Sean Ryan is the man responsible for the Sunday Times’ brilliant reporting from abroad. As the foreign editor, he controls what stories make it into the paper, a rather hard task in recent months with the Arab Spring, Osama Bin Laden’s death and more recently the capture of Ratko Mladic. In a candid interview, Ryan explains how he was forced to be the foreign editor, the lengths a reporter went to get a story in Libya and about how much he pays for articles for his section.
How did you get into journalism?
I went to Oxford and got on to the Thompson Regional Newspaper Trainee Scheme, training on the Reading Evening Post. From there I joined the Daily Mail and from there The Sunday Times.
Did you always want to be a journalist?
I wanted to direct plays when I was at university and I made quite a late decision to switch to journalism. So I got a little bit of experience at BBC Radio Oxford which had a student news slot late on Friday night and that gave me experience of a couple of interviews, and I wrote those up and used those to persuade the Evening Post to take me on.
What inspired that change?
There was no money in theatre and friends who had tried in the year above me were still unemployed a year later. For journalism, it was really the excitement of the unpredictability of it.
Was that excitement what drew you to being a foreign editor?
No they made me. I came here to cover environmental and I covered science and I was deputy news ed and then I edited our Focus pages – Focus is the full length news feature. And then I was called in and told I was being made foreign editor so I didn’t have any say in the matter. That was 13 years ago.
And you’ve enjoyed it since?
Oh hugely, I think of all the executive jobs its the most exciting because there’s always several really interesting things going on in the world and you can’t always say that of Britain.
What skills do you need to be an editor?
In terms of skill to be an editor, you need presentation skills which you don’t necessarily learn as a reporter, because you’ve got to keep your editor interested in what the reporter is doing, to maintain confidence in them and their stories and your department so that’s something I had to pick up fairly quickly. You also need skill to go for not necessarily the strongest stories but the best mix of stories so that you haven’t got too much politics, you haven’t got too much crime or too many grim stories, you’ve got a nice mix of the heavyweight stories and something lighter to entertain people as well.
Is it possible to learn those skills?
I suppose it’s very different. What actually happened to me was we launched an irish edition and my friend was the editor of the Irish edition and when he went on holiday I stood in for him and that was my first little taste of having ideas and then getting people to carry them out and then designing the pages to make them look good and project them well, put the right pictures and then rewrite them a bit to make them as polished as possible and I found that process surprisingly exciting. So that’s why I went on the news desk and I sort of carried on from there. The exciting bits are running your own team and building that up as much as finances allow, trying to spot good talent to bring in and try to make sure everyone is well motivated and then spotting the opportunities for really great reporting, reporting that wins awards.
So last week we were the first into Misrata in Libya which we’d had our eye on for several weeks because it was besieged and you couldn’t get into Misrata except on coach trips from Tripoli to the outskirts. But we knew that the civilians had been shelled for three weeks, four weeks, in a row quite intensively and we’d heard from the occasional doctor who managed to get a call out that it was getting very grim there but nobody had actually seen what was happening inside and you couldn’t get there by road.
So our reporter went on a gun runner’s trawlers, it was a 300 mile journey from Benghazi to Misrata, enormously difficult to get on the boat, the journey itself was an ordeal because two NATO warships tried to turn the trawler back because it was carrying weapons, our reporter spoke to natives and tried to persuade them not to stop the trawler and eventually that battle was one and then when she got there, she found extraordinarily powerful human stories with a real purpose to them, the purpose being nobody really knew how bad things were there and the people in Misrata were crying out for more help from NATO and more humanitarian assistance and I thought that piece of reporting had tremendous impact. We splashed with it and we ran a Focus spread inside and it was one of the best things we’ve had this year. So that’s what I love to look out for, those kind of opportunities to beat the opposition on the international stories is enormously exciting.
With so many stories around the world, is it hard to choose which will work best?
I suppose you’ve got more choice than other editors but I don’t find it hard, I think once you’ve been in a job for six months you start to trust your instincts and you start to know what stories read well and what will look good on the page and you just go for those. And you know that the European Parliament is not going to turn you on and therefore it’s not going to turn your readers on so you’re looking for exciting stuff all the time. One of the great criteria for judging a story is the old fashioned wow factor, does it surprise you, does it excite you, does it make you want to talk about it to other people and if it does all of those things then you’re onto a winner. If not it might be important but it might be deal in which case it won’t go into our paper.
Is there pressure in the idea that you’re shaping people’s opinions about the world?
I don’t think like that. I’ve never really thought of shaping opinion in that way although I suppose people might say that we show bias in favour of or against a particular country. Where we get a big post bag is when we write about something sensitive like the Israeli/Palestinian conflict where lots of members of the Jewish lobby will take us to task if they think we’ve created an unfavorable impression of Israel, if we’ve reported the Palestinian casualties in what people are describing as a disproportionately forceful Israeli attack on Gaza, for example. And then equally we’ll get complaints the next week from the Arab lobby saying we’ve reported too favourable the reasons for Israel’s airstrikes or the repercussion within Israel for any retaliation by Palestinians so you are aware of sensitivities where some countries are concerned because readers let you know but I don’t think we set out to shape people’s opinions, it just happens the way a story is reported.
What is the cost of foreign news?
I think I’m right in saying that it costs about £150,000 to have a Washington office because that is the cost, most newspapers spend that on their bureau. For a story, that is free if we have an office somewhere, if we pay a freelance to do a story, we might pay £600 for a page lead and £250 for a story that doesn’t get in the paper or is a very small downpage story so the costs vary enormously. Of course, we have to be acutely conscious of how much stories cost before we commission then because resources are getting tighter all the time so in the years that I’ve been in my job the budget had been cut for most of those years thought it has been increased for some of those years. In recent years the trend is very much downward, reflecting the downward trend in advertising and circulation. As newspaper revenue falls, of course we’ve got less to spend on editorial, everyone’s in the same boat and we just have to accept that.
Foreign news is extremely expensive to do well so not every paper has dec to maintain foreign news in the same way my paper has, or the Guardian has, or the Times. Other papers have cut back on their foreign coverage, it’s an easy cut to make. But we think it’s an important investment to make, not least because we think international success online depends partly on good depth and breadth of foreign coverage.
You spoken previously about getting experience in foreign news and the benefits of young journalists going to a country and pitching stories. Is this something you’d advocate?
That’s one way, although it’s not the way for everybody. One way is just to do what I did and get trained up on a local paper, get some experience, you can do that on some national papers as well through work experience and then go out and make your mark. Or you can take yourself straight off if you’re really confident where you can spot a gap in the market. So at the moment, we don’t have anyone pitching stories to us from Spain so if somebody has a knowledge of Spain or a bit of Spanish or just an inclination to live there, they’ve got a chance of pitching stories that might make it into the paper. It’s important not to do it too early because if you’re very inexperienced and you file terrible copy and it causes problems, the next time you pitch a story I will probably say no.
What advice would you give someone looking to get into foreign reporting?
I think if people are thinking about a career as a foreign correspondent it’s a good idea to talk to someone who’s been through the mill so you can gauge what the next 20 years might have in store for you. It’s a rough ride in many ways, I don’t want to be too negative, there are lots of very exciting aspects of it and some of it is occasionally a little bit glamourous. But if you’re covering a range of stories including wars then there is certainly a toll on family life and relationships and it’s difficult to be away from home at short notice and miss kids’ birthday parties and it’s difficult to be away from home for months on end as some people have been in Libya now because obviously that puts a strain on a marriage or relationship.
There’s also a psychological toll which I think as an industry we’re becoming increasingly aware of which is the tendency to suffer from depression as a result of traumatic experiences that you’ll inevitability accumulate along the way. So we have had cases of post-traumatic distress disorder diagnosed in several of our reporters and it’s deeply distressing to witness. It takes a lot of treatment and a long time to recover from, although I’m pleased to say that in all cases, we’ve seen a full recovery and people have gone back to work and come to terms with what they’ve experienced in the past. But it’s not easy and it’s not good going into being a foreign correspondent thinking it’s all travel and meeting people and being on the frontline of a war because there’s a heavy price to pay.
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