When Kevin Baron arrived as executive editor at Defense One, it was as a reporter who had not yet been an editor, at the helm of a digital publication that had not yet been launched. But his reportorial work had given him over six years of experience covering the Pentagon and national security issues, and he was working with parent company Atlantic Media, old friends.
“It was exciting and a little scary at the same time,” he said of the experience, “but I knew I had a really good safety net around me with the leadership at Government Executive and Atlantic. It was my second time through this company, which I have always loved, so I knew they wouldn’t let me fail despite myself.”
The defense and national security speciality site celebrated its second birthday last month, and in an email to staff, Baron recounted the milestones the site has achieved since its launch: a staff that has doubled in size, a site that receives over 1 million page views per month and the debut of a national security newsletter with an open rate of over 35 percent.
“Back then, the big wars and budgets of Iraq and Afghanistan were in decline,” Baron wrote of the landscape at the time of the site’s launch, “and it looked like defense publications were going with them. But a new generation of seasoned national security audiences wanted something different and something more. And so Defense One was born.”
We caught up with Baron to talk about how he grew the site, the challenges of national security reporting and writing for an audience that embraces depth.
FBDC: What did you bring from your previous experience into your new role as executive editor?
Kevin Baron: I had been on the Pentagon beat for half a dozen years already so I had seen the evolution of coverage of national security. I had a few ideas of my own of what could be done a little differently in Washington with national security coverage.
FBDC: What were some of those ideas?
Baron: A lot of it is what our audience was already telling us in our research and focus grouping before we launched, which was that people wanted a place that they could have deeper conversations, smarter commentary, a little slower pace to be the more fast-clip, always-binary coverage that comes with a lot of politics in Washington. Likewise, a lot of people who work for senior leaders in Washington wanted an outlet to place op-eds, talk about stories, that was somewhere between the New York Times and Seapower magazine, something a little wider.
FBDC: This seems almost counterintuitive for digital publishing, where a lot of the thinking has been that everybody wants everything fast and short. Has that surprised you or is it something that instinctively, you knew?
Baron: I think yes, everybody these days expects and likes to get their digital media, which means, you give them the goods up top and there’s a lot of short pieces and things, as they’re called, but that’s never the full story.
This is a town full of serious folk and serious adults and we’re covering national security, so a lot of people do want in-depth reporting, and they want smart analysis by authoritative voices, not junior reporters and inexperienced or partisan mouthpieces. They want actual news about actual events that either helps them do their jobs if they’re in this business or explains what’s going on in this world if they’re not in national security but they’re fans or they’re just concerned about the stories.
FBDC: Where did you look to build your staff?
Baron: Our staff and our model for our story selection has evolved, quickly. When we launched we were a very small staff. There were three editorial positions and we also had a very junior staffer who tools over our publishing and digital editing and social media. As we’ve grown our staff, every reporter I hired was a purposeful opening of a new audience.
First we hired Patrick Tucker, who was a futurist, and who understands technology better than anybody, and he’s been an amazing asset for us. I hired a new news editor who could help give us some more daily articles and help with the editing and some of the military reporting, and he’s a former soldier with military experience from NPR. And then I hired a politics reporter to start our coverage of Capitol Hill and partisan politics in Washington around every national security story and the campaigns; we’ve had exclusives with people like Tom Cotton and we’re now regulars and well known on the national security beat in that world. Then we hired Marcus Weisgerber, the best-known business reporter on defense business and he jumped ship and came over to us and he’s got a global focus, so now we’re in front of the defense industry around the world. And that will continue as we grow.
FBDC: What are some of the things you can do as a niche publication that you couldn’t for a general audience?
Baron: We like to focus on the future of defense. We’re not as dependent on covering daily breaking news, writing a straight AP wire story about what happened at the Congressional hearing, or at the president’s press conference, or at the secretary’s briefing. We focus more on certain elements that stand out to us or [on] doing analysis on what happened instead. When we need to and it’s big enough we can file [breaking news] but you’ll rarely see a straight, just breaking news, traditional article on Defense One.
That frees us up and it frees the reporters up to really focus on issues and trends and topics and interviews that are off the beaten path or are just not chasing the pack, or even if we are on the same story as the pack, we have plenty of leeway, and our mission is to find other aspects of the story that no one else has.
But I think that’s not common to us these days, I think that’s pretty common to everyone in digital media.
FBDC: Looking at what you covered over the course of two years, are there coverage areas that have gotten a level of audience interest that you wouldn’t have expected?
Baron: Events dictate your audience’s interest sometimes more than you do. When we launched, I didn’t have a technology reporter, but I did have Marc Ambinder, a former Atlantic writer who signed off to be one of our contributors. He was going to write a lot about special operations in the military. But right as we launched was exactly when Edward Snowden broke, and suddenly Marc was writing about nothing but NSA. [At the time of our launch] we were so small I would not have planned to pick an NSA expert, but that’s who we got, and we were very fortunate. So we had a big following on NSA.
Bigger impact things for us have been some of the op-eds. General Allen came to Defense One and in an interview started talking about destroying ISIS and then a couple weeks later wrote his own op-ed. And he wrote a very, very forceful op-ed basically saying we can’t negotiate, we can’t let them be, we have to wipe them out. That became the mantra of a new war. It became a talking point for the president. Allen was advising the president at the time and actually took the op-ed to the president.
That’s the kind of impact that really excited us here and gave us such a sense of pride that we are trusted to deliver that kind of message, our audience is interested in it and it’s impacting events in a way that journalism is supposed to for the public good.
FBDC: Did the idea for the op-ed come during the interview?
Baron: It was his own. He had given an interview to Stephanie Gaskell, my former deputy editor here. We are always pitching whenever we talk to senior leaders, “if you ever want to write an op-ed, just let us know” and then a couple weeks later, he contacted us to say, I want to write this.
FBDC: What is your strategy for sustaining interest in stories with long tails, as for example, with protracted conflicts like Iraq or issues like NSA surveillance?
Baron: I don’t think I’d say I used a specific strategy other than knowing what to expect from the pace of events. I think the bigger question [is], how do we cover this from afar?
Counterterrorism writ large, from the entire Middle East into North Africa, with the rise of hostage-taking, has become an extremely difficult story and set of events for Western journalists to cover. Our own organization is very hesitant to send reporters into that conflict, so we’re relying on outside sources, or different ways to cover it. At the same time, there’s no doubt that these are going to be conflicts that last beyond a decade, and they’re not frontline conflicts—there’s no Marines rolling into Fallujah again to sit on.
You can send someone to Baghdad but they’re either going to sit behind embassy walls or they’re going to take very large risks to go out with Iraqi troops or Kurdish troops on their own. There are only a few media organizations that can afford the equipment, the insurance, the salaries and the time to do that kind of coverage.
It’s a long policy story in Washington, but it’s also a long war story, and I think all of journalism is still trying to figure out how to cover it.
FBDC: What are some of the other challenges to covering national security?
Baron: I like to tell people that I think one of the challenges for national security reporting in Washington was that for years it has been too siloed to the buildings–meaning the Pentagon, the State Department, Congress, the White House, CIA. And when reporters are assigned to cover each of those as individual entities, we are losing a lot of good journalism and context because no story is now siloed off like that.
We need a lot more reporting on the politics of national security, on oversight of intelligence, on the trigger pulling and the use of military force abroad, and use of any American power abroad. And that involves the whole of government. It’s no longer Pentagon reporters who think they’re just going to be the lead guys to cover the war; that doesn’t exist any more. There’s an interesting evolution going on and I hope we’re doing a good job of staying at the front edge of that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.