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From AJR,   June/July 2013  issue

Launching a Startup in Iraq    

An American journalist’s Web site is a go-to destination for news about the Iraqi oil industry. Wed., April 10, 2013


By Jackie Spinner

Jackie Spinner (jackiespinner@mac.com) has reported on the Middle East since 2004. She was a staff writer for the Washington Post for 14 years and covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the paper. She is the author of “Tell Them I Didn’t Cry: A Young Journalist’s Story of Joy, Loss, and Survival in Iraq.” Spinner is now an assistant professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago. She wrote about launching a student newspaper in Iraq in AJR’s Spring 2011 issue.

     

When ExxonMobil hired a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq as a consultant on its oil business there, an upstart news service broke the story.

The February disclosure was the second major scoop involving Exxon for 32-year-old Ben Lando, who founded the Web-based Iraq Oil Report, in 2009 after being laid off at United Press International in Washington, D.C.

The Iraq Oil Report was the first to report a deal Exxon signed in October 2011 with the semiautonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, a move that infuriated the central government in Baghdad, which argues that it has the sole authority to grant oil contracts and export crude from the country. James F. Jeffrey, the former ambassador, was still in the top diplomatic post in Iraq at that time.

The fight over oil comes at a crucial time for Iraq politically, as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki deals with protests, festering religious and ethnic disputes and spillover from the turmoil in neighboring Syria. The Exxon deal "threw a monkey wrench in Iraqi politics and could be the fracture from which the country breaks apart," Lando says. "We have broken the story about their entrance, the ramifications, the updates to their work in Iraq, and most of it has been stories that people in the company or governments didn't want released, that they stopped us or attempted to, but they just weren't talking."

By his own account, Lando knew little about the oil industry before he joined UPI's energy desk in Washington in 2006. He had written a few solar power stories for the wire service, filling in for a vacationing reporter, but "didn't know anything about energy, nothing proper for a reporter," says Lando, who grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Assigned to cover Iraq's oil industry, Lando was intrigued by how important a role oil had played in the country's history. "Most of the time, it was a very destructive role," he says. "And I wanted to write about that aspect of Iraq, following the oil as a way of understanding the country."

Lando started a blog to supplement his reporting for UPI. "What I did was link to all the Iraq-related news and reports, along with my added commentary and analysis, and updated the blog daily," he says. "It got a following, and I knew that it was valued to some extent."

His editor at UPI, Krishnadev Calamur, now a digital news editor at NPR, says the Iraq oil story was "up for grabs" when Lando started looking into it. He quickly owned the story, Calamur recalls. "He just had so many contacts," Calamur says. "People assumed that he had visited Iraq because he had developed such an expertise."

In fact, Lando had never been there. When UPI laid him off in 2009, he decided to follow the story and moved to Baghdad, with the outline of a news service rooted in the blog he had started from Washington.

He struck gold.

A year later, in spite of the costs of doing business in Baghdad (security and housing being the biggest ones for foreign news bureaus), Lando's Iraq Oil Report broke even. By last year, he was turning a profit. He declined to discuss details, calling his business plan "a successful work in progress." Most of his clients are companies involved in Iraq's oil sector, including those doing exploration and production, drilling, investment, risk management and banking.

Costs for access to the Web-based report range from $1,795 for a single user up to $13,500 for a corporation-wide subscription.

"Our business model is very simple: Invest in high quality reporting and package that information according to the level appropriate to the prospective paying customer," Lando says. "We have advertising as well, but most of our money is based on subscriptions."

Lando relies on Iraqi stringers throughout the country and a translator who is now working for the company from the United States (he is a political refugee).

Lando's editorial strategy is to get the best, most authoritative information, publish it first and "always include more content and analysis than any of our competitors," he says.

"Thankfully, we've gotten to the story first our fair share of the time," he says. "Of course, we take pride in our scoops, but also in the context, analysis and depth of any given story, which is the reason subscribers value us so much."

Lando moved to Baghdad at a time when many Western news bureaus were reducing their staffs, transferring correspondents to other parts of the region or pulling out altogether.

"The rest of the media outlets, due to budgets or themselves having a bankrupt and old business model, are no longer putting in resources to cover the aftermath of the country that, in part, their reporting helped create back in 2003," he says. "I'm referring to the institutions, not the journalists, many of whom are my friends and are better reporters than I will ever be. I'm just saying that the Iraq story would be much different if they were here now."

Dan Murphy, a staff writer for the Christian Science Monitor who has reported from Iraq, says Lando has been able to dominate coverage of the oil industry because he was the first to focus on it.

"Companies like Bloomberg would theoretically like to eat his lunch, but the profit in his niche is probably a tiny portion of their overall operations," says Murphy, who worked for Bloomberg News from Asia.

Murphy says Lando landed in Baghdad at the right time. "Either through brilliance or luck, 2009 was the perfect time to get into the game he's playing," Murphy said in an interview from Cairo. "While mom and pop in the U.S. may not be that interested in what happens in Iraq anymore, the oil majors and associated industries will always, always be deeply interested."

The trick for Lando is to stay on top, Murphy says. "He's providing a tailored news service to a client base that might leave him if someone has a better service to offer but will always want that service from someone," he says.

Lando is a long way from home in Baghdad, though he said he finds similarities between the war-weary capital and the American Midwest. "Politics here are very similar to Chicago politics, though the corruption and violence are more amplified here," he says, adding, "well, at least the violence."

Lando landed his first job in journalism in October 2000 as a reporter for a talk radio news station in Kalamazoo, WKMI 1360. He worked there for five years while attending Western Michigan University and also cohosted a talk radio show at the college radio station, WIDR. He spent a year each as news director and general manager, then went to the local NPR affiliate, WMUK. After he graduated with a political science degree, Lando switched to print and began freelancing for the Kalamazoo Gazette and Battle Creek Enquirer. Through a previous contact at one of the radio stations, he also started editing for UPI, making the first connection that would eventually lead him to Iraq.

On an average day in Baghdad, Lando says, breaking news typically overtakes his reporting plans.

One day late last year, he had planned to attend an energy conference in Baghdad, then head to Parliament, then meet a source, then do some writing, then have dinner with another source.

Instead, a breaking story developed, so he canceled the trip to Parliament, went briefly to the conference – long enough to "see some people and eat some free food – then met the source and postponed the dinner."

And the Midwesterner makes it clear that he is in Baghdad strictly for the story.

"Baghdad is a lot like New York City, except much more violent and much less electricity," he says. "Neither [city is] good to be in unless you have a reason to be there."