Syria expert Lara Setrakian ushers journalism into the future
From the magazine: ISSUE 90, Feb/March 2014
To celebrate our favorite publication for and by ’90s babies, our Newsprint and Style sections this issue are guest edited by Rookie Magazine.
After spending five years reporting on the Middle East as an on-air correspondent for ABC News and Bloomberg, Lara Setrakian had grown frustrated with the necessarily shallow purview of the two-minute dispatch. So she quit that job, got together with some friends and founded Syria Deeply, an immersive news website that uses a wide range of online tools to help visitors get a better grip on contemporary Syria and the civil war that has been ravaging it: interactive maps and timelines, SoundCloud news reports and even Google Hangouts, where a bunch of experts can talk to one another while the public watches. Unsurprisingly, she was full of all kinds of inspiring advice—not just for journalists, but for anyone who wants to make something and send it out into the world.
What is Syria Deeply? We focus on one place, and we take some of the most important stories and the most difficult issues in that place and put them all on one website, so we can explain everything about what’s happening there. The idea with Syria Deeply was that for something like the war in Syria, the best approach would be to add more explanation: Who’s who? Why did this thing start to begin with? We wanted to help people understand all of this by piecing it together for them.
What was missing in the existing news coverage of the Syrian conflict? Right now, you only get stories in a two-minute TV report or an 800-word newspaper article, right? We wanted to do the news in a totally different way, where we use technology to help people put the story together. We had this really cool opportunity to approach journalism in a way that was focused on the user. What was the user going to find useful? What were they going to be able to digest? It was an opportunity to bring a lot of design and almost an artistic flair to the way we tell stories.
How did you pull it off? It was a dream of mine, and I got together with some friends and we just made it happen. I put my vision for what the site would look like on a notebook page and showed it to a web designer friend, who was like, “I can help you build that!” One of the big lessons I learned from this whole process is that you never know which friends or which teacher or mentor is going to help you. But you have to believe in yourself more than anybody else, because it’s your passion for the project that’s going to bring other people on board.
In those early stages, what kept you believing that the project would succeed? You have to have a lot of faith in yourself. But also, you have to remind yourself that ultimately, it’s not about you! It’s about what you want to create. Focus on what you want to give the world. When you start putting it out there, magic things will happen, and it won’t always come from the place you expect. In fact, it will mostly come from places you don’t expect. The reason you have to be persistent is that you’re always getting closer to the right answer.
Was it hard transitioning from TV news to running Syria Deeply? I think it’s fundamentally good to do what doesn’t come naturally to you every once in a while. Speaking in public and being a television journalist were easy [for me]; building a startup was a challenge. As glamorous and as exciting as it was to be on TV, sometimes an idea moves you that requires your immediate attention. I think my career will ultimately be a fusion of being a tech entrepreneur and being an on-air correspondent. As a journalist, you should be doing it because you believe in your story, and you want to help people get smarter about what’s happening in the world. And if the best place to do that is on the internet, then that’s where you’ll find me.