How do you turn the flood of news and information into something useful? That’s what we try to do at Delve, and for our Wonk Lens series we ask smart people how they manage it. If you like the interview, you can also check out a curated news channel built based on Steve Levine’s news diet here. Find more expert channels in the smart, social news reader we built for energy professionals like you.
Steve LeVine is one part ink-stained news veteran, one part new media innovator, and one part history student, a role he’s embraced as an adjunct professor at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. But for all the hats he wears, he has just one core obsession: spotting geopolitical trends. He first developed a knack for it during his 18 years as a foreign correspondent for the likes of Newsweek, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. He covered global shifts in-depth on his blog The Oil and the Glory (after his book by the same name). And now, writing for the Atlantic’s startup business news site, Quartz, he’s opened up about how he does it. You might call the product a guidebook of sorts, for how to read the news to spot trends. That guidebook codified a set of indicators for predicting energy geopolitics from the massive flow of daily energy data. And now he’s got a set of rules for how to interpret the course of nations. We asked Steve how he reads, who, and to predict the course of the news media.
Tell us about your energy indicators and geopolitical rules for interpreting news. How did you come up with them and how do they inform your daily work?
The indicators come from the Georgetown class. When I am attempting to unravel and connect dots, I am operating intuitively and from experience – but how to transfer that to 18 graduate students? I needed to systematize the method. The result was 10 indicators, which recently grew to 11. What are the indicators? Some people mistakenly think they are predictive; they are not. To exploit Nate Silver’s title (The Signal and the Noise), they help to separate out the signal from the noise–they tell you what events are more likely than others to have geopolitical or geo-economic impact. Once you decide that, say, a rise in violence in Algeria could have geopolitical impact there or elsewhere, you can turn to the 14 rules of geopolitics for pointers on how, generally speaking, geopolitics have tended to turn out over time.
With me, the indicators and the rules are internal–they are expressions of how I actually frame and think through events I am observing. So they are there all the time, behind the scenes; I don’t explicitly think about them. Although when I am writing, if I think about it, I will cite one of the indicators as a signpost and link back to the original piece.
If the indicators are your method for interpreting the news, what is your news-reading process? What’s you daily media diet?
I’m a guy who likes print. I actually get, on my doorstep every morning, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal. I also get the Economist and the Sunday New York Times. I subscribe to them all in print and online. I start out every day reading these papers cover to cover. I find that as I’m flipping through the pages, I’m not necessarily looking for a specific story, but I’m connecting dots. So something on page three I’ll find connects with something on page twenty-four, or something in the FT connects to the Wall Street Journal. In the morning I’ll look online at the New York Times, at the Washington Post and a bit at my Twitter feed. I find that these newspapers are very effective in terms of getting me in the place I need to be to write every day. I subscribe online as well for the blogs: FT’s Alphaville and beyondbrics, the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time and their Africa page.
So then I start shooting out emails. What I do is I read this stuff, I get in my mind – wow this makes me think that X may be true. So I’ll shoot out 3-5 emails to people who I think will know if I’m right. So I shoot them out and hope that 1-2 responses come back. And if I don’t know somebody, then there are think tanks I rely on, like Eurasia Group and CSIS, so I’ll shoot emails to their press guys or I’ll shoot to Wood Mackenzie, one of these oil service groups, an email and ask for someone who can comment.
So I look online at night to see what the papers have put on their sites, I shoot those emails out before I go to bed and in the morning I’ve got the papers, and – I hope – I’ve got the emails. So I can start right out writing.
So it sounds like emails are a tool for you to not only get commentary, but to organize and clip interesting articles. Is that true? Or do you use another tool to keep track of articles?
Well, with the newspapers I rip out the stories. I rip out the page, I fold them into quarters and I put them in a stack. I’ve got a stack of articles on my desk right here.
What I do in terms of what I see on-line is old-fashioned. I copy and paste the article into a Word file. Say I see one thing on Mozambique and natural gas that makes me interested. So I look around and I want to know everything that’s been written recently on that topic, because I want to make sure that I’m adding value. I want to know what the people who I think are smart have already written. So I get all that stuff; I cut and paste it with the dates on top. I get them in really nice order on the page, on the Word file. I justify all the paragraphs; they look really, really good so they don’t have clutter. And I go through these articles and I bold the parts that I think are relevant and cut everything else. So all I’m left with is the bolded parts. So I have those and then the email interviews. Then I decide, you know, what I think about it and I go write.
Another thing I do is I subscribe to investment bank analysts who put out notes to their clients on various topics. So I get Citigroup, Bernstein Investments, Barclay’s Bank, Deustsche Bank, and these are very good, these are very smart guys. You don’t always agree with them but they put out long reports on topics that interest me and, you know, they have an argument for what they’re saying. And key for me, I can email them and say this looks really good but what about this? What if that happened? If your scenario played out, what are the geopolitical implications? Because they’re not really interested in geopolitics but I ask them anyway. So yes, they’re a key source of mine.
Give us the quick pitch on Quartz. What are you guys up to there?
They’re going gangbusters. The idea is mobile-first, and that the world is moving toward reading its news on a smartphone – they’re obviously developing across platforms – but mobile first. And the approach to reportage is obsessions. Its not to cover an industry, but to cover trends or directions of events that a reporter perceives, and that we think, the editors think is the way that people who are most interested in foreign news look at it. They want to know the direction things are moving, how to think about it, to ask the question – why is this important? As opposed to providing a smattering of things, the way a newspaper will traditionally report something.
My main obsession that I cover is the theory that we’re on the cusp of an era of fossil fuel abundance, and not scarcity. And if that’s true, what does it mean? What does it mean geopolitically?
My whole thing is to be agnostic, not ideological in any sense. I’m not looking for anything. I’m just looking for what is really going on. I’m not environmental; I’m not pro fossil fuel. I’m about what’s really happening in these places. And also, I’m not interested in energy per say, but in the impact that energy can have on geopolitics. I try to take it the next step, and think about the power play. So I play that out. I’m looking all over the world for the news that plays into this and it’s really fascinating. It covers a lot of ground and no one else is doing it.
So if obsessions are a new way to think about the news, how do you cover one? What format have you found to work best – explainers, blog updates, or is it something analogous to a print news column?
Each of the Quartz folks seems to have an individual style. I think that my own obsessions play best in big-picture explainers that are of some length and not “brites” as the Journal increasingly leans. I derive a take on events, and try to think forward where matters seem to be moving. When I do that, I find it easy a week or a few months later–when events have evolved and I can see whether I was right–to then weigh in in a way that I myself find interesting.
You spent 18 years as a foreign correspondent. If you were to take the pulse of journalism and foreign correspondence in the U.S. media today, what’s the bill of health?
There are many fewer sources of foreign news. However, my impression is that the quality is there if you look for it. The places I’m going for my foreign news are still outstanding. We have the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, the Economist, and these are just fantastic in terms of exactly the lens on the news that I’m talking about – analyzing and telling you why something’s important.
That said, that whole world has changed. When I entered the field, there were hundreds of foreign correspondents and places that you could work as someone who was interested in that field. As a reader, there were different places you could go to get different perceptions, specifically different reported perceptions, versus a person bloviating on a blog about what he or she thinks might be happening, which I think can confuse the issue. You know it’s not always plain. One has to be very discerning in terms of what is learned; what’s a plausible way of looking at events and what is just someone being conspiratorial and ideological. I personally think that at some point people are going to just get fed up with the junk and that the cream will rise to the top. I think that the quality is going to end up coming back to the forefront. A business model will present itself where these places can earn enough money to support themselves and we’ll be all right. But right now, everybody’s in trouble – all media organizations. No one’s healthy.