Leading Millennials: Robin Kwong, Financial Times
Robin Kwong has an amazing job. He’s the Special Projects Editor at the Financial Times in London. Robin is responsible for driving experimentation in the newsroom — coming up with projects to try, test drive them and through both success and failure, help seed new practices across the newsroom.
Robin appears here as part of our stories to identify the evolving generation of professionals in the service of journalism.
Let’s talk about what you do. You’re mandated to take an idea, run with it, crash it into the wall and see if it’s worth doing again. Is that a fair description of your role as Special Projects Editor at FT?
Pretty much. My job is to empower FT reporters and editors to be better at what we call ‘deep’ journalism — original, proactive reporting that competes on quality rather than speed.
Experimenting with new ideas, technologies and storytelling techniques is a big part of that, but there’s an equally important second part, which is to take what those experiments have shown to work and democratize it so that everyone in the newsroom benefits. I do that by working alongside editors, by teaching classes internally, by creating templates and guides that help change our workflow, and by working with our technology team to incorporate those insights into our website and our content management system.
I never had a grand vision for what I wanted to do, so each job move was to solve a specific problem I had at the time.
You started out at the FT in 2007 as a reporter covering Hong Kong. You moved to London in 2012. And now you’re running projects that could one day put journalism on a new path. How did that happen?
A series of almost accidental decisions that only seem like they were strategic in hindsight. I’m really thankful for the breadth of jobs available at the FT and the freedom and encouragement we’re given to try new things. I never had a grand vision for what I wanted to do, so each job move was to solve a specific problem I had at the time. For example, I wanted to learn digital journalism skills, so I asked to join our interactive news desk.
What do you love about what you do?
Learning new skills, and then using those skills to help others become better at what they do.
What are some of the things you do in this job that would surprise people?
Our customer research team recently started a Slack channel where they posted all the written comments we get from the monthly reader surveys they run. I religiously read every single comment posted on there.
What is the biggest thing you know today about experimentation that you didn’t know a year ago?
That these are the hard things about doing experiments:
- Being very clear and focused about what’s it for. In particular, are we experimenting to refine and make incremental improvements? Or are we trying something radically new?
- How to set appropriate measures of success when you have no baseline and can’t control every relevant variable
- Talking publicly about the failures
What’s one thing you would like to do better in your job?
Ship faster, ship more frequently.
How would you improve on that?
Make public commitments, and get others to help hold me accountable to them. Focus, and learn how to say no.
What are some of the habits you do to keep you thinking and moving forward?
Planning, and being very, very aware of how I spend my time to make sure I devote chunks of time to achieving a result, rather than ordering my day via a to-do list or just being ‘busy’.
What do you think the next 3 years look like for you in terms of learnings and growth?
My goal this year is to work on a project that brings together everything I’ve learnt over the last few years — digital storytelling, experimentation and iteration, audience development, etc — to deliver a tangible result.
Beyond that, I don’t know.
Where do you find inspiration?
Recently, it’s the Design Matters podcast, which has a decade’s worth of interviews that Debbie Millman has done with designers, writers, artists and other creative types. I’m up to 118 out of 272 episodes so far.
Set aside your way to doing things to allow people space to discover what works best for them.
My favorite question: What do you know about motivating young talent in newsrooms that many managers probably don’t get?
I don’t believe there is any secret trick or magic sauce to managing millennials. I think it comes down to whether you make it your priority to put time and effort into reaching out and listening to people. And whether you are willing to set aside your way to doing things to allow people space to discover what works best for them.
What kind of a boss would bring out the best in you?
Someone who gives me a lot of freedom to determine what I do and how I do it, but also helps me set a very clear focus — or else I tend to get drawn into trying to solve every problem I come across.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received from a boss?
One bit of advice comes to mind but I’m not sure how useful it is for anyone else. I was in Taiwan for my second posting after joining the FT in Hong Kong, and was told: “Go to London, if you plan on staying at the FT for a while.” Following that advice changed my life.
If someone came up to you seeking advice on whether he or she should get into journalism, what would you say?
I would ask: “Why do you want to be in journalism?” and proceed from there.
Given the rapid changes in our industry, ‘being in journalism’ could mean so many different things these days. Ours is a big tent, and there really isn’t any one-size-fits-all advice.
As a media professional, what concerns you most about the future of the industry?
That the industry as a whole is losing people’s trust, and that we might not end up striking the right balance between civic duty and commercial sustainability.
If you could choose one problem to solve with tech, what will it be?
How to create, sustain, and nurture a community. Specifically, how to give our subscribers a sense of belonging and how to let them feel like they’ll be missed if they don’t show up.
We’re looking for people with an elasticity in their views of media and journalism. It’s rare.
The faces of people in the service of journalism are often found on stage. They are often the heads of their newsrooms. They are often men. There’s little space on stage for the younger people sitting further down the hierarchy of these newsrooms. I want to tell their stories because some of them could one day redefine this industry.
So if you want to be featured here (or know of someone who should), drop me an email. I’m firstname.lastname@example.org.