By Katrina Shakarian
At the age of seventeen, Lara Setrakian knew that she wanted to be a journalist.
That year, a foreign correspondent had visited her high school to talk about his experience reporting on the breakup of Yugoslavia. A lightbulb went off — her deep interest in the Middle East and affinity for writing and public speaking were the makings of a career. Discovering her family ties to the field only confirmed the feeling. Relatives on both sides of her family had been journalists in Lebanon during its civil war and she could trace her lineage back to book publishers in 18th century Julfa and Isfahan in Persia. They produced curated booklets of psalms for travelers to take on the road with them.
“As soon as I heard that, I knew this was my path,” said Setrakian, who spent five years as a Middle East Correspondent for ABC News and Bloomberg Television, followed by eight years at the helm of News Deeply, a digital media company of single-issue news websites.
In 2005, when Lara first started in news, there wasn’t much depth to the Middle East coverage reaching American audiences. She was eager to tell stories from the region, which she grew up hearing about at her kitchen table, with intellectual rigor and compassion.
“I’ve always seemed to like stepping into spaces that aren’t being taken care of well,” recounted Lara, who reported on piracy from the Gulf of Aden, the 2009 Iranian elections and the Arab Spring from the front lines. She was on the ground in Tahrir Square when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced his resignation.
“For me, it was all a love driven exercise. I love the Middle East. I love Iran. I love the places that I covered. It was really about giving back to the Middle East as a journalist, and through that, I found my voice and discovered so much about the world and myself.”
In 2012, when Lara stepped away from the camera to co-found News Deeply, the unrest in Syria was entering a second year. She was frustrated with coverage of the conflict — most of it one-dimensional and failing to capture the complexity of the situation. So Lara assembled a team of journalists to launch a new model for covering humanitarian news, one she’s described as an “open source research and development lab,” beginning with Syria Deeply, and then branching out to other issues — Refugees Deeply, Arctic Deeply, Oceans Deeply, Malnutrition Deeply, Ebola Deeply, Peacebuilding Deeply, Water Deeply and Women’s Advancement Deeply.
“All those years of covering the Middle East were a dream come true, but they were also a vocation,” explained Setrakian. “Then, switching gears to News Deeply felt like a moral obligation because we weren’t getting it right, not on Syria, and not on a lot of things.”
Whether explaining the Middle East to global audiences or countering the ‘fastest to break’ news culture with in-depth treatment of pressing issues — Lara has always charted her course with strong reasons why. Now, she’s in a new season, one she describes as deeply spiritual, and contemplating the next why in her journey. That season is unfolding here in Armenia where Lara, her husband and two children are among Yerevan’s newest residents.
“This is the right place to be for them,” she explained over Zoom, with Khan Academy Kids playing in the background and her daughter making the occasional cameo — first in mom’s rain boots, then waving a magic wand. “Armenia is a big part of me, and I feel called and grateful to be here right now.”
Lara grew up between New York and New Jersey in an immigrant family from Lebanon. Like many Armenians in the diaspora, her heritage figured prominently in her upbringing — a childhood of Armenian summer camp and dance group, an adulthood of Armenian causes and functions. She’s lived in New York City, Dubai, Hong Kong, and now Yerevan, a move she describes as a return to her community and an opportunity to contribute to Armenia’s development.
“There are great writers here in Armenia. I love Maria Titizian’s podcast on EVN Report. The investigative work I’ve heard about at Hetq is great. So, there’s nothing to do here but support the people who are already doing great work and who are rooted in the stories they’re covering,” said Lara, who holds the Armenian proverb բարձրացիր, բարձրացուր — rise and uplift — close to her heart. The adage was the subject of a speech that she gave at Harvard’s Memorial Church, one of her happiest memories as an undergrad there, and remains a guiding force in her life today. “I don’t feel like I need to be the protagonist anymore. I’ve had a wonderful chance to be seen and heard. Now, I’m at a place in my life where I want to help amplify other people who have something to say.”
Since arriving in Armenia, the specter of COVID-19 has lurked in the background. The pandemic reminds Lara of lessons learned from setting up Ebola Deeply during the 2014 outbreak in West Africa. In that case, News Deeply continued to scale the model first applied in Syria — building a digital community around deep domain knowledge such as original and aggregated reporting and multimedia content — all driven by local journalists and the involvement of policy practitioners and stakeholders. One takeaway was the importance of creative media and culturally relevant messaging. In this case specifically, radio soap operas helped people understand how to adapt their behaviors to stop the spread of the virus. It’s a lesson that Lara has already helped apply here in Armenia. In March, she worked with AGBU and ArmComedy, a local comedy duo, to coordinate the creation of a public service announcement, “5 tips on how to prevent Coronavirus.”
News Deeply and its portfolio of single-issue news websites has since folded, and its content archived. In fact, each one was intended to solve a specific information deficit and remain active only as long as it was needed. Built around a centralized technology and design, with sales, editing and post-production based in New York, its revenue came from a mix of sponsorships, live events, grants, impact investment and client services for think tanks, universities, private companies and organizations such as the World Economic Forum and the Global Ocean Commission.
“The business we were trying out was specialized information. Just like consultancies on oil and gas, IT, health and B2B publications in commercial areas — we wanted to see if that could work on environmental and humanitarian issues. Could we squeeze the same value and sustain the journalism?” asked Setrakian. “The answer was yes on some subjects, much harder on others.” Refugees Deeply paid for itself as long as the topic was salient, but it was much harder to generate income on Oceans Deeply and Malnutrition Deeply. The team discovered that they could create value around specialized information and audiences, but not equally across topics — it works for issues that have more of a commercial base than humanitarian topics do.
Under Lara’s leadership, News Deeply grew from a team of volunteers and having to draw from her own savings, to making millions of dollars over the course of its lifespan. “We didn’t have a cent in the beginning…nothing. Foundations and donors were all hard to come by in the first year. We were on a shoestring and did it all ourselves. We earned our way,” recounted Setrakian, who’s experience at the helm of the company reflects data from studies by Crunchbase and BCG that document a pattern of women-founded startups receiving less money than those founded by men.
As CEO of News Deeply, Lara wore many hats — manager, executor, fundraiser. “I was really bad at it in the beginning. It played against a lot of my natural strengths and preferences. I like to do journalism. I don’t like to be an administrator. I don’t like to pitch and sell. I’m not a born salesperson, not even a born businessperson,” she admitted. “But I had a lot of conviction and I wanted News Deeply to be in the world. I wanted someone who cared about an issue like Syria to come to us and be able to understand it methodically, with a lot of expertise, local Arab voices, western analysis…all of it.”
After eight years as an entrepreneur, Lara is not interested in leading another company. Nor is she after the next biggest audience and TV job. “I did the service I felt I had to do, at the time I felt I had to do it,” she explained. Now, her priorities are rebalancing her life and making up for lost time. “Every day of work I got to do on News Deeply was excruciatingly difficult. It took everything out of me. I had no maternity leave, I traveled to dozens of places when I was pregnant. It was exhausting,” she recounted, citing the support and sacrifices of her family along the way. “I gave it everything — every ounce of energy and more — and we were rewarded with so many wonderful relationships and opportunities and thanks and moments of great impact.”
Today, Lara is focused on parenting, channeling the lessons and impact of News Deeply, and figuring out where she fits in Armenia. She is listening, learning, kicking around hypotheses, and refining ideas on how she can help Armenia and its people reach their full potential. “I’ve found peace being back in a place where I’m surrounded by my culture. Where, except for the coronavirus, I can pop into an Armenian Church where I find grounding,” said Setrakian of the recent move. “For me, that happens to be something I find centering in.”
In fact, Lara anchors herself in a lifelong interest in global spiritual traditions such as Sufism, Buddhism, Catholicism, and her own Unitarian and Armenian Orthodox faith. So much so, that if she had the time, she’d love to pursue a PhD at the seminary in Etchmiadzin, the seat of the supreme head of the Armenian Church. Currently, much of her personal writing and reading revolve around self-reflection, themes of humility and service, and examining life through a moral and spiritual lens. Books such as “Everything Belongs” by Richard Rohr, and “The Road to Character” and “Second Mountain” by David Brooks have recently helped her make sense of not only where she is personally, but also where we are as a species and what her next contribution will be to moving things forward in a better direction.
Photo credit TEDNYC, January 2017
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