And I met up with Kilcullen, we were talking around a bar, and he used some kind of hot language to describe the Iraq war. I thought that was just good stuff to quote—the interview was on the record, and so forth. And so I quoted that and I put it in the piece. It was literally just one word in this piece, but it caused him some agitation, and he wrote a post on Small Wars Journal clarifying his views on Iraq, and I read it and thought, ‘That’s a really fair point,’ and I wrote a post explaining not just why I used the word that I used in the quotation, but that in retrospect I was wrong and I shouldn’t have done that, basically because it detracted from the broader story that I was telling and that Kilcullen was really working on.
And it got me thinking about the difference between a hot quote and explanatory capability, and perhaps if I wasn’t so focused on getting this piece to kind of pop as much as I could, I would have not made that judgment error. And what I liked about that was of course not just the embarrassment that that caused me and the difficulties it caused Dave, but that a reader could see the thought process that went into that decision, and could see it change. There’s a lot of times that I think reporters are afraid to say straight up that they made mistakes, that there were judgment calls that they shouldn’t have made, and more importantly don’t explain to their readers what the circumstances were that led to that, and that’s a kind of outmoded way of thinking. There’s an appetite for people who are our readers who’ve been frustrated at the opacity of journalism for years to have a more personal connection with authors.
GM: What are your strategies for dealing with the challenges of not having a legacy brand behind you?
SA: I try to see what’s behind a certain story, or see if I can really get into its guts. That’s something that often a marquee publication won’t always allow a reporter on what can often be a niche beat to really get into. Here, I’ve written stories about the continuation about the provincial reconstruction team program in Iraq. Some publications, and I’ve worked for some, don’t always allow you—for good reasons of considering what their more general audience expects—to do something like a really deep in the weeds piece or post about a particular program.
And at the Independent, we recognize we’re not a newspaper and we’re not a news network, and we’re not an aggregator—we’re not going to be all things to all people. We’re not going to be a news organization that provides you with everything you need to know during the day. What we are going to be is a news organization that provides you with extremely deep, detailed, innovative coverage on select beats, that we think an audience wants to know more about, and particularly wants to know more about in an online fashion. And I think there’s something that was missing before we came along, in terms of really, really deep coverage on these particular topics that have proven to have a resonance and a readership, in particular online.
GM: So if you’re filling a need that hadn’t been filled before, who do you see as your primary competition, either other publications or other reporters on your beat? Who do you measure yourself against?
SA: Who do I shake my fist and say, ‘Oh man, I wish I had that?’ Julian Barnes at the LA Times is doing fantastic work, in terms of covering the military, in terms of covering the Gates Pentagon, in terms of covering its changes. I just gain a tremendous amount every time I read his stuff. He went to Afghanistan recently with Gates, interviewed McChrystal. There are some people who will just take the newsmaker interview and sort of leave it there; he injected a tremendous amount of skepticism, a tremendous amount of context, and his stuff’s great. Yochi Dreazen at the Wall Street Journal does the same thing.