Next up in our #HerStory series is Rukmini Callimachi, a Romanian-American journalist who writes about ISIS for The New York Times. In this interview she discusses how she uses threads to take readers beyond a story.
You've become the go-to reporter for news on the Islamic State (ISIS). Tell us about the genesis of your career, and what drew you to journalism.
Rukmini: I was born in Romania at a period of time when the country was still under communist rule. My mother, grandmother, and I were able to flee the country when I was 5 years old. We were given political refugee status first in Germany and later in Switzerland. So I guess a core aspect of my identity is that I am an immigrant. I'm an immigrant three times over, first to Germany, then to Switzerland, and then eventually to America.
I wouldn't say it impacted my decision to get into journalism, but it has definitely affected my persona as a journalist in the sense that I am, myself, an outsider. I am somebody who doesn't fit into any neat box, so I naturally gravitate to stories of outsiders and stories of people who are on the fringes — both the victims and the aggressors, in the case of ISIS.
Where did you get your start in journalism?
I threw myself into journalism quite late — I was 27 or 28 — and began as a freelancer in India. I pretty much bombed. I had a very hard time finding assignments, and pitched story after story but very little got picked up and sold. The first major story that I was able to cover was the Gujarat earthquake that occurred in India in 2001.
After that I returned to the US to take a three-month internship at the Daily Herald in Arlington Heights, Illinois. I had just gone from covering this major earthquake, this catastrophic event that had claimed thousands of lives, and now suddenly my tableau was miniature, and it was a really humbling time in my life. I learned an amazing amount, but of course I had no idea if I would ever go from there back to covering international news, which is what I wanted to do.
What exactly does covering the Islamic State for The New York Times entail?
I've been covering ISIS now for four or five years, traveling the world chasing what became the receding shadow of this territorial entity that they called their caliphate. Initially I was going to Iraq a lot as the attacks began in Europe, then Paris, and on a number of occasions to Germany. My travels have also taken me to Africa and beyond, as I've tried to document how this group has essentially globalized itself and extended its reach to a number of countries around the world.
One of my favorite things about the way you use our platform is how you use threads in such a thoughtful way. How does that process work?
I joined The New York Times in 2014 and was a reporter at the Associated Press for 10 years before that, so I was used to essentially filing a story a day, every day — sometimes more than that. When you get to the Times, the pace is very different. You're working on these big, impactful stories that sometimes take a long time to put together. There was a frustration for me that there was so much of the material that I was gathering on my reporting trips that essentially just would end up on the cutting room floor, and I realized that one way to use that material and still put it out into the public is through Twitter threads.
What’s been your favorite Twitter moment, or one you’ve noticed like the conversations you’ve seen around your work?
The most satisfying interactions I've had on Twitter when I've been creating threads fall into two camps. One is the threads that I've been able to do from these very distant parts of the world where I think people, especially in America, have very set ideas about what that place is like.
The other thing that has been satisfying for me is trying to break down ISIS for people. The explanatory aspect of it and trying to give people a deeper understanding of this group, which on the face of it looks like it’s just this criminal organization. But unfortunately, this is a group that is highly structured, that has a hierarchy, that has a leadership, and that has a real ideology that goes behind it, which we often ignore, in my opinion, to our peril.
How many times a day would you say you check Twitter?
I check Twitter way too many times a day. In fact, sometimes I have to disable Twitter — like literally erase it from my phone when I'm on a deadline — because it's such an invitation to waste 20 minutes going through your feed and looking at your mentions. It's been an incredible resource for me, in terms of finding sources and connecting with people that I would not connect with normally.
Who are your must-follow female journalists on the platform right now?
Well, number one without a doubt is Lydia Polgreen. Lydia was an early adopter of Twitter. I remember she was the West Africa bureau chief for The New York Times in Senegal, at the same time that I was there as a junior correspondent for the Associated Press. I remember sitting down with Linda and her partner one day and they were talking about this thing called Twitter. This must've been 2007 or 2008. I kept asking them, how was this different from Facebook? Lydia's now the editor in chief of The Huffington Post, and she is so good at distilling important moments in the news. I look to her feed to basically figure out what the top things are that people are talking about.
I would also highlight Jenan Moussa — Jenan is an Arabic-speaking journalist and covers the Islamic State much like I do. I love the Twitter threads she’s done from her reporting in the field, which really take you there. It’s her own photography and anecdotes of what she endured as she was there, as well as the stories of the people that she interviewed. And this is crucial because most of her material is published in Arabic and yet her Twitter threads are often in English. So it allows a different public to see what she's doing.
So as a diverse female journalist yourself, what advice do you have for others?
I guess one of the main takeaways of my own life is to learn to stand in your own light, to learn to own it. I think it's hard for women to essentially take ownership of their success, of their own power. Our instinct is always to bow to other people and say, “Oh, no, this was you. This was a group effort,” when in fact you were doing the majority of the work. And one of my own moments of growth has been to realize that I can do this and that I can own my success because it is, after all, mine.