Washington D.C, Asharq Al-Awsat- For over a decade, the Washington Diplomat has served the diplomatic community in the U.S capital with regular columns and features focusing on international news and events. The independent freesheet is read by over 80,000 people and distributed to foreign embassies, the World Bank, the State Department, Congress, the White House and other influential businesses in the area.
Our correspondent in Washington D.C met with Victor Shibli, the Dimplomat’s publisher and editor.
Q: Let’s start from the beginning. How did the Washington Diplomat come about?
A: Twelve years ago, my cousin Fouad Shibli and I founded the freesheet. We felt there was a need for a publication in Washington D.C that would be distributed to different ethnic groups and diplomats. The Diplomat became a publication for diplomats and about diplomats. It is also read on Capitol Hill, at the State Department, in the White House and amongst the business community in the capital.
Q: Is the Diplomat your own creation?
A: Yes, I came up with the idea. My cousin and I saw the need for a publication that represents different ethnic groups. In this country, it’s very easy to start a business. You take risks, you spend a little money. That’s what we did and we were successful. It’s part of the American dream, really.
Q: Where you working in journalism, at time?
A: No, but I was interested in international affairs and I owned an imported/export company. I had also worked, for a while, in the diplomatic community. This is where I got the idea from.
Q: Who is your audience?
A: Our readers include foreign diplomats, World Bank staff, State Department officials, Capitol Hill staff and Fortune 500 companies.
Q: why did you decide to make the Washington Diplomat a freesheet?
A: We felt it would be best if we concentrate on funding the publication through advertising rather than subscriptions. We were ahead of out time because the trend in the last five years is to introduce free publications. But it’s a controlled circulation so we know how is reading the paper.
Q: Do you have any competitors?
A: No, not anymore. We had one several years ago but the publication now only appears on the internet.
Q: What was it called?
A: The Washington International.
Q: Do you maintain an online presence?
A: Yes, our website is washdiplomat.com
Q: can readers receive the Washington Diplomat by email?
A: Yes, a number of big corporations have subscribed to the electronic version. They have to pay for it.
Q: What the Washington Diplomat’s current circulation?
A: We distribute 32 thousand copies a month. This equals a readership of 80 thousand. We believe that every paper is read by a minimum of 2.5 people which is why our readership is around 80,000.
Q: As a monthly publication, do you compete with the Washington Post and the Washington Times?
A: No, not directly. We are a niche publication and we concentrate on features and present a global perspective on issues. We don’t cover day-to-day news whereas the Washington Post and the Washington Times do. The Post is a profit-making publication whereas the Times isn’t.
Because we are a monthly publication, or even if we become a weekly paper, which we are currently considering, we can compete with these newspapers because we provide a different kind of news. Whereas they will inform you of the latest developments in Iraq, we will interview some and give the reader a different perspective on what’s going in around the world.
Q: How do you plan the monthly issues?
A: We have an editorial meeting and discuss what is timely. This month we will interview the Mexican ambassador since immigration is currently big news.
Every issue features articles on politics, business and culture. It’s really about getting a sense of what is going on internationally, what is timely and what people will be interested in reading about. Sometimes, we interview diplomats or personalities who have just come to Washington D.C, such as the Libyan representative. We were the first to interview him.
Q: Do you mean Ambassador Ali Aujali of the Libyan Liaison office?
A: Yes. We were the first to interview him. A year later, Libya has been taken off the terrorist list, which is a positive development.
Q: Do you focus on Arab embassies?
A: No, our publication focuses on the entire world. We cover the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the Americas. But, because of what is going on in Iraq and Iran , you probably will see more focus on this region. Our focus is driven by news.
Q: Have you interviewed many Arab ambassadors?
Q: Did any of them refuse to be interviewed or to appear in the paper?
A: Let me tell you that twelve years ago, it was hard to find an Arab ambassador willing to talk to the media. They were reclusive, afraid of the media and generally not media-savvy. However, things have changed since then. Arab ambassadors at present are some of the top ambassadors in Washington D.C.
Q: How many ambassadors have you interviewed so far?
A: Probably between 30 and 40 because, for instance, we’ve interviewed the Egyptian ambassador three times and the Jordanian twice.
Q: Do you face any problems in your job. Have you ever angered ambassadors or their embassy?
A: Sometimes, yes.
A: Let me give you an example. We recently did a cover piece featuring the Israel and Palestinian ambassador. Neither was happy with the story and the way we had the two of them together. We thought it was a balanced way of doing the story. They both complained. But this is the news industry, we can’t make everybody happy.
Q: How do you usually deal with the diplomatic corps? Do you criticize them? Are you on friendly terms with them? What is your policy?
A: Our philosophy is to present different perspectives. When we run a feature story, we speak to an ambassador about the latest developments in his or her country and the report the information. Sometimes we criticize diplomats and sometimes, it’s one diplomat criticizing another country in our pages. By nature, we are going to criticize some people. We’re not here to do PR, we’re here to present news.
Q: Do you get invited to events across the capital?
A: Yes, we get invited to many functions in Washington D.C.
Q: Do any embassies boycott you?
A: (Laughs). Possibly… because they’re not happy with the coverage. But usually, we’re invited.
Q: What’s your plan for the future?
A: Let me tell you something you might not have been aware of. To my knowledge, the Washington Diplomat, is the only Arab-owned publication that is mainstream and read on Capitol Hill. This is unique. I think Arabs have realized how important the world of business is and are starting to realize how important politics is. There is very little Arab representation and ownership in the United States.
I think it’s a shame because you will find that media owners are not necessarily friendly to the Arab world nor do they understand it or give a fair presentation of what it is. Our publication is not an Arab publication, even though it’s owned by Arabs, but it’s able to give a balanced coverage of the Arab world. This is missing in the United States . There’s a lack of Arab media ownership and representation.
Q: Does anyone notice that the Washington Diplomat is Arab-owned?
A: Some people do, yes.
A: You won’t find out by reading it. But if you get to know me, you can find out.
Q: where in the Middle East are you originally from?
A: Palestinian, born in the United States and so is my cousin.
Q: Is he involved in the journalistic side as well?
A: No, he focuses more on operations.
Q: What is the most common problem you face in your job?
A: One of the toughest challenges is surviving in this business. It’s a tough environment. We are currently looking at raising money and expanding. We’re been approach by people who aren’t necessarily friendly to the Arab world and we rejected their offer. It’s hard to remain in business. It’s also hard to cover the entire world with a small staff. We don’t have a bureau chief for every country or region, so our writers have to be from diverse backgrounds.
Q: How many journalists do you employ?
A: We have many contributing writers, between 15 and 20. And eight staff members.
Q: Are most of them journalists?
A: No, a mix between journalists and other specializations like production.
Q: Are you responsible for advertising?
A: Yes, it’s all done in-house. We try to solicit major and small businesses.
Q: Are you making a profit?
A: It depends on the year. I mean, it’s a very difficult business to be making a profit in. We made a profit in some years and in others we didn’t.
Q: Do you receive any funds from the government?
A: No, no. We feature advertising supplements which some companies pay for on behalf of the government but these are always labeled as advertising. People have offered, on a number of occasions, to pay for an editorial. We’ve always refused this.
Q: What about feedback. How do you evaluate your publication?
A: We receive positive and negative feedback. When you talk about diplomacy, you talk about sensitive issues. There will always be people who disagree with what you write or your perspective. We sometimes get critical letters and we publish them. We also receive a lot of praise, even from countries who don’t get represented in the mainstream media, because we’re not always covering just covering tragedies around the world. Some issues report on success stories in countries which don’t typically enjoy much news coverage. As someone once told me when I started, “Half the people will love you and half the people will hate you.”
Well, we have yet to make half the people hate us. We’re still working on being successful.
Q: Do you have nay plans to expand to other cities in the United States?
A: We are currently looking to expand to other cities such as New York, Brussels , London and Geneva .
Q: Is there no service like the Washington Diplomat in New York City?
A: There’s a small publication but it’s poorly executed. There is nothing like our paper in Brussels . London has a good magazine and we’re looking at competing with them and expanding to those cities. This is why we’re trying to raise funds.