- Kalamazoo Public Schools
- Alumni Stories
Ben Lando didn’t know what he wanted to do.
But when he figured it out, he ran hard with it.
Lando came to Kalamazoo Public Schools as an eighth grader and graduated from Loy Norrix High School in 1998.
While at Norrix, he got involved with Knight Life, the student newspaper, and WKDS, which was then a student-run radio station. “When I look back at high school, it was a rebel-without-a-cause-situation going on,” he said. “But as part of the student newspaper, in particular at Loy Norrix, I think I found the benefit of having an organization behind your voice and figuring out how to be constructive within the limitations of real work issues.”
The most memorable example of that was when he co-authored a comic strip about the superintendent at that time. After the then-principal pressured the teacher and the students to not publish the strip, the class decided to cut the comic from the paper. Lando and his co-creator then printed and distributed the comic on their own.
“That situation provided a lot of good information for me to lean on when I eventually decided to go into journalism,” Lando said. “It taught me to focus my concern for the community and to critique those that would negatively impact the community in a way that was constructive.”
Finding a passion is key — not just for work but for life.
“Find what interests you,” Lando advises students. “If it leads you to a career directly — great — but it’s just as important if it makes you a well-rounded person, more interesting. Who knows you may just have something you enjoy as a hobby and you can make a career out of it.”
After graduating from Loy Norrix, he attended Kalamazoo Valley Community College before transferring to Western Michigan University, where he again became involved in student media, working for the WMU newspaper and radio station. Lando was also a reporter for WKMI and WMUK during college. Following his graduation from WMU, he worked as a freelance reporter at the Kalamazoo Gazette, the Battle Creek Enquirer, and for United Press International, an international wire service.
In 2006, he moved to Washington, D.C., and began a full-time position with United Press International. There, he began covering U.S. energy policy, splitting his time between nuclear energy and international oil.
“That’s when I started focusing on Iraq. It was the middle of the civil war, a few years after the invasion and occupation,” he said. “I found it very interesting and very compelling.”
During that time he started a side project, a blog called IraqOilReport.com. When he was laid off by UPI, that niche project was generating huge interest from oil companies, academics, and the transportation and security sectors.
He moved to Baghdad in 2009 and relaunched the blog as a news organization. He was also a freelance reporter in Baghdad for international news outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and Time magazine.
“I’ve only had one full-time job as an adult and it was based on my own hustle. I kept focusing on my interests,” he said. “Basically I started my own company to pay myself to do journalism.”
Living in Iraq at that time was “90 percent wonderful, 5 percent frustrating and 5 percent terrifying.”
“It was just wonderful to be living in a place that was extremely old and at the same time the very center of a lot of what’s happening in the world in terms of modern political and security issues,” Lando said. “To be doing that and experiencing something so very different in many ways from where I grew up and what I had professionally been involved in was a great experience a vast majority of the time.”
Today, he runs the company from Kalamazoo. It has 14 Iraqi journalists and editors working on the ground in Iraq.
He moved back to Kalamazoo in 2013, got married, and had his first child. He and wife Gabrielle Contesti, who works for Greenleaf Trust, realized the move made economic and logistic sense but it also made emotional sense for a growing family that now numbers six.
“We really like Kalamazoo for its combination of a small town, Midwest feel and the fact that it thinks and acts like a big city, for its ability to punch above its weight in many ways.”
Since moving back to Kalamazoo, he has reignited his interest in local journalism with a single edition magazine, The Homefront, which examined issues of homelessness. The publication, printed with publishing partner Encore Magazine, won four 2020 Michigan Press Association awards.
He has also launched the local news organization, NowKalamazoo.com, which operates under the wing of Public Media Network. NowKalamazoo is one of the founding members of a new effort called the Southwest Michigan Journalism Collaborative.
“I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all answer to the future of the news industry,” Lando said. “The answer to what the journalism industry is now and what it will be going forward is based on the quality of the news content, the scope of the coverage, and having it match the audience.
“Local news has to be really attuned to what the local audience needs and wants. We have to figure out what makes the most sense for each specific news organization. That requires a lot of creativity and a lot of experimentation.”
Cutline: Loy Norrix graduate Ben Lando sits with a sheikh, or tribal leader, in his mudhif, a traditional reed structure, in rural Basra, in southern Iraq.