MONTEZUMA — It’s not often that the editor of the Wall Street Journal, Emma Tucker, is in New Mexico. But she was here on May 20, in a special return visit to Montezuma for the United World College-USA’s graduation.
Tucker was the keynote speaker, offering up advice and words of encouragement to students at the two-year school that attracts students from around the world. Tucker herself was a graduate of UWC-USA nearly 40 years ago and she was the school’s Giulio Regeni Alumni Impact Award winner this year. The award is given to former graduates who exemplify the values of the school on a local, national or international scale.
The Albuquerque Journal was invited by the school to attend the graduation — which featured 118 students representing dozens of countries who received their diplomas — and to speak with Tucker.
In a wide-ranging interview, Tucker spoke about her time at the school in the ‘80s, how her career in journalism started and about her newspaper’s imprisoned reporter, Evan Gershkovich, who was arrested in Russia in March on espionage charges.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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Let’s jump right into it and talk about how you ended up here in New Mexico. I know you’re from the United Kingdom. That is far away:
“It’s very funny, because I had applied to go to the college in Wales, which was the original UWC. And when I went for my interview in London with these three old men, they said, ‘How would you feel about going to another college?’ And my parents weren’t there and I sort of said, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, that’d be great.’ And then I got this letter a few weeks later, saying I’d been awarded a scholarship to go to UWC in New Mexico. …
“I remember my dad getting out the Times Atlas and we opened it up — pre-internet — and New Mexico, none of us ever heard of it. And then my dad said, ‘You can’t go there. There are gorillas.’ I think he meant guerrillas not gorillas. My dad then got on the phone with the UWC committee and said, ‘Can she switch schools?’
“I mean, I was thrilled. But they were a bit alarmed about me going. So, they said, ‘Can you switch the scholarship to one of the other colleges a little bit closer, like Italy, maybe?’ And the board was like, ‘No, no, her scholarship is for New Mexico.’ And so off I went, and I’m so glad I did.
“I landed in Texas, age 16, with the two other British students who got scholarships out here. Britain in the ‘80s was quite kind of, you know — it was not thriving. Yeah, it was not thriving. We landed in Houston, which was big and brash, and we got on this thing called a people mover, which is completely normal in any airport now. But back then it was like, ‘wow,’ we were so wide eyed. And we got on and this big Texas woman got on with cowboy boots and a hat and she turned around, she looked at the three of us — these three little girls in the corner — and she did that, ‘Where ya from?’ That was like my welcome to America moment. It was hilarious. And then we obviously flew to Albuquerque, and I remember getting on the school bus to bring us here. And (there are) two things I remember. One is like, ‘Where’s the sea? I can’t see the sea.’ … The other one was there was this rock — a mesa — and we drove past it, and for about two hours you could see the mesa. The distances were so vast compared with what I was used to. So it was a proper, proper culture shock.”
Had you lived in other countries in the past prior to coming to the United States?
“It was my first time living abroad. But that was the whole thing about the UWC — there were kids here from all over who were like me. They’d come from parts of Europe, South America, Asia, and they were just kids who’d been at school and had seen the sign somewhere and had applied and ended up here. …
“I would make one phone call per semester home. And I didn’t go home until the following summer, because the airfares were so expensive.”
That must have been tough.
“I used to cry. I was homesick but I was also happy, if that’s possible. So I missed home and I missed my parents, but I was also having the time of my life here.”
What are some differences you noticed right away having grown up in the United Kingdom and then living in New Mexico?
“The sheer size. This is a stupid thing to say — but the smell. I just love the smell in the higher altitude, the air, all of that. Then this really distinctive culture that I don’t think I appreciated. When we were here, we were obliged as part of our curriculum to do a course in New Mexico history. I wish I’d paid more attention. I was too busy being a 16-year-old.”
I was told by the school that one of the first things they do for students is take them on a camping trip.
“The first place they took us was (to) Philmont. You know, Scout camp. Everyone. All the little princesses from Mexico, the Thai girls, who had never put on a hiking boot. … We had to go out hiking and camping, not even in tents, like under tarps. But it was a great bonding experience.”
I’m a journalist. You’re a journalist. It’s always exciting to ask other journalists about how they got into this industry. How did you end up in journalism?
“When I got to university, I did student journalism. But I also had a piece published in a national newspaper around an incident that happened at my college involving rugby players, where I was very outraged at the way the college dealt with it. And I wrote a piece for a national newspaper, and they published it. … So I started to see that, you know, journalism was a good thing to do if you wanted to get attention on something.”
Your first job was as a reporter at the Financial Times. What were some of the first types of beats you covered as a journalist in your early career?
“So I did general news. I remember we covered the riots that happened in the (United Kingdom) in the early ‘90s. I then did a year in politics covering parliament, and that was really interesting. …
“Then, when I went to the economics (beat), there was a lot of turbulence in financial markets, particularly around the pound in the early 90s. I covered all of that, you know, loads of really interesting stuff. There was a big recession in the early 90s that affected a lot of white collar workers. So I did lots of color reporting around that.
“And then eventually, I got this job in Brussels. And that was really interesting, because it was when they were beginning to create the single market, which meant tackling all the various industries, bringing down the trade barriers, so that you create this harmonious market, like the U.S., but for Europe. But it involved huge amounts of legislation that affected different industries.”
How important was it for you covering this wide variety of beats in shaping your career?
“It was definitely the best route. I was lucky because the (Financial Times) moved me around a lot. I think the more you can get under your belt, the better.”
In journalism — and I’m sure in other career fields — it can be hard to separate work from your personal life.
“I think it’s harder now because of smartphones. … And you’re on it the whole time. You have to learn to prioritize.”
I did some research the other day and came across an interview in which you spoke on constructive journalism. What is that?
“It’s basically good journalism. It’s always trying to think when you’re writing about a problem, what’s the solution? Journalists are very good at writing about problems. But trying to remind yourself (that) you’re writing about this problem (where) there must be somewhere in the world that’s tackled this and had some success. …
“I think there’s a real problem of news avoidance. People are turning away from the news because they read it and feel nothing but despair. I think it’s incumbent on us when we’re reporting on things to write about solutions as well as problems. And, you know, it’s very easy to forget. I’m sure that the (Wall Street Journal) has lots of examples where we haven’t done that.”
I know the print product is really important for the Wall Street Journal. It is for us too. But there has been a digital revolution over the years. How has the Wall Street Journal adapted and how is it continuing to adapt?
“That’s such a good question. I mean, look, all our future growth is in digital. That goes without saying. But the print product is still (important). … I’ve been surprised at how important it still is here. So when I went to Washington, D.C., for example, the number of people who still physically read the print product is really interesting. So the product — the print product — matters but it’s getting more and more expensive to distribute. …
“We have to ask ourselves, where do they want to consume the Journal? And how do they want to consume the Journal? Maybe they don’t want to consume the Journal as an 850-word news story. Maybe they want to read it as a digital interactive, or a video or a podcast or a TikTok. But I think it’s possible to do all of that without watering down the core values or content of the Journal.”
There’s a whole lot going on in the U.S. economy. You hear some people talking about a recession. Inflation is high. But jobs are up. How do you wrap your head around what is going on?
“I think it’s really difficult, because I think there are a lot of unknowns. The (long-term)… quantitative easing that’s been in the system, we don’t know how that’s going to play out. Is a 2% inflation target even realistic anymore? … No one would dare say this, but the 2% target might start to look unrealistic. I mean, I hope the inflation peak has been reached, but as to how far down you can get it, I don’t know.”
Let’s talk about your reporter Evan Gershkovich who was detained in Russia. Why do you believe he was arrested? To me, on the outside, some of it seems to have to do with this war in Ukraine that is going on.
“I have to say, the U.S. government is working every lever it can. But it’s a difficult situation. You know, they’ve already applied sanctions to Russia, and they are supporting Russia’s enemy in the battlefield. So it’s very difficult for America. But I have to say, they are doing their damnedest. …
“We don’t know. It’s impossible to know, when you’re dealing with the Russians. I suspect they see him — perhaps they see him — as some sort of bargaining chip. You know, he’s an American. He works for a well-known institution, the Wall Street Journal. Who knows. I don’t know. It’s very difficult to know, to second guess what’s going on internally. … But previous experience suggests he will be tried, he’ll be found guilty, he will be sentenced to jail and then some sort of exchange can come into play. I mean, it sounds bad to say, but that’s what we’re hoping for.”