This is the second of a series of interviews with Iranian journalists who have dedicated their careers to communicating Iran's complexities and contradictions to those outside of the country. Read the first: Talking to Golnaz Esfandiari, English-Language Journalism's ‘Bridge’ to Iran.
Iranian media entrepreneur Kelly Golnoush Niknejad is the founder of ‘Tehran Bureau,’ a successful news agency hosted by The Guardian that covers Iran and the Iranian diaspora. Niknejad left a career as a California attorney to pursue her passion for journalism. She describes the thrill of the ‘messy press’ room over the orderly courtrooms as one of her initiations in the field. She then enrolled in the Columbia School of Journalism, where she first got the idea to start a news platform dedicated to her home country of Iran.
Starting as a small blog in her parents living room, Niknejad explains how Tehran Bureau ‘shot into the stratosphere’ with the Green Movement, and how she’s now cemented her project as one of the leading sources of coverage that gives a ‘dynamic’ view of Iran’s culture, politics, and people.
Global Voices (GV): What was your inspiration for Tehran Bureau?
Kelly Golnoush Niknejad (KGN): My muse: Iran, and certainly the difficulties of reporting from there.
GV: Tehran Bureau was up and running before the 2009 Green Movement. How did your platform react to the massive interest and focus on Iran following that period?
KGN: We were on top of it. We led a lot of the post-election coverage, earning a “must read” status from The New York Times. Foreign Policy credited us with making the internet respectable.
GV: What were some of the lessons learned during that period?
KGN: I had theories about why reporting from Iran was fraught with bias and inaccuracies. During the election, my ideas were put to the test. I think we passed with flying colors. I learned to trust myself even more than I already did. My idea for Tehran Bureau though came about at a time of relative freedom under President Khatami. I’m proud it worked under more difficult circumstances. But it’s when Iran seems relatively more open that I think a vehicle like this is needed. With Ahmadinejad, you knew what you were getting. Everybody did. With savvier people running the government, I’m not so sure.
GV: How did you respond to the conclusions that a “Twitter revolution” was occurring inside of Iran given that you yourself were caught in the crosshairs of this “revolution” reporting on it from abroad?
KGN: Most of our reporters were in Iran. I was tweeting their reporting from Boston. They were gathering the information and I was putting it out from a safe place. Those who tried to judge the merits of a “Twitter Revolution” by counting the number of tweets coming directly from an Iranian IP address missed the forest for the trees. Twitter is a social networking tool stripped down to its most fundamental. Without it, news of the protests may not have traveled so widely. Yes, post-election reports erupted on YouTube and other channels, but they became public when they made their way to that narrow intersection between the personal sphere and the public one. It’s where the news and videos found a wider audience than our Facebook friends and those we reached through our email address book. It was on Twitter where some in the media already had a listening post. It may be common now, but it wasn’t then.
I had to take to Twitter once our website was taken down by a powerful denial of service attack. Our site was very popular but not as much as it was on Twitter. Tehran Bureau’s Twitter reporting on the elections and the aftermath was cobbled into narratives on the New York Times’ Lede blog and Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish. Our Twitter feed, @TehranBureau, went from a few hundred followers to 19,000 in two days. It felt like a revolution to me.
GV: The effects of new media have significantly changed the flows of information into, within and out of Iran. If western audiences look in the right places, they can find authentic Iranian voices, and your website happens to be one of these places. How does Tehran Bureau manage this network of Iranian journalists?
KGN: With great difficulty. You have to be a journalist, but a psychiatrist, professor, and mind reader as well. You have to be a diplomat to negotiate the wide gulf between Iranian culture and the West. It requires a lot of patience. It’s a 24/7 job. Forget weekends. The start of the week in Iran is Saturday, just when you want to wind down for a couple of days. Any attempted vacation backfires. Big news always breaks when you’re on a long transatlantic flight with no internet access.
GV: How would you compare journalistic standards in Persian-language media to standards practices in North America and Europe?
KGN: It’s very different, liking comparing apples and oranges, or something more dissimilar. In the absence of political parties in Iran, the media serves as a tool for different political groups within the establishment. There are incredibly courageous journalists working within that system. But their methods are very different. They have to be. In the West, we value clear writing and transparency. In Iran, they often have to be opaque to keep themselves out of trouble. That’s not even the tip of the iceberg. Idealistically speaking, I don’t think you can have journalism without freedom of the press.
GV: You’ve described your correspondents as not ‘citizen journalists’, but professional journalists under cover. Does this mean you train them?
KGN: Yes, absolutely. It’s a complicated process. This is a constant battle. I don’t think you can learn to be a journalist from a weekend seminar or by ticking off a series of multiple-choice answers. I’m interested in training that is challenging and ongoing, even as you progress. And that’s what we try to do.
GV: Have you decided not to return to Iran? And if so, when did that turning point happen?
KGN: There are moments when I love the idea of being there, but it passes. I’ve never thought of going back. I had a very difficult experience living there during the revolution and in the eighties. Iran has changed dramatically, especially for people who like to have plastic surgery and drive fast cars. But for people like me, things haven’t changed. Whether you’re covering Iran from Qatar, Dubai, or Tehran, the Middle East and journalism don’t go together well.
GV: Is there one misconception about Iran that you often find yourself correcting, or explaining to non-Iranians?
KGN: No one thing in particular. I think many Americans see the Middle East as one homogeneous whole. They often hear about something that happened in Saudi Arabia and think it also takes place in the UAE or Iran. Or they may think ISIS practices extend to other Muslims.
When it comes to Iran, I often find myself having to go all the way back to 1979, then explaining the transformations that took place decade-by-decade, just to make sense of the present. It’s sometimes even hard for Iranians themselves to believe what goes on in Iran, let alone non-Iranians. This explains why it’s vital to cover Iran from the “bottom up,” chronicling the lives of ordinary people. Covering a country by reporting on the pronouncements of the ruling elite is probably the least interesting or informative kind of journalism. That’s why even very sophisticated people who follow the news on Iran have no idea what goes on there. Of course if they followed Tehran Bureau though, they would get a very dynamic view.
GV: You started off as a lawyer, but you have always had a foot in the door of the media. Can you tell me a bit about your story, and evolution into this field?
KGN: I started my professional life as an attorney. Even though I passed the California bar on my first try, to everyone’s horror, I moved to Paris and was trying to write a novel instead of making a lot of money practicing law. I decided to take what I thought would be a light part-time job as a news reporter to make ends meet. I was covering criminal courts — murder trials and the like — for a news agency headquartered in Los Angeles. I got the job because of my legal background. When I went to the downtown courthouse in San Diego for my interview, I remember the excitement I felt by the sight of the “Press Room” sign over the door. Obviously there was something wrong with me. I’d been to that building many times as a law clerk and even a lawyer. But I got a lot more excited by being in that messy press room among journalists. It was marvelous. Love at first sight. I’ve been feeding off that adrenaline rush for a long time.
GV: You’ve explained this started off as a blog in your parents living room, then it grew into a PBS project, and now your project is being hosted by one of the most respected journalistic platforms. Can you tell me a bit about this evolution?
KGN: I got the idea to start Tehran Bureau in journalism school. I couldn’t get any funding to launch it, so I went at it alone and empty handed. That’s where my parents’ living room comes in. Within the first week of its launch, our reporting was cited by ABC News and BBC World Service in English. A syndication agency picked up Tehran Bureau and started putting out our stories alongside Le Monde diplomatique’s and other well established news sources. The first client to purchase one of our syndicated stories was The New York Times. It was a great victory.
Then the election happened and Tehran Bureau shot into the stratosphere. Just about everyone turned to us for coverage. I ended up on the front page of the Boston Globe, profiled across the country by the Associated Press and NPR. The media blitz got the attention of a lot of people, including the wonderful people I had worked with at PBS Frontline on “Showdown with Iran”. They read or heard one of these stories and got in touch. Like everyone else, they thought Tehran Bureau was loaded. They thought I had managed this with a lot of funding. They offered to help. Entering a partnership with Frontline was like winning the journalism lottery. They deeply care about investigative journalism. I had the fortune of having Frontline serve as our incubator. While there, we won several awards and got a lot of recognition for our work. London though is much closer to the Iran story than Boston. The Guardian seemed like the most dynamic place to be. Emily Bell of the Tow Center at Columbia Journalism School introduced me to Alan Rusbridger, the editor-in-chief, and things proceeded from there.
GV: I’m continually impressed by the power of the Iranian diaspora’s savvy in various enterprises, including media. I consider you a successful innovator in Iranian media outside of the country. Do you see yourself as that at all, a media entrepreneur?
KGN: I was the inaugural recipient of the Innovator Award from Columbia Journalism School, for “inspiring, creating, developing, or implementing new ideas that further the cause of journalism.” I’d never thought of myself that way. I was just doing what made sense, what needed doing. So I guess I became one by necessity. Journalists I highly respect have often told me that not just with respect to Iran, but in the realm of single subject reporting and new media, Tehran Bureau has been a pioneer and trendsetter. In my more ambitious moments I like to believe it because I have a lot more ideas.
GV: Is there one particular story from Tehran Bureau that strikes you as your favourite, or the most significant?
KGN: That’s like asking which child is your favorite.