Eric Reguly, One of the Few Foreign Correspondents Still Out There

Eric Reguly, the Toronto Globe and Mail European correspondent based in Rome, discusses his journalistic lineage, several career pivots, creating his own bureau and why he would report from Cuba if he was a young American reporter starting out now.

Eric Reguly has made a name for himself through the prestigious Globe and Mail newspaper, as a reporter and columnist. But the Reguly name is not new to the journalistic world. His father, Robert Reguly, was a very well known Canadian investigative journalist, who the son himself has written about.

Q: Did you always want to become a journalist, or did you have other career paths in mind?

A: My father was a very famous journalist. In fact, I’ve just written a book about him, it’s called Ghosts of War. It’s largely about his war coverage. He covered the Vietnam war in the late sixties. We were living in Washington, D.C., at the time. You know, I was a little kid then, so he heavily influenced me. His name was Robert Reguly. He wrote some of the most famous investigative stories in Canadian history, including Canada’s first sex spy scandal, where he exposed the whereabouts of a Soviet agent called Gerda Munsinger, who was having affairs with Canada’s cabinet ministers, and in the cover up, she was reported dead. My father found her years later, very much alive in Munich, Germany. It still ranks as the biggest scoop in Canadian history. It was, you know, Canada’s answer to the Profumo affair in Britain. So my father’s wild, crazy, famous journalism career really did influence me, but having said that he never pushed me into journalism.

Anyway, I did an honors English and French literature degree at my university in Ontario, Canada. And when I got to fourth year, I realized I still hadn’t decided whether to become a journalist though. I was thinking about it and really it was like a negative option.

I just thought, you know, what else am I gonna do? I mean, I didn’t want to be a businessman. I didn’t want to be a stock broker. I didn’t want to be a doctor. I knew I wanted to travel, so my default was going into journalism. And so I did a master’s in journalism, graduated in 1983. I’ve been a journalist for more than 35 years and it’s worked out really well. I’ve had a really good run.

I’ve been a foreign correspondent in New York, Rome, London, and I’ve also worked for the Times of London for Rupert Murdoch in the 1990s. I did something against my instincts back in the 80s and 90s: business, financial, and economic journalism were taking off before it was the purview mostly of the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times of London. And I saw this area growing, I saw business, financial, and economic journalism going. I had zero background in this. I mean, I knew nothing, but I pushed myself into it when I was living in Alberta. And that was the one area where newspapers were really hiring in the 80s and 90s.

And that sent me to New York. I was the New York bureau chief for a paper called the Financial Post of Canada, now the National Post of Canada. It really launched my career. I still do probably at least half my career now as business, economics, finance and the rest is war coverage now. It’s worked out really, really well. So I took chances that were against my instinct and, and it worked out well, but you know, there’s not many of us foreign correspondents left, you know, anywhere in the world.

An invitation to the Ghosts of War book launch event.

Q: Given his reputation, would you say that your father was your mentor?

A: Yes and no. Like I said, even though he was a famous journalist, he was quite cynical about journalism. He didn’t think that newspaper owners and publishers were devoted to truth and beauty. So, he never actively pushed me into it. So was he my mentor? I mean, yeah, in the sense I’ve always felt competitive with him. Once I got journalism to be a foreign correspondent, because I knew enough about journalism then that I knew that the only way you could have adventure and fun and true, true independence, and that’s, that’s the key was to be a foreign correspondent. He was critical of my stories, you know, a lot of them.

He was quite a lefty. He was a real socialist and he didn’t like big business. He thought that some of my stories were a bit too praising of business success. You know, he basically thought that every successful businessman or woman was a tax evader, money launderer, or an outright criminal, And he was probably right in a lot of cases, not all cases, but in a lot of cases. Was he my mentor? In the broad sense, yes.

Q: How did you end up in Italy?

A: 15 years ago, in 2007, my wife was a high profile editor in Canada. She worked with me at the Times of London, she had careers at the Financial Times of London, as well as briefly at the Guardian newspaper.

She worked at better papers than I did, frankly. She was the health and science editor of the National Post, which is still our main competitor in Canada. She lost her job a few years later because the paper didn’t do well, causing mass layoffs. She applied for a job at the United Nations in Rome, there are three food agencies here, and she applied for the job as a communications person/speech writer and got it. So she was bent on moving to Rome and it was a great job and a great city.

So I went to my editor and I said, “Look, my wife’s going to Rome. I’m gonna follow her.” And he said, “No, you’re not. You’re my main business writer in Toronto. You’re not going.” And I said, “Well, I’m going. Even if I have to quit, I’m going.” He said, “I’ll give you two years.” He sent me for two years and then like everything happened. I mean, it was the financial crisis, it was Arab spring, Greece went bankrupt in the financial crisis, Portugal, Ireland, Pope Benedict resigned. I mean this is history, right. I didn’t wanna go back. And they realized that having me in Southern Europe and the Mediterranean was great for the paper. We had someone in London at the time. In fact, we have two people there now, but, you know, they couldn’t get to Southern Europe all the time. I cover around 30 countries.

This bureau really was my invention, and I think it’s worked out well geographically because, you know, we don’t need three people in London. I’m covering parts of the world that the London bureau wouldn’t normally cover. We have a Vatican correspondent now. So I’m the Vatican correspondent, the Italian correspondent, the Southern European, I have basically all the North Africa coverage and I split the Middle East with one of our London guys. So it’s worked out really well.

One of his recent opinion columns can be found here: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/business/commentary/article-quickly-cutting-russian-gas-imports-to-europe-could-backfire/

Q: What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced in being a foreign correspondent?

A: Oh, a lot. I mean, the Globe and Mail is Canada’s national paper. It’s the best known paper. We’re a really big media group. But you know, we’re not the New York Times, we’re not the Washington Post, we’re not the Financial Times of London. So, one of the biggest challenges I have is getting interviews quickly with really key people. I mean, I have to fight for a lot of interviews because I’m not a global brand name. Like the New York Times correspondent in New York can get an interview in 10 minutes, that same interview will take me days to arrange, or weeks or never. Working for a Canadian paper that’s famous in Canada, but not famous globally is a struggle in the sense that you have to build in extra time. It can be frustrating, so what is key is making good contacts. Meeting people, taking them to lunch, taking them to dinner, and once I get to know these people and they get to know me, then interviews do become easy, but it’s just a struggle. It’s a struggle every day. So you have to have a lot of energy, a lot of perseverance to do my job more so than the brand named global media companies.

Another would be just dealing with being six hours ahead. I mean, the days are long. My stories sometimes won’t get edited until midnight my time and it’s a really long day because I have to write and report in European time then I’m editing in Toronto time. With foreign correspondence, you’re never really off the job. I cover so many sectors, so many countries, I don’t really have downtime in the sense I’m always thinking about the job, the next story, getting beaten on a story.

Foreign correspondence is glamorous, and I love every second of it. It’s been absolutely fascinating, but it’s a lot of work and no newspaper has the budget it used to have. I don’t have an assistant here. I do everything. I pay my own bills, I buy my own equipment, rent my own space. I arrange all my interviews. I do all this myself.

Language, budget, hours are all challenges, but the main one is the effort I have to go through in Europe to explain who I am and why the Globe and Mail is worth talking to. The Globe and Mail is a really good paper. It’s got a lot of credibility, but it’s not a brand name in Europe. The fact is that I spent a lot of time making a name for the Globe and Mail in Europe. There’s an extreme lack of knowledge in certain parts of Europe, about Canada. Millions of Italians travel to Canada. Toronto and Montreal have a huge Italian population. There’s even an Italian daily newspaper in Toronto, but still the level of knowledge about my country is pretty limited.

Q: What is some advice that you could give to an aspiring journalist?

A: I get lots of calls and emails from young journalists. The typical email would be “Dear Mr. Reguly, I’ve been reading you for years. I admire your work, any advice to young ambitious journalists and how to become a foreign correspondent?” I mean, that’s 90% of the emails I get. I always respond and I say, “Take a risk. Find a part of the world which is under-reported, where either bad stuff is happening, or you have a sense that a part of the world is about to undergo tumultuous change, either a war or revolution or a peaceful political change, economic change.”

Look at the journalists after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early nineties. They went to Moscow and they covered history. Many of them were freelancers. Now the trick is to find a place that’s not over reported. If I were a young American journalist, where would I go? There’s nowhere in Europe that’s under-reported now. Palestine, maybe Cuba, I’m not saying stay there forever. Go there for six months or a year and write the hell out of it and be multimedia, be social media.

They write back saying, “Okay, Eric, where would you go?” And I don’t know, it changes by the week or month. I think Cuba would be interesting now. They have an amazing healthcare system they’ve done really well in COVID, their economy is in terrible shape. I think what’s happening in Palestine is under-reported. If you get into Saudi Arabia, you know, what’s happening there is really interesting. I think India’s always a good story. There’s a lot of foreign bureaus there. If you were in Venezuela two or three years ago, you would’ve been on one of the world’s great stories, right? Not many major English language newspapers had bureaus in Venezuela, but wow, what a story. I mean, the crime, the oil, the sanctions, it was an amazing story. I think Brazil is probably a good environmental story now, the destruction of the rainforest. But, there’s a lot of people in Rio, so you gotta be careful there.

I also think that investigative journalism is very important. It’s very risky. You could spend a year on a project and it could produce zero. I had been an investigative journalist for several years of my life. You could spend a lot of time on a story thinking it’s gonna be explosive, and then you come up short. The investigative work is long, expensive, and mentally brutal. Whether it’s crime or medical, corruption, or money laundering, you could change the world or change local law , or get someone arrested at minimum. But again, if you’re like a 25 year old journalist and you go to an editor and say, “I need you to pay my way for a year. I may not be able to find anything,” that’s a hard sell, you know, it’s a really hard sell.

Good business journalists will always find work in business and economy reporting. Everyone’s interested in personal finance, I’m not that interested anymore, but in the early part of my career, first, third to half of my career, business writing really accelerated the growth of my career, the success of my career.

Q and A reporting by Patrick McNabb for the Reynolds Sandbox

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