by Erin Luhmann
April 2, 2013 – American correspondent Lara Setrakian had secured her dream broadcast job in the Middle East. She broke coverage on a hidden treasure trove harboring museum-grade art in Iran worth $3 billion. She also interviewed the elusive Somali president when scares of pirate attacks off the East African coast dominated international headlines. Then, to the surprise of her colleagues, she stepped outside of the limelight.
In the fall of 2012, she traded in journalistic fame to pursue News Deeply, a digital media venture that aims to offer comprehensive coverage of a widely misunderstood area of the world. Convinced of Setrakian’s passion for the Middle East region, along with her drive to facilitate a more engaged dialogue on the digital frontier, the IWMF chose to support Setrakian as one of this year’s Women Entrepreneurs in the Digital News Frontier.
“It almost would have been easier had I been 22, but… I was 30 and I was starting to get some traction,” said Setrakian, reflecting on her paused broadcast career. “But it was okay because I felt that strongly about what I was doing and that made everything else possible”
Lara Setrakian speaks to a traditional tribal woman in the United Arab Emirates Setrakian’s interest in Middle Eastern affairs intertwines with her family history. She grew up in an ethnic household in New York, piecing together stories of her Armenian heritage that she collected from family members who immigrated from across the Middle East. Her curiosity thrived, but many of her questions went unanswered.
“There are certain things [that are] never said,” Setrakian explained of her family’s war-strewn narrative. “For some families, especially when it’s too close, it just kind of gets swept under the rug. A lot of immigrant families experience this in the first generation.”
Part of her family’s first generation born in the U.S., Setrakian pursued government and foreign language studies at Harvard University. At the same time, her natural curiosity steered her toward journalism. By the time she graduated in 2004, she had already gained production experience at CBS News and ABC News and begun specializing in Middle Eastern affairs.
Lara Setrakian covering regional financial markets from Bloomberg’s Dubai bureau ABC News picked up on Setrakian’s digital production talent and stationed her in Dubai in 2007. From this base, she unleashed her tireless pursuit of cultural, political, and historical understanding. Bloomberg Television sought out her content as well, providing Setrakian with an intensely rich five-year career abroad. She came to realize, however, that her full vantage point wasn’t reaching Americans.
“At a time when I’ve had an opportunity to keep traveling and expanding…my fellow Americans have fewer opportunities, it seems, to hear about the outside world, digest it, and encounter it,” she explained.
Intent on bridging this media disconnect, she began sketching up plans for a new model for foreign news consumption. While many media professionals lamented the loss of foreign bureaus, Setrakian saw potential for improvement.
“There’s an opportunity now to connect many, many, many more stories and do much more,” she said. “I think the future of journalism is blindingly bright. It’s just a different configuration, a different format.”
Setrakian admits that her decision to work full-time on Syria Deeply, a beta version of News Deeply, evoked a sensible amount of fear over the unknown. However, she took comfort in two key things: her conviction over the need for a new foreign media experience and how liberating it felt to trade in a fancy byline and spot in front of the camera to pursue something even more rewarding.
“I did it out of love,” said Setrakain. “I love people on both sides of the story. There are people in Syria who are dying to be understood and there are people in the U.S. […] who are interested in this issue and feel empowered when they understand it better and feel moved when they hear the human story.”
In order to best provide context to the conflict in Syria, Syria Deeply utilizes an innovative digital platform. Its team of professional journalists, editorial experts, and tech developers work on curating a mix of content from on-the-ground Twitter feeds, Facebook, mainstream news clips, video, expert op-eds, and relevant data sets in a single space.
The Syria Deeply that launched in beta represents roughly 30 percent of what Setrakian and her co-founder, Azeo Fables, have in mind. Once they’ve perfected the single subject website by tweaking Syria Deeply, they plan to expand the model to cover other complex, regionally based global issues.
They launched this pilot project in December 2012, and Setrakain secured backing from the IWMF this spring in the form of a $20,000 grant and coaching. Moving forward, she has concrete plans for utilizing these new resources. The money will go toward paying developers, but she feels the legal and business mentorship means the most.
“When you’re doing this for the first time, sometimes you don’t even know the questions to ask, so it’s a really valuable thing,” said Setrakian.
Working her way through each entrepreneurial challenge, as they present themselves, she appreciates how this experience has challenged her to acknowledge and address her weaknesses. Making the switch from reporter to managing editor, she quickly realized that she would have to replace her “just in time” work habits with long-term planning skills.
As she faces additional obstacles in adopting to her new role at the News Deeply start up, Setrakian looks to the IWMF’s long list of Courage in Journalism Award winners to draw strength and inspiration from.
“It’s easy for us. We just do the job we love and let it shine,” said Setrakian, putting the privilege most Western reporters enjoy into perspective. But for women like May Chidiac, a Lebanese IWMF Courage in Journalism Awardee Setrakian admires, she continued, “It puts them in harm’s way, makes them a target.”
Having covered conflict in the Middle East, Setrakian values a shared sense of responsibility and capability with these women. Beyond this group, she encourages all female journalists to stop and take inventory of the skills that they have to offer in the digital media realm.
Noting core qualities that have served her well – the ability to be intuitive, nimble, humble, scrappy, patient, and persistent – Setrakian said, “I think the space of digital entrepreneurship is made for us women.”
Lara Setrakian on a shoot for ABC World News in Petra, Jordan
Lara Setrakian covering regional financial markets from Bloomberg’s Dubai bureau
Lara Setrakian reports from on board the USS Lewis & Clark, on patrol for Somali pirates in the Gulf ot Aden
Lara Setrakian on a shoot for ABC World News in Petra, Jordan
Lara Setrakian speaks to a traditional tribal woman in the United Arab Emirates