Journalist | New York Times Bestselling Author
Tell us about your work at Foreign Policy magazine (FP). How did you become the Executive Editor of the print magazine through January 2018?
Journalism is an ever-changing field. When I first joined Foreign Policy in 2008, the publication was part of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (and more of a policy-oriented journal than a news magazine) with a very small web presence. Within a short time, The Washington Post bought the publication and Susan Glasser came in as the editor. She had a forward-moving vision for FP and brought fast-paced change, namely getting the publication online with a news-driven bend. We launched a new website and I was suddenly learning how to code, writing and editing daily blog posts, culling news feeds. It was a crash course in online journalism that helped hone my sense of news as well as build my metabolism as a writer and editor.
Over time, my roles took different shapes and evolved, often in step with the changes and transitions the magazines continued to make. When the editor of the print magazine decided to leave FP at the end of 2016, David Rothkopf (my boss at the time) said: “I’d like you to take over.” It wasn’t a job I initially wanted, but in the end I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to incorporate all the things I loved doing at FP — working on long-form and in-depth feature stories, assigning original photojournalism, and building narratives that were reported and written by talented journalists in often far-flung, dangerous, and inaccessible places.
During my time at FP, the thread that guided me to new positions was rooted in the idea that I always wanted to be learning as much as I was enjoying, to be a part of something that felt valuable and important.
You left Foreign Policy magazine after 10 years. What motivated that decision?
This decision came on the wave of another transition. The end of 2016 through 2017 was an unforgiving time to be in a newsroom. As an organization, FP was experiencing some changes in leadership and mission. For me, that change was an opportunity to make an exit, personal as much as professional.
I had been the editor of the magazine for a year and had the chance to produce a lot of wonderful, wide-ranging stories that represented the kind of reporting FP has always done so well. I was incredibly proud of that work, but it had been a long, exhausting year and my mind was turning to other projects outside of the magazine. It just felt like the right time to go.
You are the author of War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History, and Love, a New York Times Bestseller. How did the idea for this book come about?
This idea originated from my working relationship with Tom Ricks a longtime Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who covered both the Iraq War and Afghanistan War. I was one of the editors working with him on his blog for FP, and by then one of my jobs was photo editing.
I found images to accompany stories, put together slideshows and photo essays (I love building pictorial narratives). In late-2009 and early-2010, the photos coming off the wire from Afghanistan were particularly brutal. I was accustomed to a certain view—images of U.S. military boots on the ground, bombings, civilian injuries, bloody limbs, bodies. One day, I came across these photos of bomb-sniffing dogs, but it was a totally unexpected framing—these dogs were happy, rolling around with their handlers who were smiling and laughing. These photos were telling a completely different story.
I sent the images to Tom and suggested he run them on his blog. He loved the idea but said I should write the post myself. I agreed and fell down the war-dog rabbit hole. It is a fascinating, niche topic with a rich history. I published the post, and it turned into something that Tom called “Rebecca’s War Dog of the Week.” I started writing a weekly post for him and he gave me the title of Chief-Canine-Correspondent.
In 2011, when the Osama bin Laden raid happened, there was news that a dog had been with the Navy SEALs. I put together a photo essay to explain why these dogs would be part of this mission, how incredibly valuable they are, and photos that show the amazing things they can do. I wanted to find a grabbing opening photo and mined the military’s photo archive. I found a photo of a dog and his handler jumping out of a helicopter into the ocean. The piece went viral.
All of a sudden, there was so much interest in these dogs. I was getting calls to do television and radio interviews, and publishers contacted me asking: “Would you want to write a book about this?” And now, I have a retired war dog living with me.
You are currently focusing on personal projects, which includes writing a second book. Can you tell us about it?
I am working on what will hopefully become a book; I am still in the proposal-writing phase. As a journalist, writer, and editor, storytelling and narrative are very important to me. This second book is a World War II memoir about two families stories of survival, love, and the fated encounters that connected them.
The other projects include writing essays. The first is a piece about adopting Dyngo (my dog) a former Air Force bomb-sniffing dog who deployed to Afghanistan three times. It’s about what it was like to bring him home, our early days together—not an easy time—and what the retirement of one military working dog can tell us about serving in the military and going to war.
What inspired you to pursue a career in journalism?
I grew up loving books, and read a lot as a kid, and always wanted to write; I always wanted to be around stories. In college, I landed a job working as an assistant to a writer and spent a couple of years working on her book, and even went with her on her book tour. She was very successful and encouraging, always telling me that I could do it too. After that, I never really considered anything else.
When I got the job at FP, I had just left my job as managing editor of Moment Magazine (a Jewish literary publication), and though by then I was confident in my skills as an editor, I did not have a policy background. My depth of knowledge about international affairs beyond Middle East politics and domestic American policy was slight, and the learning curve was steep. But editing, journalism, at the bare bones of it, whether it’s a reported piece or an op-ed, is using language to communicate, it is in essence storytelling.
When did your interest in US foreign policy become clear to you?
On some level, I was always interested in foreign policy, especially international journalism and reporting on how the world works. There were a few vivid moments when I finally felt comfortable in my foreign policy post. In those early days when I was still getting my bearings, a bunch of us were sitting around and a colleague made a seriously wonky joke about something that would’ve otherwise gone right over my head. But I laughed. I got the joke.
But that more serious realization, the weight of the work I was doing at the magazine, came into clear focus during the most harrowing news events: The Arab Spring, the attacks in Paris, the rise of ISIS, the aftermath of the MSF hospital bombing in Kunduz, Afghanistan. My job at FP meant sending colleagues and other journalists and photojournalists to cover these events and the stories that surround them. Reporters take on the risks involved because they believe the stories they tell are critical. As an editor, there’s a tremendous responsibility that comes with knowing that.
As a woman with an impressive career in journalism, what has it been like breaking into the field, and what has helped you succeed?
For me, it always goes back to hard work, to not being afraid of change or taking advantage of an unknown opportunity, and building and maintaining relationships. In a competitive work environment, I think people tend to believe kindness comes across as weakness. That’s never been my experience, ever. Not on a team or as a leader.
What advice might you offer to early-career women interested in journalism and foreign affairs?
I believe gaining your footing in any job is about learning to trust yourself and about appreciating both good and bad experiences because they’ll teach you what you’re capable of. If it’s on a colossal scale, failures can be traumatic, but failure—even small, regular ones—are necessary for growth. To give one small example, I often didn’t speak up during story idea meetings at FP. There were extremely smart and confident people at those meetings, and they seemed to know a lot about everything. Early on, I found that very intimidating; I had ideas but didn't always feel confident sharing them. Instead, I would raise my thoughts later and my boss would ask why I didn’t bring it up at the meeting. Confidence is built over time. Speak up, even if you’re not sure of your own voice yet.
Also, don’t let other people determine your value. In one sense, I mean this literally. Women should feel confident initiating discussions about money and their own advancement. However empowered a generation of women we are at this moment, this idea among women that “If I work really hard and do everything right, I will be rewarded for it because that’s what is fair,” persists. In some situations that will be what happens, but often times it won’t. If you don’t vocalize the things you want or deserve, the chances that you’re going to get it decrease. I’ve said to people working for me: “If you want something, you need to ask me for it.” I might say: “No,” and the person above me might say: “No,” but that will probably be the worst thing that happens.
There will be people in your career who say: “No” when the answer should be “Yes,” or tell you that you’re not good enough. I have been there, and it’s not a good feeling. When I approached an editor that I respected and admired about writing my book, they told me I shouldn’t pursue it because book writing would be too hard for me, that my strengths lay in other aspects of journalism. That was really hard to hear, but it lit a fire in my belly.
Stay determined, don’t wait for someone else to give you permission. If you want to be a reporter, do the reporting and be a reporter. You have to find the opportunities you want, and if you need to, create them for yourself.