Christopher Shay recently became editor of World Policy Journal, the flagship publication of the World Policy Institute. We sat down with Shay and Managing Editor Yaffa Fredrick to discuss the new editorship, the direction of the journal, and how the journal has evolved since its inception in 1983.
Tell us a little about yourself and your background.
CS: I just took over as editor of World Policy Journal, and I’ve been here about six weeks or so. Previously I was a news editor at Al Jazeera America; I was there for two years at the launch doing breaking news. Before that, I was managing editor of World Policy Journal, so this is really a return for me.
Prior to being managing editor, I spent four years as a journalist in Southeast Asia. My first full-time journalism job was as a reporter at The Phnom Penh Post, getting paid $700 a month in order to write local news about Cambodia in the English language. That was a great experience. Then I moved on to a year at TIME Magazine and a year as a freelancer, mostly writing for the Asian edition of The Wall Street Journal.
YF: I’ve been managing editor since Chris left as managing editor, so almost two and a half years now. Prior to that, I worked with PBS and MTV International. I was more on the TV side of journalism, doing long-form reportage on global health matters, human trafficking, and local corruption. I had much more of an Africa focus, focusing on South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria primarily.
Prior to that, I was actually an intern at World Policy Journal, so kind of like Chris, it’s full circle. And as someone who grew up both living in the US and living abroad, I felt that it was very important to be that connective tissue—to make the global feel local, which is one of the things we try to do with World Policy Journal—to take a problem and not just see it as a United States problem, but as a global problem with global solutions.
Chris, you have a lot of experience working as a reporter. What made you want to take an editorial role with the World Policy Journal?
CS: I spent four years in Southeast Asia primarily as a writer, running around the region, talking to interesting people, collecting and writing some good stories along the way. But I always really liked grappling with ideas almost as much as I did running around and reporting. So while I still miss the thrill of being a reporter, it’s really nice to be able to look at the big picture. It’s been really exciting these last few weeks, to be able to imagine what you want this issue to be. It’s a much more creative, imaginative process where you’re sort of thinking in bigger way. You’re thinking deeply about issues with particular authors, and for World Policy Journal, you’re making sure that you’re taking the whole globe into account and you’re not missing anything. So it’s a very fun process, to be able to dream up your dream magazine every three months, and then reality sets in, and you have to sort of grapple with pieces, but it’s fun.
In my previous editing gig at Al Jazeera America, I was dealing with breaking news. I was working with young, talented writers, but the most important question you hear daily is “Is this true or is this not true?” As soon as you know it’s true, you publish it, and you work very quickly. But now in a quarterly, you get to ask much bigger questions than “Is it true?” You get to take a much bigger, deeper view on things, which is extremely fun and enjoyable and fascinating.
What direction do you see yourself steering the World Policy Journal in? Are there certain topics or fields you’d like to focus on?
CS: First off, one of the things that really separates World Policy Journal from some of its competitors is this global take on the world. It’s not looking at the rest of the world through a US lens; it’s really taking an international perspective. And that’s something that I will very much keep in the bones of the publication. Another thing that the journal has done a very good job at, these last few years, is working with local reporters and local journalists. That’s another thing I want to keep central.
One thing I want to shift is that I want it to be a bit more policy oriented, a bit more oriented toward effecting change. I want to write about and provide global context to some of the most important issues that are going on right now. My very first issue will be “Black Lives Matter Everywhere,” about black rights movements outside the US. While it won’t address what’s happening in the US specifically, it will be providing global context for it.
YF: World Policy Journal is a unique platform. It’s one thing to draw attention to an issue; it’s another thing to begin to examine what to do with that issue, and often traditional journalists stop at that point. They don’t want to be prescriptive. American journalists especially feel that their role is to remain this outside, objective source and not start telling people what to do. So we’re in a unique position where we push them a little bit further and say, “What are people doing in this space? What are the options? Who are the voices that are currently speaking out on this issue, and what are they saying?” I think that’s also unique—that it’s this interesting hybrid of solid reportage and policy analysis. It brings academics and journalists into the same room together, and they’re not always groups that love talking to each other.
How has the World Policy Journal changed over the years?
CS: In the early ’90s, with the fall of the Soviet Union, World Policy Journal was absolutely central to the debates. The Congressional Research Service recognized it as publishing more of the most influential post-Cold War articles than any other magazine. The World Policy Institute also played a larger role in domestic politics at this time. The “It’s the economy, stupid” line from Clinton came directly out of the work the Institute did. One of my predecessors, James Chace, is one of the people who came up with the phrase “the indispensable nation” to describe the US role in the world. It’s no longer the world hegemon, but for any truly global important issue, the US has to be involved. It’s the indispensable nation to any truly global issue.
So early on, the World Policy Journal played a very influential role in the way the US saw itself in the world. It also ran pieces that were very much against the invasion of Iraq a few years later. It was a publication of dissent against some of the foreign policy intrusions at that time. Then it grew from there; it became less focused on US policy and much more international in its outlook. It became much more global in its choice of contributors. Initially, in the early ’90s when it had influence in Washington, DC, circles, it was still a lot of white men writing to each other. My predecessor, David Andelman, did a very strong job of bringing in a much more diverse group of writers and expanding its global reach and global interest, and that’s something I very much intend to keep.
The last two editors in particular [Andelman and Karl Meyer] also came from a much stronger journalism background, so it became much more about reporting and good stories than it was strictly about policy. And what I’m going to try to do is weave a bit more of those early policy days into the more journalistic magazine that it’s become.
YF: We were much more of an academic journal at our inception. Footnoted; citations throughout. One of the things that David Andelman did was strip out all the footnotes and say, “I have ten more pages of copy if I get rid of these.” And that worked because we weren’t doing these traditional academic articles. But part of what Chris is moving forward with is—not to say that we’re going to add in all these footnotes—but that there’s going to be more of an academic voice than there has been for the last about seven and a half years. So it’ll have the good storytelling, but it’ll also have the policy analysis. We have moved from the traditional academic journal to more of a commercial magazine. “Journal” is in our name, but we often describe ourselves as a magazine rather than a journal because “journal” has all of the academic implications.
Every World Policy Journal issue has a theme. What themes are you considering for upcoming issues?
CS: My first issue will be “Black Lives Matter Everywhere,” and the first third will be about international black rights movements. Three months later, the issue is tentatively titled “Renegade Cities”—about the policy innovations that come from cities rather than countries. The US isn’t the only place where at the national level, you have a sclerotic legislature and where some of the interesting and more important policy innovations are coming at the city level. So it’s about analyzing those around the world, especially those policy innovations that are either scalable or can be exported to a different location. What can Nairobi or Chennai teach each other, and what can they even teach a US city like Detroit? What are these policy lessons? There are some cities in Colombia that have done innovative things in terms of rapid bus transport, and now that’s being moved into the US. The idea is to see if there are any more things like that, that can be exported or scaled up, or maybe look at the process through which these innovations came about.
The one after that is tentatively called “History’s Ghosts,” and it’s about the aspects of history that are haunting the present. What do we need to know to deal with the current major issues in a region? While the “black lives matter” issue places the current US movement in a global context, “History’s Ghosts” will place some of the current events in more of a historical context.
The last one we’ve penciled in is “World Policy Interrupted.” That’s going to be guest edited by an organization called Foreign Policy Interrupted, which is cofounded by a World Policy Institute fellow, Elmira Bayrasli. This group tries to mentor, develop, and amplify the voices of women in the international policy field. So many of the policy voices in the US are white men. The idea with “World Policy Interrupted” would be to have an all-women issue to stand as a rebuke to the international affairs establishment, which is overwhelmingly male despite this wealth of talent.
It sounds like you’re focusing on very current topics: black lives matter, women’s voices.
YF: Part of World Policy Institute’s mission statement is to bring voices to the table that have typically been left outside. On one level, that can manifest as bringing in minority voices or female voices. Or, if you have a policy conversation about water, bringing in people who work in the energy space, and getting disparate groups of people who normally wouldn’t sit in a room together to talk about an issue. The idea is that when you bring in unusual voices, voices that are typically left out, you come out with better policy solutions—ones that lead to better long-term outcomes, rather than having the same people reinventing the wheel over and over again and it not being as effective. So that’s part of our general mission: to bring these voices that are typically left out.
CS: We like to have the theme as a way to bring attention to one topic, and we like it as a way to organize the way we go after people. It’s also a very good way to get the journal in front of a new audience. The issue that we just finished had the cover copy “Latin America on Life Support?” So the idea with that theme, even though it’s less than half the publication, is that we can go out and show it to people interested in Latin American issues, and they’re much more likely to get ahold of the magazine. By having these themed issues, we can target new audiences with every issue and hopefully keep the interest for people with the back two-thirds of the magazine.
The back two-thirds are oftentimes where we have the longer, investigative pieces. One thing we’re going to try to do is have at least one investigative journalism piece in every issue. We have two lined up for our spring issue, and it looks like we’ll have one lined up for the summer issue as well. You don’t want to turn down a great investigative piece just because it might not match the theme.
Is it difficult to balance the academic and the journalistic aspects of the journal?
CS: Our purview is the world, minus the US. So it’s always a little bit difficult—and that’s one reason it’s nice to have a theme, because it focuses at least part of it on one issue. It’s a tough tightrope to walk to make sure it’s relevant and new to someone in the field, and also interesting and fascinating and just fun to read for someone who’s not in the field and not an academic. So that’s always a balance that we wrestle with in every article. Oftentimes it means pushing academics to write more like a journalist or an essayist, and often it means pushing journalists out of their comfort zone as well. And that balance is unique to each article, so it can be tough.
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