Living my dream
Molly McHugh discusses her journey from intern at her local city newspaper to her dream job at The Ringer.
By AARON HERBST | Writer
Molly McHugh loves the Portland Trailblazers and has a hard time pitting avocados. She is a editor with The Ringer at only 30 years old. She no longer works at the headquarters in Los Angeles, but instead edits remotely from her home in Portland, with the three writers who work under her.
Can you tell us your path from high school to where you are now?
“I started writing for the city newspaper in Salem, Oregon, as an intern when I was a senior in high school. I knew the University of Oregon had a really good journalism program, so I went straight there after high school and majored in magazine journalism and electronic media.
“My first job was as a freelancer was writing about Oregon’s art scene. I then got a job at Digital Trends, doing technology reviews. The Daily Dot was my next stop, which allowed me to do some more in-depth reporting. And that led me to a job at Wired Magazine, which was my first real job with a stable income.
“Then one day, I get an email out of the blue from (The Ringer’s) Bill Simmons directly, which is a very weird email to get. I was a huge fan, so it was a pretty easy decision to take the job. You don’t often times get to start your own site, and since The Ringer was so new, we got to kind of make up our own rules as we went along.”
What does a week in your job and life look like?
“It’s a lot of everything. I spend about five hours a week in meetings, and then the rest interviewing people for stories I’m working on — which then involves transcribing and writing. I also spend a lot of my time reading and taking in news that’s relevant to what I’m working on and things writers I’m editing are working on. There is a lot of reading in this job, but there is, overall, a lot of variety.”
Did you do any networking to land jobs?
“Once I got my first journalism job, going to conferences and making friends at other publications served me well, and was helpful in making connections with people at places I wanted to work. I never went to specific networking events, but journalism and tech conferences were very helpful.”
“I think having a good handle on what my writers actually sound like in conversation helps me keep their voice in the story.”
How do you edit while maintaining the original style and voice that the author intended?
“I think having a good handle on what my writers actually sound like in conversation helps me keep their voice in the story. Also, I try to help them define the topics they are specifically skilled at to put them in a position to succeed. I focus mostly on narrative flow, grammar and awkward phrasing. This is how I liked being treated as a writer, and how I felt I learned to become better at it, so I try to apply that when I’m editing.”
Why did you choose editing as your field of study, instead of journalism or writing?
“I majored in magazine journalism, but ended up editing. Honestly, writing is really, really hard and sort of mercurial — I liked the dependency and consistency of editing. If you do go into writing, make sure you are writing about something you care about. Leaning on what you know and what interests you naturally usually leads to the best stories.”
What excites you most about what you do?
“The variety and how open-ended most projects are.”
What do you spend most of your time doing on a day-to-day basis that you might not have expected when you took the job?
“I didn’t think I would be reading the internet as much as I do, and I certainly didn’t think Twitter would be such a valuable source.”
How do you balance your work and stress with your social life? Do you dream or have nightmares about your job or deadlines?
“It’s hard not to take your job home when a lot of it exists online — you can work anywhere, all the time. I try to be offline as much of the weekend as I can, and I’m a big proponent of do-not-disturb mode on my phone and on Slack. I have had many, many bad dreams about deadlines. What I’ve learned as an editor, though, is your editor is almost always happier to discuss a new deadline then get an unfinished draft.”
What do you think is the newest, coolest area in journalism or editing?
“Fact-checking and research are a big deal in our industry, and it is not as bad as it sounds. Podcasting is also something that has become very popular in the last few years. My personal favorite thing that I did was being a free-lance writer for Wired. Free-lancing is so much fun because you get to do all the stories, and you are your own boss.”
“The Ringer has been especially welcoming to women in roles that usually go to men, perhaps more than anywhere I’ve ever worked.”
Is it hard being a female in a male-dominated profession?
“There are certainly hurdles for women in journalism, especially in tech journalism. The Ringer has been especially welcoming to women in roles that usually go to men, perhaps more than anywhere I’ve ever worked. I think it’s important to have underrepresented voices in journalism and particularly in genres usually dominated by one sort of voice.”
McHugh showed me editing takes a certain kind of personality. You have to be able to call someone out when they’re wrong, and know when to boost the writer’s confidence. Striking that balance and having a relationship with your writers is key to becoming a successful editor. Molly edited a piece I wrote and did a really great job of encouraging me, yet still helping me with my writing. She was tough, and ripped my story apart, but I am glad she did, because her suggestions made the piece more clear to the reader. That is the sign of a good editor, and Molly McCugh is a good editor.
This interview has been edited and condensed.