How New Lines Magazine built a home for long-form international reporting

Last year, news outlets reported on a remarkable story: Two war crime researchers from the University of Amsterdam had catfished hundreds of Syrian intelligence officers and military officials who were loyal to the country’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad. In 2018, the researchers created a fake, pro-Assad Facebook profile of a woman named “Anna Sh” to gain the trust of the security officers and get them to admit their involvement in massacring nearly 300 people in 2013.

Over the course of two years, one of the researchers, Annsar Shahhoud, played “Anna.” Shahhoud learned that these officials were easy to find on Facebook, had relatively public profiles, and were members of active, intelligence-related Facebook groups. She sent them friend requests, told them about the alleged research she was doing, made them feel comfortable, and conducted lengthy interviews. In 2019, when a new military recruit leaked a harrowing video of a mass civilian execution to the researchers, they already had the network to track down the responsible officers.

Published in New Lines Magazine, the details of this investigation — about how Shahhoud and her co-author Uğur Ümit Üngör conducted the covert research, what they found, and the toll the process took on them — are chilling. Shahhoud and Üngör were interviewed on the New Lines podcast, and recently, the magazine published an illustrated video using details from the story and audio from the podcast to create a visual experience.

This particular case, while dark, heavy, and troubling, embodies New Lines’ mission to serve audiences that want to read longform, narrative journalism with all of its complicated, messy, and tangled threads.

In one segment of the podcast, Shahhoud and Üngör talked about what it was like to move on from the imaginary person they’d created in Anna, New Lines managing editor Ola Salem said. “The details of not only what the story is, but what goes on behind the story: That is the stuff we love to run.”

Founder and editor-in-chief Hassan Hassan, along with Salem, launched New Lines Magazine in October 2020. It’s published and funded by the nonpartisan think tank New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, which was founded and is led by Iraqi American entrepreneur Ahmed Alwani. (Alwani is also the founder of Fairfax University of America, a private, non-profit university in Fairfax, Virginia.)

At first, Alwani was skeptical about the Institute publishing a magazine, Hassan said. But Hassan kept re-pitching the idea and, in 2019, wrote a first-person essay for The Atlantic that described how different the Syria he grew up in was from the Syria overtaken by the Islamic State that he covered as a journalist.

“As many readers pointed out publicly and privately, the personal was much more illuminating than the work I’d done before,” Hassan later wrote for New Lines about that essay. “About how wars dismantle societies and how their effects carry on long after the gunshots go silent and the headlines shift.”

There needed to be a home for more of these types of stories that humanized these difficult subjects, Hassan thought. The idea of a magazine showcasing and educating people about complex issues eventually appealed to Alwani and he agreed to the launch. The magazine’s name plays on the idea of creating space for new narratives.

“Often when an editor declines or dilutes a good story, it’s to say it’s too in the weeds. I always joke, ‘What’s wrong with weeds?’” Hassan said, adding, “Readers do have the bandwidth to read complex stories as long as you make them readable and accessible, but at the same time, deep and nuanced and thoughtful.”

New Lines started out solely covering the Middle East, which was Hassan and Salem’s expertise as career journalists in the region. Over the last year, with a remote staff of 25 scattered around the globe, New Lines has grown into its tagline: “A local magazine for the world.” It now publishes stories from all over the world, with an emphasis on local reporting from journalists and experts.

The magazine, which has been online-only since its launch but will sell print quarterly editions starting this month, publishes one or two stories every weekday that fall into its five categories: reportage (deeply reported enterprise dispatches from the ground), arguments (arguments based in facts, data, and the writer’s professional experience), anchored in history (essays that use historical context to explain the present), first person (writers use personal experience to tell a story larger than themselves), and review (essays about books, films, and other media).

A sampling of recent stories: Reporting on the origins of a cholera epidemic in Syria, lessons about the coexistence of Indian Hindus and Muslims from the oldest mosque in South Asia, a photoessay on the “vanishing craft” of handmade Sudanese caps, and an essay on how immigrants in America infuses their own culture into Thanksgiving. Above each headline is an indication of how many minutes the story takes to read. The byline includes a one-line biography about the writer so the reader has a sense of whose work they’re about to consume. (I originally found New Lines through its reporting on Pakistan and stayed for its gorgeous World Cup coverage, including “Bisht, Please“).

New Lines also has two podcasts. The Lede, published weekly, mostly interviews reporters about their New Lines stories, their reporting processes, and their sources. Wider Angle, launched in November of this year, hosts conversations on global politics and culture.

Everything New Lines publishes is long. Most stories are supposed to take 10 to 35 minutes to read. Podcast episodes range from 20 to 85 minutes long. New Lines has found an audience for it, with hundreds of thousands of website visitors per month, Salem said. New Lines reached one million monthly views for the first time in 2022 and boasts monthly reader activity in every country in the world, according to Salem. (“Some months we miss out on getting readers from Greenland, but still from all other countries,” she said.)

That’s a lot of screen time. With that in mind, New Lines decided to launch not only a print magazine but also a coffee table book of 50 essays from its first year of publication. New Lines’ art director, Joanna Andreasson, often paints illustrations to accompany stories, which led to the idea for print products. (These will also be New Lines’ first efforts at establishing revenue streams outside of the Institute).

“You can carry it with you and you don’t have to be distracted by the internet,” Salem said.

Hassan described New Lines’ pillars as “the granular, the personal, and historical” stories that help readers understand why things are the way they are. The news cycle doesn’t dictate the publishing schedule, he said. The staff has daily meetings about the day’s news and from there, they decide whether or not they have something meaningful and insightful to contribute to the conversation. If the answer is yes, they get to work on finding the right story. If the answer is no, they get to work on other stories. (”We’re getting away from Twitter and the legacy media temptation and pressure to say something just to say something,” Hassan said.)

“Our essays can take us to small rural towns, the peripheries away from the big cities and the urban centers,” Hassan said. “We forget that much of the world is actually more on the periphery and in the smaller cities. This is quite useful and it draws in an audience that really gets excited about what we are doing. There’s a certain circle of people who like stories that offer them depth, nuance, and treat them as sophisticated readers rather than dumb readers who can’t read beyond 400 words.”

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