America’s defense debate is, in part, propelled by a small set of dedicated trade publication or outside-the-beltway reporters. These unhearalded folks often lack the means (or the inclination) to introduce themselves to their readers.
At WEST 2009, I had an opportunity to sit down and interview Zachary M. Peterson, the Managing Editor of an influential navy news publication, Inside The Navy (a piece of the larger “Inside Defense” constellation). So, as part of my ongoing effort to introduce some of the people who cover naval news (some previous interviews are here and here), allow the USNI blog to “break behind the byline” and introduce Editor Zach Peterson:
Springboard: What is your background?
Mr. Peterson: I earned a BA in history and political science from the University of Western Ontario. Liberal arts degrees are often maligned, but I never viewed my undergraduate work as the ticket to a professional job but rather a foundation for additional learning and I think that was the right mindset. After college, I returned home to Michigan where I attended graduate school at Michigan State, receiving a Masters in journalism. While in grad school, I had the opportunity to cover state government for a news wire and Michigan Public Radio. This experience landed me in Washington and in turn, covering the military. A fundamental understanding in how government works is required to successfully report on military policy and procurement because politics are so entwined with everything the services try to do.
Springboard: What story/stories did you enjoy most? Which one(s) had the biggest impact?
Mr. Peterson: I enjoy spending time in the field or on ships with the operational forces. The chance to participate in training with Marine Corps foreign military advisers or ride a ship in the Persian Gulf are rare opportunities to experience, for a brief moment, what it’s like be in the military, which is essential for someone who has no military background.
The stories I think have the most impact are the ones where issues are brought to light before they are covered by the mainstream media. Examples include writing about the Mine Ambush Protected Vehicle (MRAP) before it was an acquisition program and more recently, the impact on individual augmentees serving on the ground in places like Iraq and Afghanistan are having on the Navy’s overall readiness at sea.
Springboard: When thinking about your news coverage, where/how has the Navy been successful in making your work harder? How/when does the Navy help make your work easier?
Mr. Peterson: Of late, the Navy seems to have a hard time discussing what the service needs and wants in terms of shipbuilding. It’s difficult to write about plans to build a (fill-in-a-number) size fleet when the most detail the Navy is willing to give about its future thinking is a “313-ship floor” and a “balanced fleet.”
On the up side, the Navy generally does a good job making admirals and other senior officials available for interviews and providing opportunities to get aboard ships or out to bases to meet personnel and see things firsthand. Good public affairs officers are a valuable asset, who provide background information and resources often difficult to access otherwise, while unhelpful PAOs can make a journalist’s life difficult and hamper well-rounded reporting.
Springboard: What advice would you give to people who want to follow in your footsteps?
Mr. Peterson: For those that want to become military reporters, getting “in the door” is the most important thing. Regardless of military experience, that first job covering defense or the first few freelance articles, are crucial to developing sources and becoming familiar with the key issues. I didn’t know much about the modern Navy before I started at Inside the Navy, but quickly, through a full immersion of briefings, conferences, speeches and ship embarks, I built up enough foundational knowledge to feel confident talking to a senior admiral about the shipbuilding plan or aircraft recapitalization. Background reading is also important. A historical knowledge base doesn’t hurt and books like Ian Toll’s SIX FRIGATES; Max Boot’s THE SAVAGE WARS OF PEACE; John Keegan’s THE PRICE OF ADMIRALTY; Ronald Specter’s AT WAR, AT SEA; Robert Kaplan’s IMPERIAL GRUNTS and Tom Ricks’ FIASCO — to name a few — all help offer various glimpses into military history new and old.
Springboard: What are the key differences between your work covering the Navy and Navy bloggers?
Mr. Peterson: Blogs have proven to be a useful place to exchange ideas and generate discussion about important issues. But my work is held to a different level of accountability — both to my editors and senior managers — and to the readers. Those paying to read Inside the Navy have an expectation that the content is presented in the most objective manner possible, while bloggers have the ability to freely express opinions. Both have benefits to the reading public. In turn, the work I do gives bloggers the opportunity to post stories and comment on them, in some cases even compare and contrast reporting from several media outlets to illustrate the scope of information on a given topic available to those interested.