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Interview with Gideon Lichfield

Gideon Lichfield

April 9, 2017

The Jackson School Journal had the pleasure of interviewing Gideon Lichfield, Senior Editor at the business news publication Quartz. With 16 years of experience at The Economist and postings around the world, Mr. Lichfield is a true paragon of international journalism. In this interview, he spoke with the Journal about his wide ranging experience and shared his predictions regarding global developments and the future of the journalism industry. This interview originally appeared in the Autumn 2015 Issue.

Jackson School Journal: You spent 16 years at the Economist and then you broke off and started Quartz; can you explain some of the differences between your various roles at the Economist and your current experience at Quartz?

Lichfield: The main difference is that when you’re working for a weekly print publication you’re focused on a set format – you have to only think about the journalism. Someone else has already thought about the problem of reading and distribution. When you’re working digitally, you have to think about the whole thing at once, the product as well as the journalism, and how the two work together. That’s what being at Quartz is about – it’s learning what to think about when I write a story. What can you do in terms of the framing and the packaging to make it more likely to spread? What’s its life cycle going to be like on the internet? How are people going to interact with it? You start having to think about the story as an entity with its own life, rather than about the publication as a whole. You think about the publication as a whole to the extent that there is a common sensibility, a common brand, but each item, each thing that you publish, is its own thing as well, and you have to think about its survival in the harsh world of the internet.

Jackson School Journal: The opening statement of Quartz says that it is geared at business people who need this information. How do you feel that Quartz is specifically beneficial for that audience?

Lichfield: We think about everything we write as aimed at a particular audience, which is this fairly global, relatively cosmopolitan, reasonably affluent readership of people who are interested in business issues. We think of them as the same kinds of people who read the Economist or the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times, and indeed our audience surveys suggest that they are the same people, demographically. But we think about when are they getting their information, when are they reading and on what are they reading? So, we designed it from the outset to be something people read on a mobile device. We assume that it may reach them not because they go to and open it up and see what’s there like you do with a print magazine, but that it reaches them because somebody recommended Quartz on social media, and it reaches them at various times of the day. So, we are just conscious of when it’s reaching them and how it’s reaching them because that affects things like how we publish and when we write the headlines and those sorts of things. And so even though we are trying to write about the same sorts of issues as those publications, we are also thinking about, with each individual story, how it fits into their day, and how it competes with everything else on their phone for their attention.

Jackson School Journal: Returning to the subject of the Economist, you were a correspondent in Moscow, Mexico City, and Jerusalem; in all of those cities, in all of these amazing places, how did you choose which stories to pursue, and how did you develop a network of contacts or correspondents in order to keep on top of all events that were happening?

Lichfield: I’ll start with the second question first. The way that you develop a network in a place like that is you go with a couple of names that someone has given you and you talk to them and ask them to suggest other people to talk to. Everybody you meet you try to get them to suggest other people to talk to, and you build it out. In all of these places, there is a network of foreign journalists and people are usually fairly friendly and helpful at least in getting you started, and then you just try to be gregarious and try to just go out and talk to as many people as possible. Answer all the invitations you are sent, and just be curious and cultivate their curiosity as you talk to people. Over time you learn the country and you form your networks and that’s basically it. As far as choosing the stories, that becomes a combination of things that you hear that seem interesting to you, from the conversations that you’re having with all of these people, plus conversations with your editor. Story ideas just kind of bubble up. Then there’s a conversation about which of these is actually going to be interesting for the publication I’m working for. There’s no great secret to it.

Jackson School Journal: According to your LinkedIn profile you speak over seven different languages. How did these languages affect your role and the stories that you told either at the Economist or at Quartz?

Lichfield: It’s hard to say. Being able to speak the local language obviously allows you to meet people and hear things that you don’t otherwise. I’m not sure I could point to stories that I did and was only able to do because I spoke the language, but I felt like it gave me a feel for the place and how people think and what their preoccupations are. The biggest advantage of being able to speak the language, is hearing people say in their own words what they’re thinking about and picking up the nuances of how they say it. Most of which doesn’t necessarily make its way directly into the stories you write – all of that is far too secondary and subtle – but it does inform your outlook.

“The biggest advantage of being able to speak the language, is hearing people say in their own words what it is that they’re thinking about and picking up the nuances of how they say it.”

Jackson School Journal: So did you know Russian before you went to Moscow? Did you know these languages before you were given these correspondent positions or did you learn while you were there?

Lichfield: I mostly learned on the job. Spanish I had to learn from scratch and luckily Spanish is an easy language. Russian I had studied some, so I had a basis. I did some intensive study once I got to Russia and again learned it on the job. I actually spoke Hebrew at home, so that was easy. Arabic I learned some as I went along; I still never got very good. I happen to have a good head for languages – there’s a lot of things that I don’t have a good head for, but language isn’t one of them.

Jackson School Journal: In January, you wrote an article on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Do you have any predictions about the tone of US involvement after the 2016 elections?

Lichfield: I’m trying to think of all the different candidates and what their policies might be. My assumption is that US policy towards Israel after 2016 will be either one of two things. If a Democrat is elected, there will be a sort of continuation of what there is now: a kind of limp insistence on the peace process without any real conviction and lip service to the two-state solution. If a Republican is elected, America will move towards acceptance of the Israeli belief that there is no real point in peace talks. The situation in Israel and Palestine is not conducive to peace talks at the moment. The Israeli leadership and the Israeli public basically have lost any interest in the peace process. There are parts of the Palestinian leadership that still want peace, but more for their own political legitimacy than anything else. Moreover, that leadership is far too weak and divided to really implement anything, so there isn’t really the structure or the will to make anything serious happen. I feel as if the current US administration has taken the view that it should nonetheless push for something to happen even if they know that it’s very unlikely to work. A future US administration, especially if it’s a Republican one, might say “Fine, basically we will give up trying to push the peace process because we recognize that at this point it is impossible.”

Jackson School Journal: In this article you also alluded to a Palestinian resurgence, saying that, although the Arab League had previously turned its back, it is now giving Palestine more support and moving forward with a more honest relationship…

Lichfield: Yes, and I saw something the other day that said that the first Palestinian passport had been issued, the first official passport from the state of Palestine! What is true is that the Arab League has become more sympathetic to the position of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, effectively saying “Yes, we recognize that this peace process is going nowhere so we are going to support Palestinian statehood.” But that doesn’t imply a higher chance of peace talks. The Palestinian leadership in the West Bank recognizes that it’s not getting anywhere with the peace process, putting its legitimacy at risk, and it is therefore trying to assert Palestinian independence as an identity through international institutions such as the UN.

Jackson School Journal: In 2003, you wrote an article about Russian President Vladimir Putin that was published in the Moscow Times. You compared him to a qubit, an analogy meant to illustrate that he was neither completely reactionary nor completely reformist. 12 years later, can you make any predictions about Russia’s behavior?

Lichfield: What has changed since then is that we have seen very clearly which one of the two Putin is. The two years that I spent in Moscow were a sort of transition of understanding, in general, about Putin. At the beginning, 2002, people were still unsure, and there was a lot of discussion, you know, is he really authoritarian, or is he just a rather firm reformist? Over the 2 years that I spent there, it became very clear that he was really an authoritarian. That crystallized with the arrest of Mikail Khodorkovsky and the breakup of the Yukos Oil Company. In the years we’ve seen since then, he’s become more and more authoritarian. It’s very clear that Russia is now a very corrupt and very autocratic regime, and is increasingly repressive. This begs the question, how stable is it? Putin has been in power for effectively 15 years now. He sits at the top of a pyramid of competing factions in the Kremlin. He’s been fairly good at keeping those in balance with one another, but if and when he dies or is pushed out, there will be a power struggle between those factions to take control, which could lead to a lot of political instability and general chaos. In addition, over the next few years we are going to see the Russian economy continue to decline. As quality of life falls, there may be more social unrest. The opposition in Russia is very weakened and fragmented right now, but there may be some kind of growing movement of social unrest. In addition, there are political tensions in the south of Russia, and all of this points to a situation that could end up very unstable: Not in the sense that there will be a revolution and a new regime again, but rather a lot of instability and a lot of economic uncertainty. This is very worrying when you have a very large country with nuclear weapons.

Jackson School Journal: You’ve said before that during the two years you spent in Moscow, there was a particular attitude towards journalism that was more restrictive. Did you feel restrictions yourself and did you change your tone depending on whether you were writing for the Economist or the Moscow Times?

Lichfield: The time that I was there, I certainly didn’t feel threatened or that I had to be careful what I wrote. I think that was because as a foreign correspondent a) I had a certain amount of protection just by being a foreigner, and b) the authorities weren’t really bothered by journalists who said generally bad things about Russia. The journalists who got into trouble and were killed, which happened then and is happening now with increasing frequency, tended to be Russian journalists who didn’t have a foreign government supporting them or the name of a foreign newspaper behind them, and who got very deep into local issues. They would unveil specific things done by a local governor – they would say how much money he had stolen or who he’d had killed. Journalists who did that were in severe risk and severe danger, and still are.

Jackson School Journal: You have a scientific background and in 2012, you wrote that journalism should be held to scientific standards, or should be pushed towards being held to scientific standards. Now that a few years have passed, do you see a movement in journalism towards these higher standards, citation systems, etc. and has the rapid dissemination of news, facilitated by social media, hurt the possibility of greater scientific accountability or improved it?

Lichfield: I don’t think journalism has become more scientific in general. What’s happening on the internet and social media pulls in both directions. Social media does make it a lot easier for lies or mistakes to spread. There’s that old saying “a lie, once made, has gotten halfway around the world before the truth has put its shoes on.” That’s still true. It is also true that because of social media, errors can be caught and the inaccuracy can be disseminated just as easily. So social media gives people the power to be aware of something that is incorrect and correct it. However, we’re not anywhere near a systematic organization of facts and data that would let journalism operate like a science, and I’m not sure that we’ll ever get there. However, as time goes by, people gradually become more aware of the extent to which information online is untrustworthy and so they get better at filtering for themselves.

“I don’t think that we’re anywhere near a systematic organization of fact and data, that would let journalism operate like a science…”

Jackson School Journal: Final question, how much of an emphasis is there on personal integrity and dedication to the truth in journalism today compared to the past?

Lichfield: Personal integrity comes from being honest and straightforward. The classic American news anchors in the days before the internet built up personal integrity by being that face that was seen on the television set every night. No one could displace them from that role because there were only so many channels and slots. By being in every American home, news anchors built up an aura of integrity. What has happened in the internet era is that suddenly there’s a whole lot of competition. Everybody is trying to put out their point of view, and the people who had gained their integrity and their reputation by being on TV haven’t necessarily competed very well in this new marketplace because they assumed that their status was unassailable. Then, new voices like bloggers came along and developed their own followings and, in some cases, greater credibility. This made those previously unassailable news anchors look less impressive. So, regarding the question of where personal integrity comes in today, I think it comes from writing online, being honest, being yourself, being clear about your opinions and where they come from, and admitting your mistakes when you make them. I think that the blogger Andrew Sullivan was a very good example of that. If you read a piece that he wrote when he shut down his blog, the Daily Ditch, he talks about how blogging is being as truthful as you can about what you think is true, but at the same time accepting that nothing that you write is necessarily the last word. Opinions can change and mistakes can be uncovered. The former great American news anchors had a certain air of infallibility to them, and that is what the internet punctured. Bloggers today, if they are doing a good job, don’t claim to know everything. They try to show where their ideas come from. They are also willing to be proven wrong, and they engage with the public in a dialogue. I feel like that dynamic leads to the rise of personal integrity.

Interview Edited by Evelyn McCorckle

Article featured in:

Jackson School Journal – Autumn 2015

Volume 6, Number 2. Autumn 2015