How at the time a recent graduate of Columbia Journalism School, from her parents’ living room in Boston, launched one of the most trusted and sophisticated sources of news and commentary on Iran?
Born in Iran, Kelly Golnoush Niknejad moved to the United States when she was 17. She holds a B.A. in political science and writing and a law degree with an international and European focus. Following her initial news work in Southern California and Massachusetts, Golnoush moved to New York City and earned two master’s degrees in journalism from Columbia University, focusing first on print and then politics and government.
Golnoush’s work includes reporting for PBS/FRONTLINE, Los Angeles Times, San Diego Union-Tribune, Time, Foreign Policy, and California Lawyer. Golnoush speaks regularly on digital journalism and Iranian politics. Past venues have included MIT, Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Columbia University, Paley Center/Carnegie, and the Poynter Institute. Tehran Bureau‘s coverage of “Modern Iran” recently made Columbia Journalism School’s honor list of “50 Great Stories” produced by alumni the last 100 years. She is also the inaugural recipient of the Innovator Award from Columbia Journalism School for “inspiring, creating, developing, or implementing new ideas that further the cause of journalism.” The Daily Beast named her one of “17 people who are changing the world” through their editing, blogging, reporting, videos, and Twitter feeds.
How long has Tehran Bureau been in business?
I launched it on Nov. 5, 2008.
Were you born in Iran? How long did you live there?
Yes, I was born and raised in Iran. My family moved here soon after my 17th birthday.
Tell us about your education.
My schooling was in English until after the revolution. I then went to junior high and high school in west Tehran. I started college in San Diego. I majored in political science, then went straight on to law school. I passed the bar in California, where I am licensed to practice. I later earned two masters degrees from Columbia Journalism School, one in print and the other specializing in political reporting.
How did you end up in the journalism profession?
Journalism was a happy accident. I needed income to get through a book I was writing and landed my first news job covering San Diego courts for City News Service of Los Angeles. I loved reporting so much it took over my life. The clue was there at my first interview, which was at the downtown San Diego courthouse. I’d been there hundreds of times as a law student, and later as an attorney, but I got really excited when I was going there for my initial interview as a journalist. I caught a glimpse of the “Press Room” sign from the escalator and it was as if I was in that space for the first time.
Who would you name among some of your main sources of inspiration in your journalistic achievements?
Since I went into journalism, I’ve been surrounded by very inspiring people, starting with Kelly Wheeler at City News Service, my first boss. Bill Rempel, a longtime investigative reporter at the Los Angeles Times; Nicholas Lemann and Alexander Stille of Columbia Journalism School; and David Fanning, the executive producer of Frontline, are geniuses. I recently met David E. Hoffman who was the brilliant foreign editor of The Washington Post. He reminds me of why I love being a journalist so much.
In the difficult business of journalism, you seem to have pulled off something close to impossible; and that is launching a new news outlet entirely on your own. How did you achieve this?
I got as much experience and education as I could; then I followed my instincts. My own reporting on Iran in journalism school turned up a much more telling picture than the simple narrative that existed in the mainstream media. With so much information available online, I believe readers are going to increasingly want the real story and that’s going to come from specialized and well curated news sources. Almost everyone who covers Iran is worried about access to the country. Trying to report in a way that maintains your access to the country affects the kind of reporting you do. Tehran Bureau was a success from the start because we’re not about that. We try to take the politics out of the journalism and let the truth speak for itself.
You also have a massive following on Facebook via the IRAN Tehran Burea page, which has close to 230,000 followers. This is quite significant. How did the Facebook page come about?
It’s quite remarkable. Every time I go to our Facebook page it seems another thousand or so have joined. The success of that page is due to Amir Ebrahimnia of Derooted Creative Agency, who set it up and fine tuned as a platform for young Iranians to discuss issues related to Iran around Tehran Bureau.
Tell us about your funding and your relationship with PBS? How much editorial independence do you exert on content at Tehran Bureau?
I first got to work with Frontline thanks to Greg Barker and Claudia Rizzi, producer and co-producer of “Showdown with Iran.” That is how I met David Fanning and how he came to know my work. Fast forward to the summer of 2009 when we were covering events in Iran. We still had no funding. When they heard that I was running Tehran Bureau from my parents’ living room, they gave me a new home. We’ve been supported in part through grants from the William H. Donner Foundation, the Flora Family Foundation, and Plymouth Rock founder and chairman Jim Stone. Frontline has supported us for three years. I look forward to whatever is next.
From an editorial perspective, we’ve been completely independent from the beginning and remain so.
How supportive do you think the Iranian-American community has been toward your efforts? Has it been mainly moral, financial or a combination of both?
Unfortunately, very few in our community understand professional journalism so the support so far has been extremely limited.
In the course of your career as a woman working with a major international news organization (PBS), what have been some of the key challenges that you have encountered?
Iranians covering Iran is still a relatively new phenomenon in U.S. media. I’m not sure how much of the resistance I get is on account of being an Iranian or from being a woman, because women are all over media. When I’m working, I feel incredibly strong. Journalism is such a powerful feeling in me that I don’t think about it in terms of being a woman until someone reminds me.
How do you think being an Iranian woman or a woman of Iranian descent has played itself out in your career?
It has made me a hundred times stronger. Once you’ve built that strength, you can do a lot with it.
In retrospect, you’re grateful for it.
How do you think the Arab Spring will impact women’s status in the Arab/Islamic world? Are you an optimist?
If we could use the same innovative model of reporting that we use at Tehran Bureau to cover the Arab revolts, I’d have a much better feeling about it. Journalism focused on the issue, month after month, year after year, will make it harder to hijack those revolutions.
Ten years from now, what kind of an Iran do you envision in your mind?
One where journalists can report freely using their real bylines.