Laura Kasinof, Freelance Journalist & New York Times Stringer
Laura Kasinof did not set out to become a reporter for The New York Times. Which is probably good, as the success rate of young journalists gunning for that prize is surely abysmal. As is often the case with great adventures, Kasinof came to find herself sending dispatches from a closed country torn by unrest to the desk of an editor in America’s most prestigious newsroom through a series of unexpected turns and unforeseeable developments. She fell into her pot of gold by means of what is often the only way; backwards and without trying.
“It’s a really funny story,” she told me. “It all began at this party one night.”
Following a college career spent studying Arabic and political science, Kasinof had envisioned herself working in international affairs, perhaps for the U.S. government. Upon graduating, she decided on a pre-career gambit made by tens of thousands of young Americans before her. She moved overseas to teach English.
As Kasinof began relating her story, I was struck by the speed of her delivery. There is a kind of head-long exuberance to her speech which was at odds with my stereotype of a foreign correspondent. When I’d called Kasinof I’d anticipated hearing a world-weary woman with a coffee-and-cigarettes voice doling out sardonic anecdotes about automatic weapons fire and sandstorms. Kasinof’s voice had coffee in it alright. She sounded like she was hooked up to an IV drip.
As it turned out, the job teaching English didn’t last long. No matter. With that gig ending, Kasinof landed a job at an English-language magazine. Using that as her launching pad, she started freelancing for other publications, still with no intention of being a journalist.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” she told me. Then came the late night party. Some guy, a journalist, strikes up a conversation with her. After a while he asks why she isn’t writing for Western publications.
“You’re young, you speak Arabic. Why don’t you do it?”
The answer struck her as obvious. “I didn’t study journalism.”
The man waved away her concerns. “He was like, ‘Screw that. All you need is a good idea.’ ”
Kasinof’s run in Egypt eventually came to a close in 2008, at which point she returned to New York. Following a period of fruitless job searching she found herself at another party, an inauguration soiree following President Obama’s election. Kasinof confided to a friend at the party that she was considering a return to Egypt. He suggested she consider Yemen.
“There are no Western journalists there,” he pointed out. “And it’s awesome.”
Two months later she moved.
Kasinof had found even Cairo to be a market oversaturated with English-language journalists. Not so Yemen. When she arrived in March 2009 she was able to secure an initial job writing for The Christian Science Monitor. She set up shop in the old city of Sana’a, living in a house with nine other foreigners.
Kasinof returned to Cairo in January of 2010, taking a job as a research assistant at the New York Times bureau there. During this stint in Cairo she really started to cut her teeth doing some minor reporting. “I’d go out and get quotes and write up notes and then take them back to the office,” she recalls. “I just learned it from doing it.”
One day bureau chief Michael Slackman was busy doing something and Kasinof was tasked with writing something for The Times. Once she’d punched up a draft the chief helped her rearrange things. Although she’d been writing for a long time, she still had much to learn about the idiosyncracies of writing for a newspaper.
“He said, ‘No, this paragraph needs to go here, this one here.’ Then I saw it. Each news story is kind of framed the same. It’s very different from other types of writing. It’s a formula.”
After Slackman departed from Cairo, Kasinof headed back to Yemen. She’d agreed to help a young American documentary filmmaker named Adam Sjoberg navigate the city, thinking she would only stay a month. The day Sjoberg left a wave of massive protests kicked off. Kasinof had just fallen into her pot of gold.
“I called The Times and said, ‘I can write.’ I was really in the right place at the right time. Other journalists couldn’t get in, so those of us who were there had a monopoly.”
At first The Times wouldn’t let Kasinof have a byline of her own. After a while though, as she continued to write stories at a rate of one per day, they loosened the leash. She began writing exclusively for The New York Times.
“I was what they call a stringer,” she explained. “That’s when you’re a freelancer who has a set gig with one publication.”
I was curious as to whether she pitched stories to her editors.
“It totally depends. If AP and Reuters, what they call the wires, are covering stuff, The Times wants to cover that.
It was during this feverish three-month period when she was writing a story every day that Kasinof began to learn in earnest about the nuts and bolts of on-the-ground reporting. Her handler at The Times would call her, but she would have no electricity with which to read an email or get online. So, she would have the person on the other end of the phone read her the story. Then she would run to a coffee shop or friend’s house that had a generator. Other times she would hear explosions, see the Reuters wire light up with reports of shelling, and then simply run upstairs and try to pinpoint the location by sight from her roof.
Resourceful though she was, much of Kasinof’s reporting wouldn’t have been possible without the help of that indefatigable resource of all great foreign correspondents, the local fixer.
“Let’s say a bomb goes off in a city in the south,” Kasinof said. “I don’t know anybody there. But my fixer does and I ask him to call somebody.” She paused, fondly. “God bless him, he was good.”
While romantic, reporting from the streets of Sana’a during the midst of a violent government crackdown was a harrowing experience. “I’ve had people say, ‘I’m jealous of you,’ but it was one of the most intense moments of my life. I’d never seen anyone fire a gun in my entire life. All of a sudden I’m seeing people shoot other people.”
In addition to the story of her journey to working with The Times, I wanted to ask Kasinof about one of the more tenuous, interpersonal aspects of reporting. What is it like, I wondered, to work to get someone’s trust and then write something negative about them? Does that feel like a kind of betrayal?
“That’s a good question. It’s different with each person, and it’s one thing I struggle with a lot. Hopefully you’re portraying the truth.” She paused for a moment. “I’ve got a high level example. Tawakkul Karman, the Nobel Peace prize recipient, once said something to me that would make her look really bad. She was talking to me as if I were a friend, but I had my notebook open and was recording.
“If I’m sitting at lunch with a Yemeni official and he’s not taking me seriously, that’s not my problem. I’m friendly with everyone. People act naturally with me. In part, it’s because I’m a young woman and they don’t take me as seriously, so they say things that they normally wouldn’t. They let their guard down. Some people I need to keep up the relationship with. If I’ve known them longer I might feel like I owe them more. And some people I don’t care. If they’ve said it to me on the record, it’s like, ‘You’re an idiot, I don’t care.’ ”
Kasinof admitted that it was harder to use that “on the record” justification in a culture where many people don’t fully grasp western concepts of journalism, and that she sometimes bore this in mind when making decisions about what to print.
“If someone says something to me that’s technically on the record, well, Yemenis don’t know what that means. They don’t know how to deal with journalists. I don’t want to ruin relationships down the road, and I don’t like a having a relationship where people are just thinking I’m trying to use them. I wish I didn’t have the burden of knowing I could ruin people’s careers by writing about them in The New York Times.
In the end, Kasinof told me that she has been insulated from backlash to some extent by the fact that many of her articles simply weren’t ever translated into Arabic.
As our conversation came to a close, I quizzed Kasinof on the general experience of being a white female reporter in one of the most traditional, patriarchal societies in the Middle East. She confirmed what most people would suspect, which is that the rails are fairly well greased for anyone who can name drop The New York Times. And she was quick to laud the Yemeni everyman for his grace and kindness.
“Yemenis have traditionally had a protect-the-foreigner mentality, which would take a lot of Americans by surprise given the Al Qaeda in Yemen rhetoric. Their core ideology goes against traditional Yemeni views, which hold that it is very shameful for a foreigner to be hurt. Yes, there are a small percentage of the men who have developed an ideology where they would attack a westerner. They are such a minority I can’t tell you.”
Yemenis on the street were amused by her command of Arabic, and the way she would crack wise about stereotypes involving different cities, or the Yemeni vice president. Currently back in the States and working on a book proposal, there was a certain longing in Kasinof’s storytelling. Just as we were finishing, she told me that there was another reason she’d had such success on the streets of Sana’a.
“The other thing is that I was in a famous Yemeni TV show in 2009,” she said. “My Arabic teacher knew somebody. I was in like ten episodes. I got kidnapped, then rescued. People would come up to me and say, ‘You’re the actress.’ ”
“When I went back to cover the election, they were replaying the show. So everybody started to recognize me again. I was trying to interview people on the day of the election and all they wanted to talk about was the show. I was pleading for quotes and they were yelling my lines at me. I was in Aden at one point, which is even dodgier than Sana’a, interviewing these displaced persons in a school. I ask this guy, ‘Is Al Qaeda giving you food?’ His eyes light up and he says ‘You’re the actress!’ ”