The first thing that Lara Setrakian ever said to me changed my life. I met her last fall, when we were both on a “new media” panel at an event for women journalists. Besides me, there were three other women on the panel, all of them awe-inspiring: Maura Johnston, the editor of Maura Magazine; Lam Thuy Vo, the web editor of Al Jazeera America; and Lara, a founder and the executive editor of Syria Deeply, part of a larger new media/social enterprise called News Deeply. Before the Q&A started, we were each expected to speak for about 10 minutes about what we were working on. Part of the reason I said yes to participating was that I have an extreme fear of public speaking, which I’m trying to overcome by forcing myself to do it over and over and over. So when I walked into the venue, I was in a state of high anxiety. I met Maura and Lam first, and told them how scared I was. They were very kind, telling me it would be fine, that I would do great, etc. All very nice but unfortunately not that helpful, in my case. Then Lara came over and introduced herself. I told her I was shaking in fear of what was to come. And she kneeled in front of my seat, looked me in the eye, and gave me the best—and the only effective—advice I have ever gotten on conquering this particular fear. “Anaheed,” she said, “you have to fall in love with them.” “Them” being the audience. “In love” being quite literal, and when it comes to humans who have taken time out of their day to gather somewhere and listen to what you have to say, not that hard to do. It’s the only thing that has ever calmed my nerves about public speaking, and I’m passing it on to you today. IT WORKS, you guys.
The project she was there to talk about was her latest (and coolest), the immersive-news website Syria Deeply. Before creating it, she had spent five years reporting on the Middle East as a correspondent for ABC News and Bloomberg and had grown frustrated with the necessarily shallow coverage she could provide in three-minute on-air dispatches. So she quit those jobs and started a website that would use every tool available—including interactive maps and timelines, Soundcloud news reports, and Google Hangouts where a bunch of experts could talk to one another while the public watched—to help people understand what was going on in Syria.
My own speech that day (about Rookie—what did you think?) didn’t bring down the house; I did fine. But I’m super glad I didn’t have to follow Lara, who let out a full-on barrage of unadulterated inspiration. Like, when someone asked her what to do if you’ve created something and it’s not all you wanted it to be, she said (I’m paraphrasing from memory), “Did you make it? Then it’s great. It didn’t exist, then you had an idea and you made it real? Then it’s great, it’s great, it’s great.” Sigh. She is basically my Oprah, so I was very honored to get the chance to interview her about how she got to where she is in her career. Unsurprisingly, she was full of all kinds of inspiring advice for not just journalists but anyone who wants to make something and send it out into the world. (Let’s also take a moment to appreciate her Twitter handle: @Lara. How badass is that?)
ANAHEED: Can you explain to us what Syria Deeply is?
LARA SETRAKIAN: So, I started a news company where 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, which can be so hard to understand, the best approach would be to add more explanation: Who’s who? Why did this thing start to begin with? What is going on in that country? How are we gonna piece it all together? We wanted to help people understand all of this by piecing it together for them.
What were you seeing in the news that made you think this was needed?
I was a reporter on television covering the Middle East. And that was really fun, but I felt like viewers still didn’t really understand what was going on over there. There was so much more that people needed to know, and that I felt they wanted to know.
Right now, the way the news works, you only get stories in a two-minute TV report or in an 800-word newspaper article, right? We wanted to do the news in a totally different way, where we would use technology to help people put the story together. But we needed to start our own media company to do that. So, Syria Deeply was a chance to create a different way to approach journalism. It was a dream of mine, and I got together with some friends and we just made it happen. And now, a year later, we’re a media company! Pretty awesome.
What’s different structurally about your website versus a traditional news website?
What was most important to us was that we provide a lot of background information on every story about Syria. We had this really cool opportunity to approach news 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.
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!” ’Cause I don’t know how to build shit, you know? One of the big lessons I learned from this whole process was that you never know which friends or which teacher or mentor is going to help you make your dream happen. 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 keeps you believing that it can happen?
You have to have a lot of faith in yourself. Use a journal every day, and every day you write in that journal, you know, “Here’s what I want to do for the world, and here’s what I’m dreaming, and here’s what I hope will happen.” Go back to that journal to remind yourself why this is so important to you. And find other ways to keep your energy high: Do yoga or run or do something to maintain your energy, you know? All it takes is persistence and commitment. That’s it. And a little bit of courage. Because when you start putting it out there, magic things will happen.
That sounds awful to me, because I know people always say, like, “Keep going, be persistent.” It sounds like it’s gonna be just a lot of heavy lifting for a long time. But the truth is, the reason you have to be persistent is that you’re always getting ever so much closer to the right answer. That’s why you keep going—because you figure things out along the way. It’s a long, lonely journey to figuring out how to build your dreams.
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. That’s so important. Give the best of you, and really great things will happen.
You mean instead of focusing on what you can get from of what you’re doing?
Yeah! If you have five people reading your blog, you dedicate yourself to those five people. And you dedicate yourself to giving those five people the best gosh-darn thing to read that you can give. And those five people will become 15, and 50, and 100, because you focused on the people you have. You focused on them, you were grateful for them, and you did your best, and they stuck around because of that. Focus on what you have, and it will grow over time.
I kind of go back and forth on that idea of serving your audience. I mean, obviously that’s important, and at Rookie we try to give as much as we can to our readers. But at the same time if I am only working for the readers and not for my own pleasure and enjoyment, I can burn out really quickly. For self-preservation, I sometimes have to remind myself that we should be making what we want to make, what we would want to read, regardless of whether anybody else likes it. Because you can kind of drive yourself crazy trying to please everyone.
I think especially as women, we are really hard on ourselves. And we can be really mean to ourselves! We would never be as mean to our friends as we are to ourselves. If you can be aware of that and stop yourself from being so critical of yourself, or from doing something and then regretting it and beating yourself up, that will help so much. It will make you a happier person! And everyone will be better off. I mean, listening to what you just told me—that you want to serve your users—you’re being so hard on yourself! You’re imagining that your users won’t be satisfied with something that you’re really satisfied with. Maybe you’re misreading your users! What if they’re just like you? And what you love to write and what you love to do—that’s the best you can give. So why are you imagining that someone out there doesn’t like what you love?
I mean, I’m telling you this, and I’m also saying it to every reader of Rookie: You need to be really nice to yourself. Like, shockingly nice to yourself. So nice to yourself it makes you gasp. Because you deserve it! And we do the opposite—we bring ourselves down. And that does nothing good.
Was it hard to leave your high-status and I imagine fairly lucrative jobs on TV to start your own thing, without a safety net?
It was really scary at first not to be working for an established company. I was like, “What am I gonna say when I meet people?” And then my friends told me, “You’re gonna say you’re Lara Setrakian.” [Laughs] My friends believed in me more than I believed in myself. And once I could believe in myself, everything changed!
This is reminding me of another question I had, which is, first of all, you are one of the most straight-up inspiring speakers I’ve ever seen.
Clearly you have a natural talent for public speaking, which is probably why you were so successful as an on-air correspondent. You left that job to do something much more behind-the-scenes. I wonder if the public speaking part of it is really easy for you, and if what you’re doing now is way harder because it’s not based on a magical gift of yours.
[Laughs] You nailed it! Speaking in public, being a television journalist, was easy; building a startup was a challenge—but maybe that’s why I like it! The truth is that I think my career will ultimately be a fusion of being a tech entrepreneur and being an on-air correspondent. I think journalism and technology are going to really start to intersect beyond anything we’ve ever seen. I think it’s fundamentally good to do what doesn’t come naturally to you every once in a while. Because you learn a lot about yourself along the way.
I did what I had to do to build the things I believed in building. As glamorous and as exciting as it was to be on TV, sometimes an idea moves you that requires your immediate attention. And if you’re in a place in life where you can make that idea happen, you have to try. At the end of the day, it’s exciting and fun to be in the spotlight, but it’s just television—it will always be there, you know? You have to remember what you’re in it for. As a journalist, you shouldn’t be in it to be on television. 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.