When The New York Times originally launched its military blog, At War, in 2008, it was a novel approach to coverage of wars that had been raging since 2001 and were already being forgotten by the public at large. It invited readers, from service members and aid workers to veterans and military spouses, to contribute their stories and share their experiences “at war” with Times readers. After eight years, however, the blog went dormant. Then, Lauren Katzenberg arrived.
Katzenberg founded Task & Purpose, a popular military culture and news website, in 2014. She spent the next four years working with hundreds of active duty and veteran service members to tell their stories, whether they were writing about things like the popular Wild Tiger energy drink and bathroom humor or military sexual assault and harassment and why they chose to leave the military. When The Times decided it was ready to relaunch At War, Katzenberg was the natural choice to helm the ship.
The 2018 iteration of At War is part of The New York Times Magazine, and Katzenberg is the section’s first dedicated editor. But she isn’t alone in her pursuit of unique stories about war and peace, and life after the battles end.
“The nice thing was before I started, the [magazine] editor, Jake [Silverstein], and C.J. Chivers and Jessica Lustig and a number of other people here at The Times, had kind of really started thinking about the motivation for At War,” Katzenberg explained. “We definitely wanted to keep it true to what it was originally, which was a platform that was going to be a place for service members and veterans and spouses – who are not necessarily writers by trade – to have a space to tell their stories.
“But, At War was also coming back with a budget and with a dedicated editor, which meant we could expand what it means to be ‘at war’ and look at the experiences of refugees and aid workers and journalists and human rights workers and be able to tell their stories, as well,” she added.
As an editor first at War on the Rocks and later at Task & Purpose, Katzenberg grew to love helping others tell their stories and share their ideas, especially people whose writings might otherwise get lost or buried in the nonstop cycle of digital content. [Editor’s note: I wrote for Katzenberg at Task & Purpose from 2015-2017.]
“When War on the Rocks started, we were all volunteering our time, and all the writers were volunteering, too, and that’s when I learned that people just want to write, and they want to be listened to and they don’t always need the money,” she said. “Then as soon as I started Task & Purpose and started working with military veterans, I just kind of fell in love with the idea of helping people with their storytelling.”
Part of what helped Katzenberg fall in love with the niche world of military reporting was her own time spent in Afghanistan. For two years, Katzenberg lived in Kabul and worked with local Afghan media companies helping them produce their storytelling, from documentary features to television dramas. When she began working with veterans who had also been in the region and shared her experiences, it felt like a perfect fit. “There were just so many stories that I related to from my own experience living in Afghanistan, and I felt like there wasn’t really a space for those stories to be told,” she said.
Now, with At War, she’s able to tell those stories and more, and to an audience of millions.
“I think [first-person storytelling] is so critical for our understanding of the experience of war, especially when he have an all-volunteer force that has been at war for more than 17 years now, and most of the country doesn’t feel that in any way,” Katzenberg said.
In addition to having an address book of military veterans and service members to bring into The Times, Katzenberg also gets to work with a team of world-class reporters who, as she noted, she’s been reading for years. In addition to John Ismay, who is At War’s dedicated staff writer, and renowned defense reporters like C.J. Chivers and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Katzenberg’s stable of writers includes a number of Times stars who, she admitted, have made her fangirl a bit.
“One of the first pieces we published was by Alissa Rubin. I was pretty star-struck when she reached out to say she was interested in writing for At War, because I had been reading her reporting from Kabul and Iraq for years, and now I was getting to work with someone who I had admired for so long,” she said.
In her story for At War, Rubin wrote about checkpoints she’d noticed popping up on the roads in Iraq, in places where she had never experienced checkpoints before. And while the story was newsworthy, Katzenberg said it fit perfectly in At War because “it was her experience, her observations about being on the road.”
Rubin is also helping Katzenberg with another important objective she has for At War: to include more women in the stories of war.
“One thing I’m trying to focus on is making sure that we have more stories about the role of women in war, both as service members and also as peacekeepers; the experience of war for women specifically; and the role that they play,” she explained. “If you look at the coverage of war historically, it just seems like it’s such a male-dominated discussion, but it doesn’t have to be. We’ve seen that there are some incredible war correspondents who are women. And I think they’re really making a difference.
“Just because I’m a woman, it’s not automatic that I’m going to think about women’s issues. I really have to prioritize every single day and make an effort to do it because I get so many pitches that are from men or that are male-oriented or that are focused on combat,” Katzenberg continued. “You have to create a space for stories that are about women or that are from women. You have to become a champion for women and make sure to ask women for those stories because sometimes they won’t speak out for themselves.”
Katzenberg has no shortage of goals to accomplish with At War, from providing women with a platform to share their war stories to reminding the citizens of this country about the wars America’s military men and women are fighting around the globe. But there’s no one better suited for the task. “As long as we can keep telling those stories and trying to remind people as much as possible that we are still at war, I think that’s exactly the role I want to be in,” she said.
For more of At War, be sure to read some of our favorites from the past year:
Those Who Can’t Forget
In Iraq, I Found Checkpoints as Endless as the Whims of Armed Men
War Without End
My Deployment Was Not an ‘Adventure,’ as a Children’s Book Tried to Tell My Daughters
The Messy Reality Inside the Pentagon, Captured in Fiction
I’m a Veteran With PTSD. The Medication I Take Makes Dating Difficult.
I Was Sexually Assaulted by Another Marine. The Corps Didn’t Believe Me.
When We See Photographs of Some Dead Bodies and Not Others
Coming to Terms With Being a Marine Who Never Went to War