I was searching for somebody who would pay me,” he said. “That’s all I wanted, somebody who was going to sign the check, somebody who values foreign affairs journalism enough to invest in someone to come over here. A lot of places are so obsessed with pageviews it doesn’t make sense to invest in a foreign correspondent. I can’t tell you how many places turned me down.”

The Daily Signal bit — and agreed to pay. It is now paying Peterson a monthly salary, on contract, and covers other expenses, like flights and protective body gear. For the past three months, Peterson has been living in an apartment in Kiev, where he spoke to me via Skype just before heading back to the front lines.

When The Daily Signal launched a year ago, it described its mission as providing “true, straight-down-the-middle journalism” to “anyone interested in information and public debate.” Given its ownership, this was met with some skepticism; Heritage is run by Jim DeMint, one of the Senate’s most conservative members when he represented South Carolina there. But The Daily Signal insisted it would be something other than a Tea Party blog. “Like Vox and FiveThirtyEight, we’re purposely branding ourselves not as a blog but a standalone site,” Rob Bluey, the site’s editor-in-chief, said at launch. Atlantic Media Strategies, the consultancy of Atlantic Media (The Atlantic, Quartz, National Journal), produced The Daily Signal’s site. And, like Vox and FiveThirtyEight, The Daily Signal tends toward wonkiness; this week, the site’s featured topics were “Export-Import Bank,” “Internet Freedom,” “Marriage,” and “King v. Burwell.”

“We want to provide a public service, reporting stories that go underreported elsewhere,” Bluey told me, and that included “making a play on the international stage.” In the case of Ukraine, “it made sense to us to have somebody on the ground” in part because the Heritage Foundation’s Luke Coffey was also reporting on Ukraine and in part because other media organizations, in the case of Ukraine, “haven’t been able to take the risk [of sending a reporter there] or the resources are thin and they just don’t have the option to do it.” The Daily Signal may eventually add foreign correspondents in other regions, but “one thing that was great in Nolan’s case was that he had some experience there already. We’re very aware of the security risks, and we want to be careful.”

The number of foreign correspondents working for American news organizations has declined drastically in recent years. In 2011, the American Journalism Review found that ten newspapers and one chain employed 234 correspondents, down from 307 in 2003 — and the 2011 figure included “a combination of staffers and contract writers, who were not included in 2003…if only full-time correspondents were listed, the current total would be far lower.” The AJR didn’t include online-only or non-traditional outlets in its census, but several American sites are expanding their reporting staffs abroad. BuzzFeed launched BuzzFeed World, its foreign news vertical, in 2013; it now has 12 reporters based in Kiev, Istanbul, Nairobi, Mexico City, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and London. Vice Media has dozens of bureaus worldwide. Then there’s GlobalPost, the for-profit foreign news site founded in 2009 that is now perhaps best-known for having employed James Foley, the reporter who was held hostage by ISIS in Syria for two years before being murdered in 2014, as a freelancer.

When Peterson decided he wanted to go back to Ukraine, he hoped to avoid freelancing, which he described as “very terrifying at times because you don’t know when the next paycheck is coming.” More scarily, freelance foreign correspondents covering wars may also “take necessary risks because they have to stand out of the crowd of people trying to sell their stories. It leads them to do crazy things to get paid. On the front lines, I’ve seen 22, 24-year-old kids with no experience in combat whatsoever, barely with any protective gear, wandering around the war zone and tank battles and trenches trying to sell war stories for $50 a pop. God knows how much [Foley] was making a month — maybe $1,000 a month selling his stories and he’s out there risking his life.” While Peterson didn’t tell me the exact amount he’s making, it’s enough to cover his expenses in Ukraine, and “I can focus on the stories that I think are important, not just the ones that I think are going to generate traffic.”

It’s clear that investing in foreign coverage is a potential way for The Daily Signal to build credibility among broader audiences — something other sites with clear ideological perspectives have struggled with. I asked Rob Bluey if he thinks that The Daily Signal has been able to make an impact beyond conservative circles. “In some cases, yes,” he said. One example: Newsweek — which had closed many of its foreign bureaus even before it went online-only — is syndicating Peterson’s Ukraine stories on its own site. (“Newsweek has a number of partners whose content we use,” Nicholas Wapshott, the publication’s international editor, told me in a statement. “In each case we republish work that appears to be topical, well written and of high quality.”)

Beyond that, “the conservative audience is going to be the core audience,” Bluey said. “But certainly, there have been times when stories have that appeal and go to the moveable middle.” In particular, he cited Sharyl Attkisson’s series alleging mismanagement at California’s Obamacare exchange, and investigations into Oregon’s discrimination lawsuit against a bakery that refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding. “It’s nice to get the Drudge links [52 in the first year] and things like that,” he said, “but it’s nicer to see other news organizations citing our work.”

The Daily Signal is also trying to reach a younger audience, recently hiring Madaline Donnelly to focus on “millennial issues,” which “hopefully won’t just appeal to conservative millennials but will appeal to millennials across the board.” In addition to the young’uns,The Daily Signal hopes to get “the Capitol Hill staffers, the members of Congress themselves,” and also the human interest stories cared about by a larger audience. “After what happened in Baltimore, we sent [news editor] Josh Siegel up there, and he spent a couple of days talking to people in the areas where there were riots,” Bluey said. “At Heritage, we have an employee who lives in one of those neighborhoods. He took Josh around and they had conversations with real people.”

The site has hired full-time reporters in Iowa and New Hampshire in preparation for the 2016 election, bringing its full-time staff to 12, and has another 10 contractors like Peterson, Attkisson, and David Brody, the chief political correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network, will be interviewing presidential candidates and providing other coverage during campaign season. About 100 different policy specialists at the Heritage Foundation also contribute op-eds, but Bluey said “there’s more we could do in that space.”

The Daily Signal team daily signal

The Daily Signal staff, November 2014.

The Daily Signal is getting about 2 to 3 million monthly unique visitors, and its daily email newsletter has around 520,000 subscribers, Bluey says, and the site’s budget for 2015 is somewhere between $1.5 and $2 million. That makes it a pretty small news organization, one that probably won’t be able to reach the many, often non-overlapping — millennials, conservatives, “moveable middles,” policy wonks and “real people” — audiences that it wants to.

But Bluey describes the site as “unique and original,” and for Ukraine correspondent Peterson, certainly, it is. “This is my dream job,” he said. “I have the complete freedom to be over here and report on the stories I think are important, and they have 100 percent trust in my news judgment. After being here now, for four months, I can call up somebody in the U.S. military that’s over here, or people in the government of Ukraine. I go out and have dinner with arms dealers and Russian exiles and mercenaries. I get that inside knowledge that I could never get sitting in a newsroom back in America strolling through social media to catch headlines…As a writer, I couldn’t be happier.”

Photo of Ukrainian soldiers near the division line with separatists in Marinka June 5 by AP/Evgeniy Maloletka.

POSTED     June 17, 2015, 10 a.m.
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