By: Francesca Mathewes
From the look of his bylines and literary successes, you wouldn’t guess that Evan Osnos got his journalism start at a small paper in West Virginia called the Clarksburg Exponent Telegram.
At the Exponent-Telegram, he worked as a photographer –– “and not a very good one,” he laughed in a phone interview. Osnos, who now works for the New Yorker, spoke to me from his car, the clicking of his turn signal punctuating each sentence.
“I wanted to go to West Virginia and work for a while I was kind of interested in the tradition of basically documentary photography in the south, which had a lot of a long pedigree,” Osnos said. From there, Osnos landed at the Chicago Tribune in 1999, where he had worked as a metro desk intern during summer break from Harvard University.
Back at the metro desk as a reporting resident, Osnos got to work covering everything under the sun –– from the U.S. Census in 2000 to Chicago’s segregation problem. However, he always had his eye on foreign correspondence.
“I was always trying to think about I could learn, as a metro reporter, skills that would help me eventually when I was able to get overseas,” Osnos said.
Having studied Chinese and living in China during college, Osnos felt he had a leg up when an opening for a China correspondent opened up at the Tribune.
“I put my name in, and I said, ‘I’d like to apply for this job –– I’ve lived over there I speak Chinese,’” Osnos said. “And they were like, ‘who are you? You’ve been here, like, 10 minutes. So no, you cannot have this job.’”
Although initially getting denied, Osnos said that his application gave him the opportunity to explain to the hiring managers who he was, what his background was and essentially, plead his case. This caught their attention and taught him his first valuable lesson in journalism.
“Apply for things, even if you think you’re not the perfect candidate yet,” Osnos said. “It assigns to [managers] that you want to be that candidate, and that you are hoping to get there and that you recognize that there is something beyond what you’re doing at the moment.”
Following his yearlong residency, Osnos was sent to New York City to work for the Tribune as their New York correspondent, which was followed almost immediately by the attacks of September 11, 2001. After 9/11 and the U.S.’s declaration of war on terror, Osnos was first in line to be sent off to report from Baghdad for the Tribune, which he attributes to his expression of interest in becoming the China correspondent.
Once in Baghdad, Osnos quickly began learning a new set of lessons.
“One of the key lessons I learned was, trust your instincts, in some respects. It was pretty clear, pretty quickly, if you were up close and, on the ground, that things were going very, very badly,” he said. “There was this widening gap between the puffery and nonsense that the official spokespeople were putting out when they talked about the progress of the war and what you were finding when you stepped outside of the official confines and went around the country and went around Baghdad and hung out with Iraqis.”
This, Osnos said, was an unpopular observation, and attempts to write about the war in this way were met with scrutiny from those in the George W. Bush administration who supported the war.
Although Osnos didn’t speak fluent Arabic and had not ever been to the Middle East before, he said that another lesson in journalism kept him afloat during his years as a war correspondent.
“Attach yourself like a barnacle, to older, more experienced reporters, and listen to and study and see how they do things,” Osnos said. “[Journalism] is such a strange business, we don’t really have a textbook, we don’t really have a completely fixed science, there’s so much about this job, which is just intuition and improvisation, and a little bit of armchair psychology and a bit of private investigation. So, the only way you can really learn it well is by studying people who are really good at it.”
In 2005, he an leveraged an offer from the Washington Post to continue in Baghdad into his dream job as the Tribune’s China correspondent. From there, he used his unique positionality and expertise on China and Chinese politics to seize an opportunity to write for The New Yorker after learning that their reporter in China was on their way out.
“[U.S Ambassador to the United Nations] Samantha Power has a good line about this,” Osnos said. “The best way to be a young professional, in whatever business, but particularly in journalism, is learn to do one area of specialty really, really well, and really pour yourself into learning everything you can about that one thing.
And then also be willing to do whatever else it is that the institution asks you to do,” he continued. “That’s like a great combination.”
Osnos, now wrapping up a book tour for Joe Biden: The Life, The Run and What Matters Now, is set to publish his third nonfiction book this fall and remains a staff writer for The New Yorker –––– mostly stateside, these days. When he looks back on his life and career, two things resonate with him the most: first, foremost and unabashedly, are his kids.
“Until you have them, you don’t really recognize how much they are also a product of the whole series of choices you made along the way,” he said. And second, is the immense privilege of it all.
“Honestly, I feel outrageously grateful to have the chance to do this job. It is a tremendous privilege and fun and nourishing and hard –– but hard in the best sense,” he said. “I’ve been really lucky to be able to go around and meet people at various places in the world who are going through really dramatic, sometimes very painful, sometimes really exhilarating moments. To be able to try to make an official memory of that… feels worthwhile.