News > UAE Armenians > Lara Setrakian: 21st-century all-platform journalist
Based in Dubai, Setrakian covers the Gulf states and beyond
by Paul Chaderjian
You've seen her on the ABC evening news, on Good Morning America, and on the round-the-clock ABC News Now cable-satellite-Internet network. You've heard her voice on ABC News Radio, and you've read her bylines from Beirut, Tehran, and cities of the United Arab Emirates, where she resides and works.
"Nowadays they say, Dubai, Mumbai, Shanghai, or bye-bye. That's the line. This is where the growth is. This is where the money is. It's different and it's fast-paced, and they know they have some sense of what they want." She explains to me the enigma of Dubai as we sit feet away from the Starbucks at the Dubai Marina.
"And you see other cities in the Gulf trying to create for themselves the same effect. They're not trying to copy Dubai. They're trying to do it their way. Qatar and Doha, Abu Dhabi is trying to do it. Everyone is trying to ramp up. They don't want to let this oil boom pass by. It's already on the way, with oil prices dropping. But the first time around, the 70s, there is a sense here that was a bit of a missed opportunity. So they're not going to miss it again. That's the sense. They're looking to invest. They're looking to build free zones. They want to make the most of what they have. It's really a fascinating time to be here."
It's a fascinating time, and she's a fascinating woman - the chronicler of the times, the people, world events, and history.
Lara Setrakian is on the job 24-7 as an all-platform journalist, a one-woman news bureau in Dubai, filing reports on air, on the web, and on cable.
Her stories range from the financial impact of OPEC decisions on Americans to the intriguing murder of an Arab starlet, from modern technology crossing paths with Ramadan and the calls to prayer via SMS texting to the hidden $3 billion-worth cache of art treasures under lock and key in the basement of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.
These are a few of the stories reported for the past year from the Arab states of the Persian Gulf and the Middle East by this 21st-century reporter-journalist, who grew up under the guidance of her father, attorney Berge Setrakian, president of the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU). Now this daughter of the Armenian community in New York travels the world, representing one of the best-known American news networks, ABC.
"I know I'm extraordinarily lucky, and all you can do is try to be worthy of the opportunity. You have to be," she tells the Armenian Reporter. "A great line I'm obsessed with from this book I read: seize opportunity and anything that looks like opportunity. And that's what you do out here."
Yerevan, the homeland
It's the summer of 2006, and I meet Lara in the lobby of the seven-story Armenia TV building in Davitashen, a district of Yerevan. We compare notes about our employment dates at ABC News and realize we missed one another by only a few months. She had started as an off-air reporter with the Law and Justice Unit shortly after I had left my position as a writer-producer for World News Now and World News This Morning.
Armenians, like us, from all over the world have gathered for the third Armenia-Diaspora Conference in 2006. Lara is in Yerevan from New York, and she'll be serving on the media panel. I'm covering the conference for my new employer, Armenia TV, and her father has requested that we show her the Armenia TV facilities and operations.
I lead the tour, and Lara is in awe of how sophisticated broadcasters in Yerevan have become in such a short amount of time. She takes time out from her busy schedule to tape a half-hour chat show with me and talks about catching the journalism bug, the blessings she has had in her life, and all the possibilities that lie ahead for any Armenian-American interested in pursuing a career in the news business.
A few months later, she e-mails her friends and media contacts announcing her departure for Dubai, where she will be the first of a new class of ABC News network journalists.
Dubai, the "Star Wars Cantina"
We meet at the Dubai Marina. It's October 2008, and Lara is about to mark her first anniversary of her new position - a job she landed at the young age of 25. We sit in the shadows of giant glass-and-steel skyscrapers on land that a few years ago did not exist.
The city is one giant construction zone, the site of 5,000 projects going up simultaneously. It's a city Lara calls "the Star Wars Cantina."
"In my first article I called it ‘Miami with Minarets' and ‘the Star Wars Cantina,'" she says. "You see every type of person coming through here. Every class, every race, every socioeconomic grouping, and it's fascinating. And unlike other cities, especially in the Middle East, there is equality in that there's a meritocracy in place, in the macro sense. And it's also true that nearly everyone coming here, I imagine, virtually everyone coming here, has a better opportunity on the horizon than they had at home."
Lara explains her perspective of Dubai being the new land of opportunity with the story of a security guard in her building who was armed with a resume and a dream.
"He's from Cameroon, the security guard, and he's looking for something in hospitality," she says. "He asked a friend of mine, who was just walking around, and gave my friend the C.V. It was a C.V. with a business objective. It wasn't the best English, but he's there to rise."
Lara says, just like the security guard from Cameroon, there's a flood of people - professionals, investors, and bankers - coming to the shores of Dubai from the West, the East, the North, and the South. These are people who believe Dubai is where the opportunities are and where the action is. And to make room for these investors, these tourists, residents, and entrepreneurs, to make new investment opportunities, the Emirates are building up and building out.
Colossal dredging ships work around the clock to reclaim land from the Persian Gulf. There are traffic jams 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. Multibillion-dollar airports and mass-transit systems are going up. Where the empty, flat desert once was are now massive highways and grand edifices that stand as symbols of commerce and wealth. Where the sea once was are new landmasses with hundreds upon hundreds of miles of new beaches. The visionary ruler of Dubai imagined all this, and he had it built by piling up billions and billions of cubic feet of rocks and sand on the bottom of the Gulf off the shores of Dubai.
New developments, business parks, island communities, mega resorts, and neighborhoods like the Dubai Marina, Palm Jumeirah, the Palm Jebel Ali, and Palm Deira islands are home to tens of thousands of new residents, hundreds of high-rises, business parks, and hotels. One can even buy his or her own country here in an island development called the World. Created to reflect a miniature map of Earth from above, the smallest of these new islands here is worth half-a-million dollars.
In the middle of this capital city of the 21stcentury is Lara's bureau - her apartment in a high-rise apartment building from where she interviews people on the phone or via e-mail, files video and radio reports, and sets up stories to shoot in the field. Lara often shoots her own stories, often doing what we call in the industry a "stand-up" - talking to the viewer on camera - on her balcony near the Marina. When there are big stories to cover, Lara will hire professional videographers or a news crew.
"This is the first time any network has tried news coverage this way, setting up in foreign countries to pump up news coverage from these regions for television, radio, and web as digital reporters," she explains over coffee. "Functionally, there is no difference between the work we do and the work regular correspondents do for World News. We're really quite focused on web content and radio as well. I was sent out as a digital reporter. Since I started doing broadcast, radio calls me ‘correspondent.' World News just sent me my new business cards, and they say ‘correspondent'. That doesn't mean contractually I've changed my title, but they're very excited that we're digital reporters, because what that basically means is that we're focused on our digital television and web platforms and we're trained to be very proficient with technology."
Being technically proficient means Lara handles the audio and video recorders, audio and video editors, the ABC websites and servers that accept her pieces. A few clicks, and she is uploading her words and sentences in HTML code - along with photos she has snapped - to ABC sites. A few more clicks, and her voice is on the ABC radio affiliates across the United States. A beat after filing for radio, Lara will shoot a TV story, edit the tape, and upload the video, "injecting" the video and pushing it via broadband to the New York headquarters of ABC News.
"We're very, very self-sufficient," she says, explaining her position as an all-platform reporter. "Only time we need help is when we are asked to do more than we can in 24 hours, which is often, because there's a lot of demand for what's happening out here."
Depending on the needs of the various ABC News platforms, Lara may be asked to file 12 radio reports during a news day for a dozen different radio affiliates, write an article for the web, and file a TV report for ABC News Now.
"We're doing all sorts of things to make foreign news an essential part of the mix, the products that ABC News offers," she says. "There's seven of us around the world, and I'm in the first class, the class of 07. There are others in Kenya, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, South Korea, and Brazil."
Career Day in at Horace Mann High School
Rewind the tape to 1999, and young Lara is enrolled at Horace Mann High School in the Bronx. This private, Ivy-preparatory high school is considered by the likes of the Wall Street Journal as one of the top ten high schools in the U.S.
"This producer from 60 Minutes came in to talk about war reporting," she remembers. "He showed clips of the pieces he had produced reporting on the Balkan Wars. It was my second-to-last year, junior year, and I was obsessed with everything he had to say."
Shortly after David Gelber's visit, Lara wrote him and asked if she could shadow him and be around the work he was doing with 60 Minutes reporter Ed Bradley.
"My history teacher helped lobby for me to get that to happen," she says. "David really gave me a break and helped me come in and intern as a high-school student, even though the official CBS interns are college students. They go through a formal process. They don't write letters to producers, but David was really gracious, and he let me come on board."
Lara spent the summer before her senior year in high school "hanging out," she says, with Gelber and Michael Karzis, another one of the late Ed Bradley's producers.
"They were producing a piece on the case of an inmate in New Jersey who was being held without parole," say Lara. "The story was whether he should have been granted parole, whether there were political considerations and he was being denied his fair shake."
Lara spent her summer traveling to the prison with the producers and crew. Sometimes she was sent to Asbury Park, New Jersey, and asked to do research by flipping through microfiche records.
"I was still in high school, and they let me do this awesome stuff," she says. "You know it was amazing, because people always think that the media is a business where you have to know somebody. You could also just meet somebody spontaneously, and that would be just as good."
In her case, she says, she didn't know anyone. She was from an ethnic community, but the 60 Minutes producers gave her a break and turned her on to the profession.
"I got to sit next to Ed Bradley when we took the train down," she says, "and I'd pepper him with questions about his career. He always said that he got his start in radio, and that you have to get your start in radio. ‘You need to do good radio to do good television,' he'd say, and we would always talk about his career. He was an educator, and he was a radiobroadcaster when he first started."
Harvard and college radio
When Lara graduated from Horace Mann, she had already been accepted at Harvard to study political science. The first thing she says she did at Harvard was look for the campus radio station.
"I spent 80 percent of my time at the college radio station and 20 percent at the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School," she says.
As a first-year student, Lara started reading the news at WHRB, 95.3 FM. She would eventually run the news division of the Harvard radio station.
"I just wanted to do what Ed Bradley did, and do radio," she says. "And it was brilliant, because all these people come through Harvard that you can interview or try to get on the air. We interviewed Condoleezza Rice before the 2000 election. We did all sorts of things. People would take our call, and we would try to piggy back off the ever-interesting things happening at Harvard."
While learning about journalism and broadcast at WHRB, Lara would make the most out of opportunities to learn from journalists who were brought to Harvard by the Kennedy School fellowships to teach journalism for a semester or two.
"They would bring in journalists to teach practical skills, journalism, real-world types of things, real world meets the ivory tower sort of fellowship," she says. "One of the fellowships had gone to a guy named Rick Kaplan, who had just left his post at CNN and had been with ABC for decades. He's now the executive producer of Katie Couric's show on CBS."
Lara says Kaplan was one of the key contacts she made at Harvard. In addition to teaching his students "the business," Lara says, he was an inspiration and encouraged everyone to pursue their dreams. Lara says Kaplan often told her to come to work at ABC and encouraged her to apply for a series of jobs.
GMA, the Good Morning America internship
While at Harvard, Lara signed up to be an intern with GMA. During her internship, she pitched story ideas to the producers.
"The folks over there knew me to be proactive," she says. "When you're an intern, what you're going to do is fetch coffee or make photocopies. So, in my spare time, I started proposing stories. One out of 20 got on, but they remember the one that got on."
Among the stories Lara pitched to the producers at GMA was about the underground obsession college kids had at the time with Peeps, the yellow marshmallow bunnies.
"I suggested they do something when it was Easter time," she remembers. "And another story about college kids who did teeth art. It was just a little fun segment, and they did that too. And they wanted to wake up people in a fun way, and I suggested they wake up people with the Harvard swim team. Those sorts of things, and I just kept participating."
While Lara's pitches of features were fun, she made a big impression on the producers when she proposed a story about college coeds abusing prescription drugs like Adirol and crushing up other drugs to use as study aids or to get a "quick high."
After the GMA producers gave the Adirol story a green light, Lara helped them produce the segment while she was still a student at Harvard.
Graduation and a pit stop in consulting
Upon graduating from Harvard in 2004, Lara spent a year working at McKinsey & Company as a management consultant. She says even though her heart was in journalism, she wanted to give the business world a try to broaden her experience.
"I was a business analyst at McKinsey," she says, "so we were looking at companies and how they can improve. It's, like they say, you're a plumber for leaky companies, trying to find the gaps and help them improve."
While working for McKinsey, Lara was sent to Jordan on assignment and decided to travel to Beirut for work on the Jordanian project. When she was in Lebanon in February 2005, the former Lebanese prime minister, billionaire Rafiq Al-Hariri, was killed.
"My stomach just dropped," she says. "We were staying next to the explosion site. It was a little bit of a shock."
What was a bigger shock was the feeling Lara said she had in the days after the assassination.
"I wasn't there as a journalist, and I couldn't help contribute to the knowledge pool," she says. "It just felt like I was in the right place with the wrong job. We never want those things to happen, but to be there and not be able to participate in the news coverage just made me feel like something needed to change."
Law and Justice Unit at ABC News
Upon her return to the United States, Lara contacted her mentor, ABC's Rick Kaplan.
"He had been at ABC for decades, and he was always encouraging all the students and so forth," she says. "He is an amazing guy, and he said, ‘You should come here, you should come to ABC.' After the Hariri assassination, I let them know that I would really love to come back and asked what might be available that I could apply for."
Lara says she applied for a series of jobs at ABC and none of them worked out.
"The one that did happen to work out was the most unbelievable opportunity: to be off-air reporter for the Law and Justice Unit," she says. "That basically means you do a bunch of reporting to help support the correspondents when they cover big trails or Guantánamo or the Justice Department. You do what you do to help out - mostly crime and trials, research, make calls, go to the story, go to the courthouse, find papers, pitch a bunch of stories, keep an eye on what's big, do whatever you can to make a story happen."
Even though she thinks she was a bit young for the job, Lara was able to make huge strides like landing the first interviews with Guantánamo detainees that the U.S. government admitted were being held by mistake.
"The next big thing to come along was the Duke Lacrosse case," she says, "and as it started to unfold, we started breaking every big story on that case. From the DNA not matching to the faulty lineup, to the prosecutor stepping down, and then eventually the case being dropped."
Lara says her unit pushed the case forward by finding experts to comment on the case. A few days after their experts were on the air or quotes on the web, the defense would call them to testify in court.
"We were really involved in that case," she says. "We would report the stories for radio and for the web, and when we had a really big scoop - like I arranged for an interview with the grand jurors. Chris Cuomo was the guy on the case for us. He is fantastic. He's a lawyer, and he's an amazing journalist, so it's really easy to support his work on it. We would support his work and set up things like the first grand jury interview. When it was a slow day, we would just work on it and file things for radio and the web - so kinds of this high-low strategy, where you get lots of stories out, and when there's something big, you help the correspondents."
Lara says her work on the Duke Lacrosse case got noticed. This built up her own self-confidence and also reassured her employers' confidence in her abilities. After Duke, she was sent to cover the Virginia Tech shootings case and covered it for Nightline.
Dubai and reporting from the Middle East
"This has always been my dream - to be reporting in the Middle East," she tells me over pesto spaghetti in the heart of Arabia. We are in a luxurious food court that feels more like a scene out of the Housewives of Orange County or CSI: Miami in High Definition. The requisite extras, the rich, golden sunshine, silver and black sports cars, valet attendants, and multimillion dollar yachts are feet away.
"It was exactly what I wanted to do," she says, "but I had no idea how it was going to happen. I could not see - not just the forest for the trees - but you really don't know where you are in this media landscape. It's not a media environment where there is expansion and growth all over the place."
When ABC announced that it was going to open bureaus abroad and that one of the locations would be in the Middle East, Lara says she applied for the job and wanted it with all her heart and soul.
"I pushed for it and got offered the Middle East position," she says. "I'm very, very interested in the region. My area of expertise has always been Middle East politics, but the Gulf is changing so quickly and there are so many stories here that haven't been told. It's both the easiest and toughest assignment I've ever had. There are so many stories to report on, from Iran to the Gulf, to everywhere else in the region. It's also the hardest, because you're doing it in a way that we haven't tried before, and it's working."
Lara calls the Gulf region a "boom town." She says she's witnessing the boom, even though the region hasn't been immune to the economic downturn and what has happened to the credit market and real estate.
"Sheik Mohammed [ruler of Dubai and prime minister and vice-president of the UAE] basically wanted the best of everything," she says. "He once said in a network interview that he wants this place to have the best of everything. What you start to feel living here is that the vision is to have just a winner, the best-in-class city in this time zone. It's the focal point for Africa and Central Asia and the Arab world and India and Pakistan."
And focusing on the stories of the region is this 26-year-old from New York City. She is able to function in a society of the affluent, maintain contact with folks from all walks of life, engage with the local Armenian community, entertain guests from faraway places, and respond to text messages on her Blackberry while answering a reporter's questions.
In this city of the biggest malls of commerce, of indoor ski slopes and seven-star hotels, of migrant workers from India living in work camps, of Islam intersecting with commerce, Lara has to be the expert multitasker from a new generation of technology-savvy youngsters. She has to function in a new world and in a new way. Her to-do list is long. The number of calls and e-mails she has to return to a number of producers and news planers is longer. And her list of stories is even longer. Lara says there are always at least 50 story ideas on her list, and each of them as important as the next.
"The ideas keep coming; they're everywhere," she says. "And there's a real demand for them. What I love about the job that we have now is that it should shut up any person who thought there was no interest in foreign news, that Americans aren't interested in foreign news, that American networks are not interested. ABC made a huge investment in us to bring back these stories, and they're putting them on, and the audience is responding in a really fascinating and beautiful way."
Lara says what's opened doors for her throughout the Middle East is part of the legacy the late Peter Jennings left behind.
"People know ABC News, they know our shows, and they're broadcast out here on affiliate stations," she says. "When I travel to Iran and Saudi Arabia, and of course in Lebanon, people know ABC News, because Peter Jennings created the momentum of our coverage of the world, especially the Middle East. And I don't have trouble being a woman doing this, by the way."
Before I leave the Marina so that Lara can pen an article about Barack Obama and Gulf reaction to the then-upcoming elections, I ask her to tell me about how people have reacted to her successes at ABC News.
"My friends tell me they're proud of me, and it happens a lot," she says. "My tanteegs [aunts] say they're proud of me. My family says they're proud of me. That happens a lot. As I move around, people do know what I do when they hear my name. And that's great. It's a very public job. It feels like public service when you're doing it, and then it's for public consumption and you know people are out there reading your stuff. You hope they're reading your stuff and seeing it, commenting and engaging, that's what would be the best."
Her last words to me are that communities - and Armenian parents - should be supportive of their journalists and young people who aspire to practice journalism.
"It's not a traditional career path, and it's not always easy, when the pressure is to go to a conventional profession like medicine or law or engineering or business," she says. "But this is a great thing: to be able to contribute to the knowledge pool in little drips and drops."
And what goes though her mind when she hears Charlie Gibson read her name from the New York anchor desk of World News Tonight? "What do you think when your story is about to reach an audience of nearly 10,000,000 viewers at the same time?" I ask her.
"I think we did good," she responds. "We chose a story that was worthy of air, and we did it well enough for the seniors to put it on for Charlie's show. It's not about you. It's about what you did, the story you told, the characters you featured, and how you put it together. Otherwise they wouldn't put it on. It feels more like a vote of confidence than anything."
Source: "The Armenian Reporter", 22 January 2009