Half a world away from the Middle East, a reporter finds black gold
KALAMAZOO – The view out Ben Lando’s office window on a recent Friday featured blowing snow, slush at the curb, buses passing with a wet swish, a view about as far from the desert Middle East as it’s possible to get.
But on the other side of the window is Lando’s own made-in-Michigan business, almost entirely focused on the Middle East, specifically Iraq and its oil market.
Iraq Oil Report is a news website focused entirely on the world’s fourth-largest petroleum producer, a country and industry inextricably tangled with the United States’ interests, for better or worse. With 28 employees, most of them Iraqi reporters working throughout the country, Iraq Oil Report has established itself as a reliable purveyor of top-quality information, both on its pages and in custom research for individual clients. Although it’s on the web, it’s behind a paywall, with subscribers in the energy industry, academia, journalism and non-governmental organizations.
Individual subscriptions are $1,950 a year, the equivalent of six digital subscriptions to the New York Times, to give an idea of what this information is worth.
Lando, 36, a Kalamazoo native, became interested in this niche a decade ago, as a young Western Michigan University grad, starting his career with United Press International.
UPI was launching an energy desk in 2005, and Lando, who had been freelancing and working for a radio station in Kalamazoo, began contributing. Although he wrote domestic energy stories about ethanol and solar, his interests were overseas. He was fascinated by the role of oil in both Iraq’s history and the conflict the U.S. was ensnared in. He asked to be allowed to focus on that niche, and how it operated under U.S. occupation.
“Around this time it was clear that early mistakes (made during the war) would have lasting consequences,” Lando said. “The narrative about life improving was not true, and could only be justified if you didn’t look at everything that was going wrong.”
The chaos of Baghdad and civil strife throughout the country was playing out in the nation’s most important – in many ways, its only – world economic market, Lando said.
“The power of oil isn’t just something shouted at antiwar rallies, it’s real,” he said. “The borders of the country, when it was founded, were drawn around oil fields. The only money (Iraq) would have is oil money. All of its modern disputes are over oil and the money from it.”
Lando moved to Washington D.C., to be near expert sources and the conferences where they could be found, “and I could pick their brains.” That curiosity and willingness to learn is part of Lando’s success, said Krishnadev Calamur, the editor who hired him at UPI.
“There’s a lot to be said for the on-the-ground reporting skills you pick up in smaller communities,” said Calamur, now a senior editor at The Atlantic. Lando knew how to cultivate sources and work a beat, and those skills served him well as he grew into a deeper understanding of energy markets and how they work. In 2007 he started Iraq Oil Report as a blog, with aggregated links to his own and others’ stories, supported by a daily email to subscribers. He soon had thousands, who saw the site as a convenient one-stop shop for information.
Lando began traveling to Iraq for extended reporting trips in 2008. The following year, he was laid off from UPI.
He’d moved his home base to Chicago from D.C., but believed the work he’d done and the reputation he’d built for Iraq Oil Report could be worth something. So he wrote a business plan, took out a loan from an uncle, started building a network of contributors and moved to Baghdad to cultivate more.
“My plan was to create a good news outlet, then ask for money,” he said. The paywall went up in December 2009 and the money began to come in. Today, 9,000 subscribers get the daily email, with links to the day’s stories, reported by 21 reporters, all full-time, all but one Iraqi, based in the country’s oil-producing regions, from Kurdistan in the north to the Kuwaiti border in the south. (By way of comparison, that’s roughly the same number of people the Detroit News has covering the Detroit metro area and Lansing.)
“To be able to do what we want to do journalistically, and for the business side, is to make sure we are looking at oil as the track to tell all these different stories, whether it’s fighting near an oil field, or budget discussions,” said Lando. “If we do that well, no one else is doing that, and the value is so high, that if (subscribers) care about their investment, they need to read this.”
Rafiq Latta, senior reporter with the Energy Intelligence Group, met Lando in his UPI days.
“I was kind of impressed,” Latta said. “He was young, and it struck me as, ‘How did this guy get interested in this?’ Soon you become rivals, then he starts kicking your ass.”
Despite the competition, Lando is well-liked by his colleagues, especially Iraqis, who see him as an American whose knowledge is based on deep contacts with, and employment of, their countrymen, Latta said.
“And their journalism is really, really good,” Latta added, singling out Iraq Oil Report’s coverage of the siege of the Baiji refinery in 2015, in which ISIS forces overran, and then were driven from, a major processing facility, near Kirkuk, in the north.
“It was an incredibly messy story to cover, and they did a great job,” Latta said.
Most of the site’s reporters are not bilingual, and have their stories translated by an Iraqi refugee based in the U.S. His managing editor, Ben Van Heuvelen, is in New York. The Iraq Oil Report, as a digital news organization, doesn’t really have a central office, either (although it’s incorporated in Michigan). Lando’s Kalamazoo desk is in a spare room he rents from friends with a nonprofit, and he stays in Michigan for practical and personal reasons -- his wife, Gabrielle Contesti, has her career here, “and it’s cheap.” The couple have a 3-year-old and another on the way.
Until 2013, Lando was one of the reporters on the ground in Iraq, but marriage and fatherhood brought him back to Michigan, and a more managerial role. Still, he was in Vienna in recent weeks to help cover the OPEC meetings, where his organization got a major scoop on the withdrawal of ExxonMobil from exploration areas in Kurdistan. It was major enough that Reuters, a competitor, cited the Iraq Oil Report story in their own, the journalistic equivalent of counting coup.
Lando has a Midwesterner’s unassuming nature, which helps him overseas, said Calamur, his former editor.
“He’s not going to Iraq acting like he knows everything already. He’s very humble, but confident. He can impress upon people his knowledge, but still show that he’s willing to learn more,” Calamur said.
When he’s not traveling, answering texts and email or otherwise dealing with daily issues, Lando is concentrating on how he can leverage the information his staff collects into more resources for the site. Custom research is his latest brand extension, which came from his realization that “even though we’re doing great reporting, so much useful info is left on the cutting-room floor. How do you package that for value, and make sure you’re not throwing away money?” Other industries not directly related to the oil market will pay for specific intelligence and data his reporters can provide, Lando said.
As far as Kalamazoo is from Baghdad, Lando’s interest in the region endures.
“(It’s) money, oil, power, with these proud Iraqis in the oil sector,” he said. “They’re not bad people, just trying to do the best they can.”
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