Prashant Rao: From LSE’s Beaver Editor to AFP’s Baghdad Bureau Chief and The New York Times

By Taryana Odayar. 
Prashant Rao is the current Deputy Business Editor for Europe at The New York Times, and the former Baghdad Bureau Chief for Agence France-Presse (AFP). He was assigned to the Baghdad Bureau by the AFP for five years from 2009 to 2014, where he was responsible for the coverage of Iraq in English, French and Arabic. During his time as an undergraduate at the London School of Economics (LSE), he was also the Executive Editor of the student newspaper, “The Beaver.”
(Q) How did you initially get involved with the Beaver?
A News Editor position opened up, and the first time I didn’t get it but the second time I did. And it was just really fun. The group of people who were in the Editorial roles were really nice and fun to be around, and we’re still really good friends. Several of them attended my wedding and vice versa. Then the Editor decided he wanted to leave early in our third year, and then I got the Editorship.We’d start (working on the paper) on Sunday and just be super slow, work till 3 or 4 in the morning, I’d walk home to Carr-Saunders, then I’d walk back after two hours of sleep, edit the paper, make sure it was ok, and it inevitably would not be! But its all about the people you meet; like-minded people.(Q) Did being involved with The Beaver help you career-wise?Its definitely good to be involved with the Beaver, especially in an Editorial role because you really have to think about what kind of content you should be publishing and what kind of news matters. These are questions that journalists ask themselves on a daily basis, so you get some real kind of experience in terms of what we put on the front; have we given everybody who is a party to this story adequate time to respond to any allegations made, have we done a decent enough job of checking whether this is legit or not. And inevitably we wouldn’t have, and that was part of the learning process because in the grand scheme of things its relatively low stakes, and so that was enormously helpful – to really think about how we prioritise news.

One of the big ones was, ‘Should the LSE remain a member of the NUS?’ and ‘Should LSE remain a member of ULU?’ And I wanted to hear what everyone on the Editorial board thought. It was a mostly left-wing Editorial board but a couple of the writers were right-wing and it was really fun with everybody trying to get their two cents in. Looking back, this was the kind of stuff that was really useful, having those kinds of discussions about what is the most important news of the day, and is it the most important news or the most urgent news. That’s really helped me along the way.

(Q) Do you have any advice for student writers who would like to become journalists?

The most important thing is to keep at it. Its like muscle memory,you just have to keep trying, you have to keep writing, you have to keep reading a lot. Its hard as a student journalist because a lot of the fundamentals of news writing you can learn, but there aren’t a lot of places that teach it. But I think its important to just keep writing, and especially if you want to be a journalist, there’s a real value to being humble and trying to get as much experience as possible because obviously LSE is one of the best universities in the world. But the Times Higher Education Supplement came out today, and in that the LSE was 25th. That means there’s at least two dozen other universities with smart kids, who also probably want to be journalists. There’s no shortage of people who want to be journalists, so you have to be humble, you have to work really hard, you have to be willing to make sacrifices.

(Q) What were some of the sacrifices you made working as a journalist?

I worked for two years on the night-shift at AFP, and then I worked at Bloomberg in financial journalism which at the time I definitely didn’t want to do because my over-riding ambition was to be a foreign correspondent. The thing about journalism is that its kind of a meandering path to your eventual goal. There is no direct line, there is no set way of doing things because it is a relatively small community of people in the grand scheme of things. There is no traditional way of doing things, you’ve just got to work at it, plug away and try your best and hope that you get lucky. I got lucky here and there and it worked out really well, but I would say the most important thing is to plug away and be humble, because you will probably fail, and it sucks. And even if you do succeed, you’ve probably failed several times before that. I got rejected from all kinds of jobs, constantly. I must have sent out dozens of job applications in my final year. I got one job offer, maybe two, I think. Most people fail but if you really want it you’ve just got to keep trying. Its brutal.

(Q) What was it like working in Iraq for five years and eventually becoming AFP’s Baghdad Bureau Chief?

That was fantastic in terms of moulding me as a journalist because I went when I was 24, and I definitely wasn’t any good when I got there. And I don’t think I got good for several years after that because you can learn the fundamentals of news writing, but when bombs are going off and you have to write clean, fast and concise, that takes time. And I would say for the first few months at least that was a real struggle for me because it was a lot of pressure, and I wasn’t sure if what I was doing was right. My previous job was as a junior reporter in London, which was a big bureau so I didn’t have a lot of responsibility thrust upon me, and then all of a sudden I’m in this city where its incredibly violent, and there are moments where you’re as close to terrified as you can get if not actually terrified.

Our office was bombed a couple of times. But I think it really moulded me as a journalist because it teaches you so many things. It teaches you that there are human stories here and we have a duty as journalists to tell them as much as we possibly can, and there’s nuance and complexity which we never see from afar, and its also our duty to convey as much of that as possible. There’s a duty to free speech and humanity. It was a very difficult kind of experience in many ways, but I was really lucky because I worked for a news organisation that was very supportive of its journalists. They paid a lot of money for security, our salaries, our insurance. And all Western news organisations were very responsible in Baghdad. They took the necessary precautions and were smart and caring, to the greatest extent that they could be, I think.

But it was still difficult and its not for everyone. But it worked for me, and I found it to be the kind of journalism that I wanted to do, and I still want to do. The kind of journalism that tells people things are happening that you need to be informed about. You see this kind of narrative all the time, where things are happening and people say the media isn’t covering it, yet people typically find out that its happening via the media – although they complain – and its usually the wires like AFP, the Associated Press, Reuters. And news organisations like the BBC, Al Jazeera, The New York Times, they commit a lot of money and resources and attention to these stories. I really enjoy these kinds of stories that demand something of you and make you think, that make you care.

And personally it worked out really well, because I started out as a Baghdad correspondent, spent two years as Baghdad Deputy Bureau Chief, and then spent two years as the Bureau Chief. In my last two months ISIS took Mosul, so I didn’t do a huge amount of journalism because I was going to bed every night and waking up every morning hoping that none of my staff had been kidnapped or killed. We were still doing tremendously important journalism. I’d been there for five years, our Deputy Bureau Chief had been there for three years and our correspondent had been there for three years. So we all knew the country fairly well, we were all very young and we all worked really hard. It was exhausting, and genuinely among the most stressful things I will ever experience in my entire life. There were points at which we were not sure whether Baghdad would fall or not. Myself and the Reuters Bureau Chief who lived down the road would have meetings every few days and say, alright, if they take Baghdad they’ll take it this way so these are the roads we’ll need to take if we need to get out. It was serious stuff, and it gives you some perspective.

(Q) Did you lose any members of your team while you were in Baghdad?

We were lucky that none of them were in direct danger. We had an Iraqi journalist in Kirkuk who was pretty close to a car bomb, and that happened at a time when I had just become Bureau Chief and I didn’t really know what to do as well. Luckily AFP was a great news organisation and they were really supportive of me, and my managers guided me through how I should be handling this. He suffered some hearing loss and had to have some surgery. AFP was very good about it and paid for everything. But since I left, one of our photographers has died of illness, and one of our part-time technicians also died of illness. Two have claimed asylum, one of them has left Iraq permanently of his own personal volition, and before I got there I think one of our technicians had been killed. We had some of our journalists who got into sketchy situations. We were not unusual in this; The New York Times lost people, Reuters lost people, the AP lost people, everyone did. It was a horrific conflict.

The couple of times that our office was bombed, there were enough safety precautions in place that there were only minor injuries. There was a psychological effect as well which I don’t mean to downplay but no one was physically in direct harm. We were lucky and we were good, and you need that combination in places like that.

(Q) When you see your fellow journalists giving up their lives for the news stories they cover, does it seem worth it?

There’s a phrase that often gets said by Bureau Chiefs and journalists all the time, and its that no story is worth your life. Its a very trite phrase, but at the same time its obviously true. There is no story that would have been worth a journalist dying for. Its the kind of thing where you have to believe in it, you have to believe that this story has to be covered, otherwise there’s no point in being in a place like Baghdad. And you have to do it the right way. I think going to Baghdad on a shoestring, with no planning, would be a terrible idea. AFP had been in Iraq since the 90s, and all the news organisations that were there employed security contractors. We had good relations with all the embassies, and whenever anything happened the embassies would tell us in off the record conversations because everyone wanted to be safe.

So looking back, its a difficult question to answer, because I would say telling the story of Iraq was absolutely the right thing to do. Its an important country, and again this will sound trite but its full of wonderful people who don’t deserve what’s happened to them. You can take whatever political stance you want, but nobody deserves that. And so its important for that story to be told as far and wide as possible. I think the way to do it is in a responsible way that doesn’t compromise yourself, your staff, the people around you. And you can see now there’s very little reporting that comes out of rebel-held Syria because its such a dangerous place. And that’s obviously a story that needs to be told, but if you can’t do it safely you shouldn’t do it because it creates all kinds of other compromises that make it very difficult.

A lot of the journalists who died in Syria died during the early stages when we didn’t know how difficult it had become. I think the Syrian conflict turned especially in mid to late 2012 for journalists in a very dark way. Iraq on the other hand still had some kind of functioning state apparatus, so in non-ISIS controlled areas you could move freely. Broadly, security forces didn’t want to kidnap or kill you, and the militias typically didn’t either because if they wanted to they would have by now. I’m not aware of many journalists who went to ISIS controlled areas when ISIS was in control in Iraq, but in the rest of it you could kind of go close to the front lines, as there was more of a functioning reporting apparatus there.

(Q) How did you source your stories?

We had a staff of about 60 in the country – it was a really big news operation. Our Baghdad Bureau at the time was bigger than most Bureaus anywhere in the world, from any news organisation. So in Syria, AFP had been rotating correspondents to cover the battle for Aleppo in the second half of 2012, and I was one of the latter ones who went in, and by that time we didn’t have a Baghdad level infrastructure, but we had people who we trusted at the time. We had procedures in place for how to use satellite phones, how to use telephones in general, which drivers we can trust, what parts of the country are safe to go to and not.

Its hard, because so much of it is gut, but there’s also groups on Facebook where the community of journalists recommend people who can be trusted. In places like London where its very easy to be a reporter, people are competitive, but in places like Baghdad, people are very fraternal and community-oriented. I would go on reporting trips with Reuters even though AFP and Reuters are competitors, I would share information with the New York Times, the Washington Post, the AP. As with any form of journalism you talk to people, try to gather information and prepare yourself, and thats how you find people you can trust.

(Q) What were some of the challenges of covering Iraq and integrating?

There are several challenges. You have to be respectful of the local population, you have to try and be inoffensive. Iraq is a country and a civilisation that goes back a long time; its something they’re extremely proud of, and you need to exhibit an understanding of that. I remember we did one story about how Baghdad was celebrating its 1,450th anniversary of being founded as a city, and so you show an understanding that the city has been there for a long time. Its been there since before you were there and it will be there long after you are gone. Just understanding that there are so many different things that shape a story and shape a society is really helpful, and you try and be a sponge for knowledge.

(Q) What was an average day like for you in Baghdad?

This is going to be cliche but there was no average day. A quiet day in Baghdad was kind of fun – it sounds ridiculous to say fun – but there was a wonderful literary market on Fridays, and I used to go to the literary market and we’d have tea and an Iraqi lunch and come back to the office. Those were days where I’d wake up at 8 or 9 (am). We lived in the office, and so if I woke up at 8 I’d be in the office by 8.30. You go to the gym, we had a cook. And then the other extreme was ISIS, where I woke up at 8, went to bed at midnight, we needed a fresh 800 words every two hours, and I was the Bureau Chief so I wrote those 800 words, or the correspondent would write it and I would news-edit it. In between that, I would have conference calls with Paris and our regional headquarters because we needed to update them on security and plan for all kinds of different eventualities. Its the kind of thing where I could tell you everything I did, but actually thinking back to the astonishing levels of stress, its really hard to describe. It also happened so fast that it threw me for a loop.

I was supposed to leave Iraq in June 2014, and then the agency asked me to stay for an extra six weeks because of ISIS. The whole narrative in my five years in Baghdad had been; this is a really problematic country, but somehow it survives as a unitary state and its kind of surprising that it does because its got all of these weird problems.

I was at a wedding here in London and then a correspondent calls me and says, Mosul just fell, and it just blew me. I wrote a piece where the analogy I made was that sports reporters write most of the story before the match is done, because usually after about 75 or 80 minutes you know what’s going to happen, you’ve written your bottom 600 words, and you just need a top and then you’re good. So my analogy was that I felt like I had the 600 words of my sports story and then everything just flipped. I’d get into shouting matches with reporters because everyone was just constantly stressed. We were all working insanely hard and they were obviously putting themselves at risk. Its extremely hard to explain. A normal day there shouldn’t be a normal day anywhere in anyone’s life.

(Q) What was your transition to The New York Times like?

The New York Times has completely different challenges. At an agency you have a very strict word limit. When ISIS took Mosul, that was the number one story in the world for the next two or three months non-stop, but none of our stories were allowed to be longer than 800 words. So fitting in a country collapsing into 800 words is extremely difficult. At the Times, 800 is like an average length story, so writing a good, tight, 1,200 word story is extremely hard. Its much harder than writing a good, clean, 400.

The other thing is when you’re in an agency you have to cover everything – thats just the function of it – and you don’t know who your clients are, so you need to cover everything. So in the non-ISIS period we were covering oil auctions, we were covering Iraqi football matches, we were covering cultural events, violence, politics, economics, we’d cover everything. Whereas at the Times, we’re much more selective, and that creates its own kind of challenge, because if the bar is higher for what is news, then what crosses it is a constant conversation. I’m still getting a feel for what qualifies as news in a New York Times sense and how to report it in a New York Times way.

Obviously I could write a straight news story right away, but with The New York Times thats not always what we’re trying to write. We’re trying to be the best writers, we’re trying to have the smartest take, we’re trying to be the definitive article on a subject, and that means that its a higher bar and your writing needs to be excellent.


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