Making the World a Better Place
With Joshua Cooper Ramo, Time’s World Editor
Ramo is an editor driven by conscience.
When Time magazine brought out its February 12 issue on AIDS in Africa this year, James Kelly, the magazine’s managing director, asked readers to join him in making a contribution to slowing down this calamity. Readers who wanted to help, the magazine instructed, could go to Netaid.org, an arm of the UN, and donate aid kits. For instance, at $19, a training and care kit includes the cost of training a patient’s community and family members as well four pairs of gloves, disinfectant, condoms, nutritional food packs, painkillers and vitamins.
Involving readers directly is a departure from Time’s tradition, and the man behind this move is Joshua Cooper Ramo, the magazine’s world editor. Ramo, 32, became the youngest senior editor at Time at 27, and world editor at 29. He grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico and graduated in Latin American Studies from the University of Chicago before doing his masters in economics at New York University. Before joining Time, he was a science and technology reporter at Newsweek where he helped develop its online service.
He began his project almost two years ago when the magazine published a special report on amputees in Sierra Leone and coordinated with the International Rescue Committee so that readers could make donations to help injured people. It followed that up with a story on children orphaned by AIDS in Zimbabwe, in which it asked readers willing to help to contribute to UNICEF.
In its April 17 issue last year, Ramo turned his attention to mother and child mortality in Rwanda where, the magazine says, one out of every nine mothers dies in childbirth and 40 percent of children die before the age of five. In a letter to readers, Ramo defined what he calls global community journalism: "When we developed this story idea, we wanted to ensure it would be supplemented by an aid effort that would allow readers to help out." Working with the Rescue Committee and Netaid, Time developed the idea of distributing birthing kits in Rwanda. Readers could buy the eight-dollar kits, which included clean cloth, umbilical sutures, razor blades and soap, on the Netaid site.
Q. What made you abandon the traditional approach of just reporting a story and instead try to actively draw in readers?
A. When I started these projects two and a half or three years ago, my goal was to make readers approach stories differently. I wanted to make the stories compelling and let the readers do something. I wanted to make the readers interested in foreign news, which is very important.
Q. Is interest in foreign news declining?
A. It’s declining. I can tell you it’s very low. The reason for this is because the Cold War has ended and also because of the way we cover international news. The challenge I have in my magazine every day is how to get the readers to read my section. I had a pretty vivid sense when I took the job that we needed to find a different way to cover international news. Simply repeating the news of the week didn’t add much value. Mostly what I wanted to do was find innovative ways to talk about the world we live in. Fun and innovation has continued to be my strategy, though the tactics I use change and develop every week.
Q. So this global community journalism is more than just that. It’s also a good magazine strategy.
A. Absolutely. My number one objective as an editor, as a journalist, is to make the world a better place. To do something about making it a better place. I have access to 20 million readers a week worldwide. If they are not reading my section, there’s no way I can get them to help. So, it’s a combination of those two desires — first how do you make the world a better place. Second, how do you get people to pay attention to your section.
Q. Has this approach been rewarding? How has the reader response been?
A. Readers love it. If you go to the Netaid site and you read the postings – they have bulletin boards – they are amazing, especially on the mother and baby kits in Rwanda. So many people are saying, "thank you Time for giving us this chance to help." I basically feel people do want to help if they have an opportunity.
Q. But how do you choose what is important enough to deserve this kind of coverage? For instance, why AIDS and not a famine in Asia?
A. There’s such an unlimited supply of bad news that usually the ones I choose are the ones that you can really help.
Q. Do you ever wonder about the stories you don’t do for this kind of campaign?
A. No, not at all. I mean I wish we could change more. Like me, you are able to consume more than you need. Readers consume at a level far, far above their needs and you have a world over there where people don’t have food for their children, don’t have medicine. I think you’ve got to figure out a way to address that.
Q. Your magazine keeps coming back to AIDS. Why is it a recurrent theme?
A. I think we have a huge moral responsibility. We will keep covering it. It costs at least $600 or more each year, per patient, for AIDS medicines, which is out of the people’s reach in Africa. I know prevention is important but if we let these people die, it’s criminal negligence. I volunteered to work with AIDS patients in a hospice in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa last December on my vacation for about two weeks, and it was very disturbing. I had to help wash the patients, clean the hospice, drive patients around. I have been in the middle of death squads in Colombia, I was in the Congo in June in all that fighting right after the Rwandan troops were withdrawing, but this is more disturbing. If you see a five-year-old kid dying of AIDS, you cannot forget it.
Q. How hard was it to convince your editors to let you do this?
A. When I started the first project, it was very hard. It was basically a departure for Time. I had been talking to people in Sierra Leone who were describing how the rebels would cut off the arms of children. So I wanted that to be covered differently. Rather than having a traditional type of approach — going back, writing the story, we had a first-person story where we had the people in their own words describe what it was like to have their hands cut off. It was excruciating to hear an 11-year-old girl describe in detail what it was like to have her hand cut off. My boss — Walter Isaacson — who is not a person easily given to tears, cried and took out his checkbook. I had made arrangements with the International Rescue Committee for aid. But I felt that it was not enough. In particular, my problem was that I did not want people just writing checks. That felt too amorphous for me. I felt it was not rewarding enough. I wanted something that would allow people to really buy something tangible to help people out, so our next media project was the mother and childbirth kits in Rwanda. We then built sustained infrastructure in Rwanda for continuing work long after we had gone. And that’s a great example of how you don’t just read about it, you do something about it. That project in Rwanda raised about $300,000. Now we have turned to our AIDS project. It’s been progressively easier to convince editors.
Q. James Kelly took over this January from Walter Isaacson as the managing editor of the magazine. Has that made any difference to you?
A. No. They have all been very supportive.
Q. Is what you are doing influenced in any way by the civic journalism movement?
A. It’s somewhat influenced by that. But I’ve chosen pretty morally unambiguous issues. My problem with that movement is that I never found the journalism particularly compelling. That was missing. Part of Isaacson’s demand for what I did was: "I will let you do this but only if the stories are hard and outstanding. They have to fall back on their journalistic merit and then if you want to stick this other thing in, fine." The journalism has to be up to the Time standard anyhow.
Q. One of the basic tenets of American journalism is objectivity. To what extent do you believe it is possible for a journalist to maintain this sense of total detachment?
A. There is no such thing as objectivity. I don’t believe in it. Yes, there is fairness. Objectivity implies that there is one truth out there to be reported to readers and that any screwing around with the truth is willful journalistic distortion. Fairness, by contrast, acknowledges how damned hard it is to find anything like objective truth. Fair reporting makes a good faith effort to get at all sides of the story, to decode complex events for readers, but never pretends to offer the absolute truth on anything. It requires that we treat our readers as intelligent folks who want to make up their own minds once they get their hands on some information. But what I think is a separate issue is that sometimes journalists get in the way of journalism. We should realize that readers want access to raw information. It’s more helpful sometimes to have an 11-year-old girl in Sierra Leone describe what happened to her. If you can hear it in her own words it’s so much more moving, and it’s closer to objectivity. I don’t think there is anything wrong with crusading. I think we should be more crusader and less intermediary, and some see this as a threat to traditional journalism.
Q. But doesn’t that undermine the role of the journalist?
A. No, the information still has to be packaged and presented. I think "curate" is the right word. We are curating information: packaging and assembling information and making people understand it.
Q. Time has been a conservative publication, and during the Cold War consistently took an anti-Soviet stance. Does some of that feeling linger in the magazine’s coverage of the erstwhile Soviet bloc?
A. I don’t see any of that now. Actually, it’s weird for me to be foreign editor of Time. People expect an editor of Time to be 60, gray-haired and conservative. I try and be as apolitical as possible. I have a certain world-view but it is not shown in the magazine. It’s not my agenda in the coverage. [He leafs through The Ideas of Henry Luce.] In this book, Henry Luce speaks highly of Charles Mohr, who was Time’s correspondent in India. Mohr covered the Vietnam War, but he resigned in 1968 because he disagreed with the way the magazine was covering the war. That was a classic example of Time being super-conservative. I keep a photograph of Mohr in my drawer. He is one of my heroes.
Q. You have been a business and technology writer. How different was that from what you are doing now?
A. The biggest switch has been in the breadth of information. I have to know all about the 30 hotspots in the world. My day begins at 6 A.M. with a call from Europe and ends around 11:30 at night with a call from Tokyo or Beijing.
Q. Does the change in portfolio require a change in mindset too?
A. No, both require curiosity, a hunger for the next story.