Dateline: Iran

There have been no Western news bureaus in Tehran in a generation, so Kelly Niknejad opened one. Virtually.

by Caleb Daniloff Published Spring 2010
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Government and opposition demonstrators took to the streets of Tehran on November 4, 2009, the 30th anniversary of the takeover of the U.S. embassy. / Photo: The New York Times / ReduxA New Formula?

The turning point for Tehran Bureau came last summer, during the disputed reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when hundreds of thousands of demonstrators poured into the streets day after day to protest electoral fraud. Several died at the hands of police, scores were beaten and wounded, and hundreds were arrested. The world was watching, but before long, communications were corked by the government — cell-phone transmission interrupted, BBC broadcasts jammed, and Facebook, popular with the opposition candidates, briefly cut off.

Even Tehran Bureau, despite being the small new kid on the block, was hacked and shut down for several days, Niknejad assumes, by Iranian government agents. She kept the information flowing with Twitter messages, tapping out details from her sources, one 140-character sentence at a time. “It was like using a telex machine,” she says.

Tehran Bureau now has more than 21,000 followers on Twitter. Facebook, too, became a conduit, with Niknejad’s contacts posting updates that confirmed or refuted what she was seeing in Western media. Soon, the New York Times and ABC News were looking to Tehran Bureau.

“I wasn’t eating or sleeping,” Niknejad says, brushing her hair from her face. “I was being called for interviews. I turned down as many as I could. I lost all track of time.”

The content on Tehran Bureau involves more than politics: There are stories covering pet exemptions for dog lovers (canines are considered impure in Muslim culture), the rise of “sexting” in the Tehran metro, Iran’s place in the world music scene, and feminism after the 2009 presidential election. Except for the site’s popular Press Roundup, which collects the day’s top stories from the state-run media, all content is original.

“Golnoush has worked very hard to make Tehran Bureau wide-ranging,” says Smyth, using Niknejad’s Iranian birth name. “Most Western news outlets rely on the occasional visit to Iran by a reporter. This isn’t enough to know what’s going on in Iran, and another reason why so much of the reporting has been inaccurate.”

Niknejad begins each day with her BlackBerry, launching e-mails from her bed. After combing through messages, she begins coordinating stories, edits articles from the inbox, researches and confirms information, and moderates comments.

“I got chewed out once by a commenter who waited seven hours to see his post,” she says. “I’d been sleeping. People think this is a bigger operation than it is.”

So does Tehran Bureau represent a new formula for covering repressive regimes? Sree Sreenivasan ’93JRN, dean of student affairs and professor of digital media at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, says Niknejad’s approach — one realized with little money — can apply to any subject that people don’t understand or that the mainstream media don’t deem large enough to cover.

“Kelly’s doing very important work,” Sreenivasan says. “It’s shameful that traditional media have abandoned overseas coverage except for a handful of publications and some TV shows. There was a time when even regional papers had foreign bureaus and covered the world. Not any more.”

Leaving Tehran

Niknejad spent most of the first 17 years of her life in Tehran. She lived through the 1979 Revolution, which swept away the shah and ushered in Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s theocratic state. She also was there for the first half of the eight-year war with neighboring Iraq. Today she misses Iran “terribly” and carries fond memories of her great-grandmother’s home and of downhill skiing outside of the city, and even of the blacked-out copies of Newsweek on newsstands. When religious laws stood in the way of her and her siblings’ going to college, Niknejad’s parents, an air force liaison officer and a housewife, knew it was time to get out. They left in 1983 and settled in San Diego the following year.

After graduating from San Diego State University, Niknejad enrolled in law school. She worked briefly as an attorney before wading into journalism, earning two degrees from Columbia’s J-school, where she concentrated in newspapers, and politics and government, eventually making her way to the United Arab Emirates in 2008, a listening post for doings in Iran. While reporting in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, Niknejad met a large cross section of Iranians: merchants, workers, and smugglers from various provinces of the republic. Given the diversity of their backgrounds, she was struck by their uniform lack of support for Ahmadinejad.

“It was weird,” she recalls. “I thought if there was a large turnout, there was no way he could win again. Of course, the turnout was spectacular.” Niknejad returned to the States, convinced that the presidential election would mark a defining moment for the country, and resolved to start her own news site right away. Beyond the political contest, she saw plenty of blank spaces in the media portrait of Iran and wanted to counter what she considered the biased agendas, misinformation campaigns, and faulty reporting that were blurring the picture.

On average, Niknejad works with some 20 contributors inside and outside Iran. Some use their real names, while others write under a pen name or simply sign “correspondent.” They file their stories through proxies or with scrambling programs. Niknejad plans to begin fundraising so she can pay them decent fees.

Because she works with anonymous sources, Niknejad says she holds herself to higher-than-normal standards and regularly rejects information and turns down unfamiliar would-be contributors, even if that means extra work and sleepless nights — a work ethic she developed at the J-school. Niknejad takes pains to protect her sources — hard-liners and reformers alike — concealing even gender or the language in which they file. Several times, she politely suggests the tape recorder be shut off. “We’re all paranoid,” she says, leaning forward on the couch.

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