AramcoWorld’s longtime editor discusses the magazine’s legacy and the importance of positive story telling in the Middle East
Managing editor (2003-2014)
Assistant editor (1994-2003)
‘Gazing Upon Beauty’ by Ana Carreño Leyva (Vol. 65, No. 4, July/August 2014, Granada, Spain)
‘The article took readers to the Alhambra in Granada, through the eyes of four generations of artists who all experienced artistic growth, even transformation, there. Written by an editor from Granada, the article was like a curated exhibition in its own right. It’s one of the best we’ve ever produced, in my opinion – though there would be a lot of close seconds!’
‘There’s a classic definition of journalism – that it’s about what’s changing. Whereas sociology is about what isn’t changing. AramcoWorld tends to lean more towards sociology – looking at what’s normal’
What were you doing prior to joining AramcoWorld in 1994?
I graduated from the University of Missouri with a degree in photojournalism and magazine editing in 1992 and also had a University of Missouri School of Journalism grant to pursue a book project, ‘Gaza: Legacy of Occupation’. I was in Gaza over the winters of 1993 and 1994 and saw how journalists operating within the conventional news structure had to gravitate towards the more conflict-driven stories. I found such a rich subtext there. During my second trip, I was doing a story for AramcoWorld on the history of Gaza and a historian welcomed me with so much enthusiasm. He said, ‘Thank God, a journalist who’s interested in our history, not just politics.’ That kind of affirmation really reinforced the value of looking at the cultural and historical side of reporting in places that are very much politicised in the news media.
Do you think AramcoWorld has kept its niche as a positive and cultural representation of the Middle East?
We very much hold our niche, but over the past 30 years many other publications have become resources in similar ways. It’s quite wonderfully crowded now. Our value is that we’re a place where a reader can read an in-depth story. We’re still running 1,500 to 4,000 word articles, when many magazines and news outlets have had to shorten their pieces. We’ll still give a photographer the chance to do a visual narrative that can go for 15 to 30 pictures. We edit and publish with an eye to a long term future – we want our articles to be useful 20 years from now.
There’s such an extensive history behind the magazine – were you handed a list of veteran contributors when you came on board?
It was like I was welcomed into a great big virtual room filled with people that I then got to meet over the years. I get to work with fascinating people: specialists, journalists, freelancers, researchers, professors, archaeologists, photographers, adventurers… all kinds of people who are often really happy to have an opportunity to tell a positive story about a region where coverage is often limited to politics.
What’s the editorial approach of the magazine?
We generally run four to six features per print issue. In every issue I look for a mix of geography, visual style, length and authorship. We might include an illustrated short story from North America alongside a longer piece from the Gulf with archival archaeological photography and then a photojournalistic piece from Central Asia. It’s all a big mix – I think of it as a good salad.
The publishing industry has been through many changes during AramcoWorld’s existence. How has the magazine adapted?
The print edition is the core of our publishing and there are many people who treasure it, but at the same time it has all the advantages and disadvantages of print. In 2015, we launched a newly designed website, and also began reaching out more proactively on Facebook and Instagram. We’ve adopted a digital first stance, so we’re very much adapting to the technologies of publishing and the ways that people are consuming information. We launched a digital photo archive in 2002 and the first digital edition of the magazine was published at the end of 2003.
Have your mediums of storytelling evolved too?
Our world has become more visual and today visual journalism means video, as much as photography. Right now I feel like I’m participating in and also midwifing what might be another generation of the magazine. Like many publications, we’re trying to tell stories on the platforms where people are. We’re here to help our readers in their own journey to enlarge their sense of the world and its interrelationships – video does that really well.
How do you feel AramcoWorld’s reporting on the Middle East has changed in its more than 65 year history? Has its message become any more vital?
The magazine has been around through many political sub-eras. We do pay attention to what’s happening politically at a given time. All politics are relationships and as those relationships intensify there’s interest in other dimensions. One of our missions is to help people understand how complex and fascinating the world is. In a recent issue we had a story called ‘Hadrian’s Syrians’ about Syrian archers who were deployed by the Roman army along Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. A story like this fits into our larger political context. People are interested in Syria and in multiculturalism in Britain for all kinds of different reasons, and this story gives some very deep background on a multicultural moment in Britain that nobody knows about.
This article appears in the issue66Buy Now