An Interview with Uri Friedman, Senior Editor at The Atlantic

Uri Friedman is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Global section. He was previously the deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a B.A. in European History.

The Politic: At what point in your life did you decide you wanted to be a journalist?

I think it probably started in high school or middle school. I was reading articles and books by Mitch Albom, who was writing about sports and Michigan and the Fab Five. I started reading other journalists too, and I really liked their writing. So in high school I turned that into writing for the paper. It was an operation of one – just me in a room with my advisor doing our little school paper. But I really, really liked that, and I knew I wanted to keep doing journalism once I got to college. I went to the University of Pennsylvania and worked for The Daily Pennsylvanian.

Interestingly, I didn’t major in Journalism. I didn’t even take a journalism class at Penn until spring semester of my senior year. It was during the 2008 elections, during the primaries with Obama and Clinton. The professor was Dick Polman, who taught a great class – an introduction to blogging. We blogged about the election, and then we got to share it with each other in the class. I loved that, so after school I decided I wanted to pursue journalism. But when I was looking for jobs after school, it was a really precarious time for journalism. It was right before the financial crisis, and the Internet transition had made media very shaky. So, it took me a while to get comfortable with the idea that I was going to do this for a career as opposed to trying it out and seeing how it goes.

The Politic: I want to talk more about that Internet transition you mentioned. I know The Atlantic especially has a huge online component. How has that impacted your work? Do you prefer print or online journalism?

Print journalism has its benefits– you can really go in-depth and spend a lot more time editing pieces. You have the time to really figure things out and do much deeper reporting. But I like online for now, and that’s what I focus on at The Atlantic. I focus on international coverage, which is just so fast-paced that when something like the Iran Deal happens, you’re scrambling and editing quickly. You can essentially move things around and approach things from different directions – that’s an extraordinary thing. You also have the opportunity to really expand types of coverage. You can do infographics or interactive pieces.

I’ve recently been thinking how to do the in-depth journalism The Atlantic is known for, but in a way that’s done quickly and in short posts. It would be online but also meet The Atlantic’s level of quality and deep thinking. When I came into journalism in 2008 (it was the year of blogging still), I came to The Atlantic at a time when there was a much more conversational tone – people were kind of talking to each other in conversations that were continuing and ongoing. The media at The Atlantic has shifted a lot now. Now it’s a lot more about social media and Facebook, which changes how you do journalism. It’s changed your audience. Your front page is Facebook, not your home page. You need to write a post that will do well on Facebook and get social traction. It’s become less a conversation between journalists and more about trying to speak to your audience. I like that because it’s constantly shifting and evolving. It can be discouraging at times – when I have to change things up and do things differently ­– but it also makes me very excited to constantly think about how to respond to a new environment and continue to innovate.

The Politic: In terms of international relations, technological developments have caused huge shifts in the way news travels. How do you think the field of journalism will continue to change, and how will that impact coverage of global events or international relations?

You have to think of your audience differently. You have an opportunity to think of your audience as global. The Atlantic was founded as part of the abolitionist movement in the 1850s. It focused on the American ideal, and explored America’s role in the world. And that’s important – The Atlantic has always tried, as much as any publication can, to stay true to its core mission. I’ve been thinking about that recently, because if our audience is more global – through the Internet we can reach people in many different countries – how much should we focus on America? I’ve been trying to do more ideas-driven international affairs coverage – highlighting big ideas that are not necessarily U.S.-focused. I’m looking for writers overseas to cover things that are a huge deal in different countries – like the porn ban in India, which is creating lots of waves on social media and raising really big public policy issues, but hasn’t really made it twitch in the United States. How do we talk about that, so we can capture the conversation in India but also bring that issue to the American reader? Now that we can reach so many people so easily, how does that change what coverage we do?

I also think there’s this aggregation of distribution. At one point in The Atlantic’s lifetime, people subscribed to the magazine itself. Now people go to our website, or read articles on their phones. So what does that mean for a brand? There’s a different atmosphere and different way of people accessing your publication. We have to think about how to be true to our mission when people are coming to us maybe for the first time or from a variety of different backgrounds. It’s a challenge, but also an opportunity to reach a bigger audience and find ways to experiment with what our brand is really about.

The Politic: Let’s talk more about your position as Global Editor of The Atlantic. What are your specific responsibilities there? How do you choose what you or other writers for your section cover on any given day?

The way The Atlantic works is that we have different sections and there’s a different editor of each section. In some ways, we each run a mini-site – it’s always in communication with the larger site, but we’re thinking about what exactly we want to cover that day. What are the pieces we’re going to run? Is there enough variety, and enough coverage of the big news issues? We can’t cover everything, so we want to cover issues that are really important to us. I try to think with my colleagues about what we’re going to run each day.

I also write about how we live today. To be honest, I cover international affairs, but I’m not as interested in it. The world is much more varied and rich than what one president is saying to another. I’ve covered a hashtag started by someone in Botswana about if Africa was a bar (#IfAfricaWasABar), and it was people saying what their country would be like. I did something very silly on why Americans call soccer ‘soccer’ and why Brits call it ‘football.’ The objective is finding ways that can make you say ‘huh,’ that can stick with you and make international affairs sit with you personally. The world is full of people, so I try to cover issues that speak to me in my everyday life. I try to make things much more accessible and compelling. International affairs can be intimidating, in a way. There had always been a stigma associated with international affairs coverage –newspapers would subsidize it with their style section and car ads. Papers had to find a way to support it because no one wanted to read it. But I don’t think that’s true. I think there’s a huge appetite for international affairs, but we have to find ways of making it more digestible.

The Politic: I’ve noticed you use a lot of infographics in your online articles. What is your goal in using visuals and interactive features in your work?

I think visuals make articles more accessible. I’m a bit obsessed with maps, so I try to include them whenever I can. But maps can sometimes be misleading. I remember that during the Ukraine crisis, this map was getting passed around and people were like, ‘This map explains Ukraine – here in the West people speak Ukrainian, and in the East they speak Russian, hence Ukraine is divided.’ But it’s a lot more complicated than that – people speak different languages in different parts of the country. And just because you speak Russian doesn’t mean you sympathize with Moscow. So there are times when, in our love of maps – which offer a fantastic way of getting people’s attention – we can kind of “overvalidate” them. But maps and infographics are incredibly helpful when used correctly. They can really make complicated issues much more digestible and interesting to people.

The Politic: What is one specific moment in your career that you are most proud of or most stands out to you?

From a personal perspective, there was an important moment a few years after I signed up to make a career out of journalism as opposed to doing something else. I think a lot of aspiring journalists worry, ‘Is this a stable enough industry?’ or ‘Is this really something I can make a career out of?’ And I had that trepidation for a while too. But when I decided that ‘Yes, I could make this work,’ it was an amazing feeling.

Professionally, something recent that I’m proud of is The Atlantic’s Iran Deal coverage. I think it’s a really important issue for us, and the way in which we’ve been doing it over the past several weeks has really been a testament to what The Atlantic is about. What I like about The Atlantic – and what I was initially attracted to – is its intellectual honesty; it really tries to wrestle with complex issues. I never wanted to be part of a publication that was clearly identified one side of the political spectrum or another. I enjoy having a variety of views and The Atlantic has that – one of their slogans is ‘Of No Party or Clique.’ The idea is that they are not attached to any particular faction, and are fair-minded.

We had people for and against the Iran deal; I organized a roundtable with three of our writers: Peter Beinart, David Frum, and Jeffrey Goldberg. The idea was that they would email each other back and forth about the merits of the deal. One was in the middle, one was clearly for the deal, and one was clearly against it. We’ve also done an interview with John Kerry and an interview with Marco Rubio. For me, multiple people taking to the pages to dissect this deal and talk about it in a way that is not blindly ideological but actually present to the complex issue, was really a proud moment for me. It was dissecting one of the most important foreign policy debates in the last decade, and The Atlantic was one of the only places that could do it in that way.

The Politic: Because you mentioned it, do you mind if I ask your personal opinion about the Iran Deal? It’s okay if you take a pass on this question. 

 Yeah, you know what? I’m going to take a pass on that one. Honestly, I see both sides of this one. I think that’s a testament to journalism in the first place – I’m not a very ideological person; I often see many different sides of an issue. I like that about journalism because you’re trying to observe but not necessarily intervene in a given debate. Also, from the perspective of writing, I try not to do things that are particularly opinionated as well. But there is a different feeling attached to the editing of a section, where you don’t want to necessarily go in. I think some people will feel fine about doing that, and I tend to kind of edit those people.

The Politic: That’s another thing I wanted to ask – as the editor of a section, do you find that you often have to stop people from taking too strong of a stance on issues one way or another? Or do you let people show their opinions as long as there is coverage on many different sides of the spectrum?

It’s interesting because you can’t say “no” to a piece just because you don’t agree with it. What I care about as an editor is if this author is writing in an intellectually honest way. Is this person writing with nuance and acknowledging countervailing points? Are they getting their facts rights? I have to care about things like that. Are they logically sound in their argument? Are there unfair accusations being made? You have to think about things like that as opposed to ‘do I agree?’ I mean, that’s just not the criteria for accepting or rejecting a piece.

I think the idea of an objective journalist is an illusion. There’s no such a thing as an objective journalist, but you work toward that goal of objectivity and say to yourself, ‘I’m going to be open to different viewpoints; I’m going to try to see other sides of the argument.’ I think the aspiration of objectivity is important in journalism, even if it’s not a goal that anyone can actually achieve. I also think that this is a moment in journalism where one’s objectivity is being questioned. Some people say it’s totally fine to share your opinion on things. I think that it is, but you have to be careful.

The Politic: What would your advice be to young students in college who are thinking of becoming journalists after graduation?

I would say it’s a great career; I totally encourage them to explore it. I think some people have concerns about whether they can make it as a journalist, but it’s definitely worth a try. The job is extremely exciting; every day is different. What you focus on is different, and every single day you learn something new. I do think, from a career perspective, that journalists used to write for a paper in a small town and then move on to a city paper. There are internships and fellowships at big city publications. That’s not the only way to do it but that’s what I did, and I think a lot of people do it that way now. It’s a good way to get your foot in the door of a publication. This kind of career is extremely dynamic – there’s a lot of innovation happening, and you can do so many new things now. You don’t just write. You edit, record videos, and take photographs. You can really have a very varied job.

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