Storytelling in 2017
Donnie Kwak discusses working in the media — including The Ringer and ESPN Magazine – in the digital age, which means rolling with the medium but sticking to story.
By JOSH TOWNER | Editor
Donnie Kwak is the East Coast bureau chief of The Ringer. He’s worked as a journalist for more than 20 years in a myriad of positions ranging from fact-checking to podcasting. As a self-proclaimed “pretty old guy,” he’s been a part of multiple media companies and has endured the transition from print to video. He’s recognized what it takes to stand out in a competitive field and he has some advice for aspiring journalists.
What does a day in your job look like?
“Because The Ringer is based in Los Angeles, and we have quite a few writers and editors not based in LA, my job is to manage the East Coast operations, primarily in New York and Boston. Being on the East Coast and in the Eastern time zone, we are responsible for making sure stuff is published and the home page is updated. From 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., myself and the other editors are making sure everything that’s supposed to go up in the morning is in production and being copy edited and fact-checked and ready to go. We’re also aware of what’s happening in the world before LA wakes up. News is breaking, things are going on, we’re passing along ideas. Then from 10 a.m. on, LA is waking up and other people are joining in the fray.”
“That’s the nature of media in 2017. There’s not really an off button. There’s just busy and less busy.”
How many hours a day do you think you work?
“It’s kind of hard to quantify, I would say that time I spend literally at a computer working on stuff is about 8–10 hours, but the job doesn’t really end because something could happen, especially since we have such a heavy sports influence and sporting events typically happen in the evening or on the weekends, like the NFL. A celebrity thing could happen today, or even when the Star Wars trailer came out, there are just little things that happen. That’s the nature of media in 2017. There’s not really an off button. There’s just busy and less busy.”
Tell us about your career path.
“I was a journalism major at NYU. Since I graduated in 1998, I’ve been working in journalism. I’ve done a lot of different things in the editing world: print, digital, writing, fact-checking, magazine, newspaper, video and even podcasting. Fortunately, I’ve had a lot of experiences that run together, and those have all served me well … which requires some knowledge if not expertise in a lot of multimedia disciplines. I worked for the better part of nine years at Complex Media, for two years at ESPN Magazine, and I’ve had a lot of little stops along the way that have been really valuable.”
“Ultimately, the medium might change, the method of delivery might change, but people are still after the same thing, which is compelling narrative, story, insight, information, edifying content. I think that’s just human impulse, and you’ve got to figure out how to feed it.”
What has it been like to witness the transition to everything being digital?
“We’re seeing it now where everything is pivoting to video. It’s certainly been challenging, and something that keeps you on your toes. Ultimately, the medium might change, the method of delivery might change, but people are still after the same thing, which is compelling narrative, story, insight, information, edifying content. I think that’s just human impulse, and you’ve got to figure out how to feed it.”
What’s the hardest part about your job?
“I’m mostly a manager and an editor, but from time to time I write, either when the inspiration strikes or I’m asked. I would say that writing is still the hardest thing for me. Something that is longer or more involved that requires more reporting is very gratifying to publish, but the process of the interviews, the transcribing, the writing and the editing is what gets me. It’s hard work. Writing never gets easier, but with repetition and devotion to the craft you get better at it. I think my problem is that I’m not in a rhythm where I’m writing regularly like our staff writers do, so whenever I sit there in front of the blank computer screen it’s very daunting.”
What advice do you have for aspiring journalists?
“Anything I’ll say will sound trite, but I think learning to write well is important. I guess it’s easier to understand now than when you’re younger, but it really helps to not have a clear cut vision of exactly what you want to do but rather just an idea to pursue. In journalism now there are so many different things you can do that it at least helps to know that you want to write about X or you want to be an editor or you want to do media.
“It also helps to have a unique interest or expertise and then lean into that, because there’s so much content out there and there’s a need to cover it. I think people who are experts are needed. I say that because I end up talking to young people who say ‘I like everything,’ or ‘I want to learn about everything,’ or ‘I can write about whatever you ask me to write about.’ In reality, I’m more impressed by people that know clearly what they’re good at. If I meet a young person and they say ‘I’m good at podcasts, I think I could be really good at that,’ it piques my interest because it shows a level of specificity that I’m interested in. I don’t think it does anyone any favors to try be a generalist in the hopes that being a jack of all trades will make you more attractive. It’s good to have a couple lanes that you can rely on, I think that can help.”
Speaking with Kwak gave me a better picture of what working in digital journalism looks like. It’s an around-the-clock job of storytelling. He must constantly be aware of what the internet is interested in and how to best engage such a large audience. While everything may be pivoting to video, being able to creatively deliver a narrative is something that appeals to everyone. The idea of being a specialist in a few areas is also intriguing, as it can help me stand out. It was encouraging to know that even though journalism is undergoing a transition right now, storytelling is still at the forefront of the industry.
This interview as been edited and condensed.