MEDIA

Here's The Story Behind This Summer's Incredible NYT Magazine Middle East Issue

The magazine's editor explains why this story is like "Stairway to Heaven."

Last week, The New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue to one story: Scott Anderson’s account of how the world has changed since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Anderson’s narrative follows six characters from 1972 until the present. The issue, which also featured photos from Paolo Pellegrin, had no ads. On Thursday, HuffPost Must Reads spoke to Times Magazine Editor Jake Silverstein about how his team created this monumental work of journalism — and why. (An abridged version of this interview first appeared in the HuffPost Must Reads newsletter on Sunday. Want to know how the best feature and investigative work in America gets made? Sign up for the newsletter here.)

How did this project come about? Why did you think this particular subject deserved this treatment?

About two years ago — it’s a project that’s been in the works for a while — about two years ago, Scott Anderson and Paolo Pellegrin, who have been a writer-photographer team contributing to The New York Times Magazine for quite a while now and have done a lot of great work for us over the years — about two years ago, not long after I came aboard as editor of the magazine here, the three of us had dinner and just kind of were kicking around some big ideas. This would have been in the late spring/early summer of 2014, and so we were talking about how Scott and Paolo have often reported from the Arab world and the Middle East, and we were talking about the coming fifth anniversary of the Arab Spring and whether there was some kind of big project that we ought to do to mark it.

At the time we initially had this notion that — I don’t know if you recall, but in 2009 after Obama was elected, the Times magazine, under, at that time, Jerry Marzorati — he was the editor — had done a special issue called “Obama’s People.” And just the entire magazine was photographs of the incoming staff of the Obama administration with I think a brief essay up front. It was a cool project. And so we had this sort of vaguely related notion that we’d do a photo portfolio of all the heads of state of the Middle Eastern countries, as well as have Scott do interviews with each of them as well and accompanying short portraits of them. So originally this was conceived of as — I think we were calling it the Middle East heads of state project. Within a month of trying to begin putting that together we realized that there were some flaws in the idea. One of them was that it would take so long to complete that there was a good chance that people who had been heads of state at the start of the project would no longer be heads of state when we finished because it’s such a tumultuous region. But also, just as important, we began to feel it would feel sort of cloistered in the palaces and halls of power where these folks would be, and you wouldn’t be out on the street with the average citizens and that would be a limiting factor of the project.

So we reconceived it and it turned into what it is now, which is looking for characters, people from everyday life who could kind of give us insights into their countries and tell the histories of those countries — both recent history and contemporary events — through the lens of these individuals. And then it was really just a matter of Scott — who knows the region so well — taking a series of reporting trips to the five nations that are part of this particular piece, and others as well as he tried to figure out how he would narrow the focus of the piece and who he would profile. And that process took a long time. But within the first six months of planning he had his countries and he had his individuals decided, and then he just started reporting.

 

Why no ads?

We realized pretty early on that what Scott was creating was essentially a short book and that the experience of reading it would be akin to that of reading a book, where you have one voice, one writer’s perspective carrying you all the way through. There’s a unity to that experience and a purity to that experience. And the same thing is true of the photos. Paolo Pellegin had been photographing over the past two years for this specific project, but he’s also been photographing the region for 14 years or longer. And we were going to be able to dip into his entire archive stretching back to, I think, 2000, to tell a story through his unified voice as a photographer, his visual language as a photographer. That sense that this project was going to have an unusual amount of purity in terms of tone made us just really hungry to present it to readers in a way that had no other elements, no other interruptions, no other distractions from the book-like experience of going through this material. At the same time we were also in conversations with the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting to support this work with a major grant, and they did, and that kind of justified making the move to push the ads that were in the issue out into the surrounding issues, which we were able to do.

Not having ads in the issue — whenever a writer spends as much time and effort on a piece as Scott did on this piece, I consider it part of my job to do whatever I can to draw as much attention and excitement and energy to that work as possible. That’s really important to me, and it’s obviously really important to the writers who do that kind of work. There’s a lot of different ways to draw attention to a project, but clearly presenting the work in this unusual way, going ad-free, having a cover that wraps all the way around to the back — there’s no denying that would cause an impact, that would cause people to stand up and take notice and recognize that this was something special and different from what they would typically get in the magazine.

 

Do you think that journalism like this has to be funded by charities? Can it ever be profitable?

It’s absolutely possible to do work like this in a for-profit way. We do a lot of work — this is an outsize example — but we do a lot of work that takes immense amounts of time to put together.

The project that we did last November on the global refugee crisis that was the launch of our virtual reality initiative at The New York Times — that was a maybe five or six-month project where we were on three different continents profiling in print and online and in VR three different kids who had been displaced in the refugee crisis in Ukraine, in Syria and in South Sudan. That project was revenue-generating.

It sounds ridiculous to say when you’re talking about a crisis like the refugee crisis, but it was a functioning part of The New York Times’ business model, which is that we create great journalism, and we’re able to have sponsors come aboard as advertisers or partners and we’re able to also generate consumer revenue from our readers who think that our work is valuable. That model, it works here.

And the fact that we were relying on the Pulitzer Center for grant funding here doesn’t necessarily — you shouldn’t conclude that the model The New York Times is using — for-profit journalism — is not working. In this case, the Pulitzer Center support enabled us to go a bit bigger and more ambitious than we had initially planned, but it’s not as if we wouldn’t have done the story at all if we had not been able to get this funding.

 

My former bosses Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery wrote an essay in Mother Jones this week about how one of the biggest things missing in journalism right now is time. How does this project — which took so long — mesh with that critique?

Mother Jones themselves with the big Shane Bauer massive story they did digging over an issue — that itself was a great example of the value of time and dedication and the kind of unity of focus that certain organizations, and they are definitely one of them, can provide.

It’s also true that there are other [Times magazine] projects that are currently ongoing or even just individual stories that are good examples of slow journalism, if you can call it that. A big story for us this spring was Nikole Hannah-Jones’ story about segregation and racial inequality in New York City’s public schools, a story about her own daughter and her decisions about where to send her daughter to school in Brooklyn. That story took a long time to cook and part of that was letting Nikole watch this particular drama play out. But I want to say that was probably a five-month story. None of those are as big and long as the 18 months Scott Anderson spent working on this piece, but we do certainly on any given week have pieces in the magazine that have taken a long time to put together. We also have stuff that turns around really quickly, but it’s important to always have longer projects cooking.

 

What was the biggest problem that your team ran into in reporting, editing or publishing this story? How did you solve it?

The biggest challenge on it was sort of two things that are related. One of them was that this was longer than any story that we ever edited. We all — those of us who were working on this piece, and I should give a shoutout here to the story editor who was directly working on it, Luke Mitchell, as well as Features Editor Ilena Silverman and Deputy Editor Bill Wasik — the four of us worked very hard on this story and none of us have much experience in book publishing. We’re all magazine people, we don’t typically handle a manuscript that’s 40,000-plus words; I think the initial manuscript was over 50,000 words. The challenge of working your way through and making effective structural suggestions for something that’s that big — a lot of book people are going to read this or hear me say this and think, “That’s child’s play!” — but for us, it was a lot. It sort of upended our typical process in a way.

The particular challenge of this particular manuscript and this particular story is that it aims to take these six characters or these six people and tell their stories chronologically woven together. It just became a massive jigsaw puzzle of how do you advance the ball — how do you advance the timeframe — year-by-year without going to far that you’ve skipped anything interesting in somebody’s life, but without also not going far enough that you haven’t been able to connect up to the next person. It really did become a jigsaw puzzle, and we spent a lot of time trying to put things in the right order and figure out where the holes were and understand how to work out all of the transitions. Transitions are, I think, half the battle in longform narratives is just figuring out where to put the transitions ― where to put the breaks, what happens in between the breaks, all that. And in a big project like this, where there are so many transitions, that became magnified. And I think that was one of the keys to figuring out how to make this work as a narrative was figuring out the transitions, the breaks — the breaks in between the parts and then the breaks in between the chapters that made up the parts.

 

So how did you get all of this to move forward chronologically?

I sometimes feel like a broken record as an editor — I’m often saying to writers, “Chronology is your friend! Try putting it in chronological order.” It’s not always the best way to tell a story but it is usually, I think, the best way to tell a story — for obvious reasons. But sometimes it’s a lot easier to do than others, and this was a case in which it was intensely difficult.

One of the reasons it was so difficult was that the most exciting and gripping and compelling material that Scott had was from 2011 onwards, basically the Arab Spring. That’s when all of his six characters were doing stuff, and most of his reporting was from 2011 onwards. So when we said to him, “We actually think you should start the entire piece in 1972, when the oldest of your six characters” — which is Laila Soueif, the Egyptian activist — “is in college at Cairo University and she’s getting involved in her first protest, and you should have the whole first book just go from ‘72 up to the late ‘90s,” — not a lot happens in those three decades, at least in terms of the characters. There’s a lot of history happening, but the characters themselves — there are only actually, I think, three characters introduced in the first part of this whole narrative.

And so the structure of the entire piece is sort of slow to build. It’s like you read the first part, and you’re getting a lot of history; you’re not getting a lot of action in the characters’ lives. You read the second part, which is the Iraq War, and things start to pick up a little bit. But still, there are some characters who don’t even come onto the scene until Part 3, when we get into the Arab Spring. And so it builds rather slowly, and the danger in that is that readers might not have enough patience to get to the third book, or the third part. That’s a risk we were willing to take, however. We felt like this was the right way to build this project and that if you did read through it, it had this structure where it would sort of build one part on the previous part so that by the time you got to the back half of the whole thing, you’d have this momentum. It sort of has the structure — this is going to sound ridiculous, but — it sort of has the structure of “Stairway to Heaven.”

 

Can you elaborate on that?

It starts out kind of slow — it’s good, it’s catchy, you can tell that something is happening that you like, but it’s pretty slow, the drums haven’t really kicked in yet, it doesn’t have that kind of energy. But as it moves forward it starts to slowly build up momentum, and then when it does finally cut loose with the action — or in the case of the song, with the drums and the guitar and everything — there’s just this sense of build and release and this momentum that has been slowly coming together. And I think that’s what happens in this piece. You have this sense of history being slowly assembled for you as a reader in the early parts of the work, and it’s all beginning to kind of come together and make sense as you’re hopping from character to character. And by the time you get to part three — the Arab Spring — and part four, the rise of ISIS, the chapters are much shorter because there’s a ton happening, and we’re hopping back and forth from character to character to character and that’s when the drums are playing really loudly and there’s this blood pumping through the whole thing. But it’s built up slowly over those first two parts.

 

Online, you’ve used software to save people’s positions. Have you tracked whether people are actually reading the whole piece? Are they reading it at once or are they reading it bit by bit?

Don’t know right now. We’ve had a lot of total pageviews to this. It’s been actually one of the more successful stories of the year in terms of total pageviews, but what I don’t have yet is that really fine-grain information in terms of how deep into the story people are getting and what their reading patterns are. But I will have that soon.

 

How will you determine whether this experiment succeeded?

On the one hand, it’s the same metrics we always use: Are people reading it, is it generating conversation, is it generating responses from other media, is there that sense that word-of-mouth is building on social media and elsewhere? And by all those measures the story has been extremely successful in the first week that it’s been out.

But this story also has another element which I hope will be a way to measure its success, which is that we intend for it to be an educational tool. This is part of our partnership with the Pulitzer Center: They’re going to help us bring it into classrooms in the fall — both high school and university classrooms. And there’s been a ton of interest so far from institutions that want us to come and have Scott come and talk about this and have teachers use it in classrooms. And that’s really exciting for us. There are some lesson plans the Pulitzer Center has built around this project that will be in use.

So we’ll be able to measure success in terms of whether or not this does get traction in classroom settings, and also what students think about it. Does it help them understand what’s happened in this region?

The whole reason to do this in the first place was that we felt like this is clearly perhaps the most important story in the world, it’s clearly one of the most important stories in the world, and it’s in some sense a story of the collapse of this region into, in a lot of different countries, chaos and war and the rise of terrorist organizations like ISIS. It’s a story that’s kind of on the back of everybody’s minds or the fronts of everybody’s minds at one time or another throughout our days.

And yet we really felt like there is, particularly in this country, not a really deep understanding of what happened and why, and the way currents of history kind of came together to create the fracture. So we always wanted this, particularly because of the way Scott Anderson writes. He’s such a humanist. He’s always trying to bring these larger ideas of history and politics down to an individual level, down to a human level. He has such great empathy for people and such great care and attention to individuals. And so we knew that if this worked, that Scott would be able to render these world-historical problems in the individual lens in a way that would be understandable to people. I think there are a lot of people who feel bewildered about what has happened in the Middle East over the past 15 years, and hopefully this piece and Scott’s efforts on behalf of this piece — going around talking and so forth — will give readers, give our audience a better understanding, a more visceral understanding of what’s happened there. So we’re measuring success in the obvious ways that we measure any article’s success, but we’re also going to be trying over the next six months to measure the educational impact of this work, and that will be a really interesting process for us.

 

Anything else you want to say, or plug?

The virtual reality film that goes along with this project — powerful work by Ben Solomon, who’s a visual journalist here at the Times — it’s worth mentioning it so that people who might be reading this and thinking that they’re going to check out Scott’s story will also think to check out the VR piece, because it’s a really great complement to this story. When you catch up to the present, having read all these 40,000 words and you get up to the present, and you’re wondering “What’s happening now?” — part of what’s happening now is that there are these isolated but related battles going on to retake cities that ISIS has taken control of in the past two years. And Ben’s VR piece takes you into one of these battles — in this case the battle for Fallujah just a couple months ago. And like any good virtual reality piece, it gives you this really palpable sense of presence, of what it’s like to be there on the ground and to look around this city that’s been really ravaged by more than a decade of war. And having read all of this and considered it from the comfort of flipping the pages of a magazine, it really deepens your perspective to put on a VR headset and feel as if you’re there.

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