Two Decades after UNR, with a Dream Career in Hong Kong

Alina Croft interviews Reynolds School of Journalism alumnus Don Weinland who is currently a journalist in East Asia focusing on financial and business information.

Question: How did your career path begin?

Answer: I started at UNR in 2001, and I was a psychology student, that was my original major. I think I chose that because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I ended up going to China in early 2003. I basically did a year and a half at UNR and then two friends and I met a Chinese history professor at UNR who ended up sending us to his home town and we taught English there for six months. That’s really a decade before I really got into journalism. That was really important for me because it got me really interested in China, it kind of sent me on my current career path and I’m still here in Asia nearly 20 years later.

In terms of education I studied Chinese in China for a while, and I eventually got really interested in the Chinese economy, Chinese business and that type of stuff and I realized that psychology was probably not the correct field for me if I wanted to work in China and continue working overseas.

I eventually went back to UNR in 2009 to finish my degree and I just basically wanted to do a crash course in journalism because I did a lot of writing at the time, just personal writing, but I really didn’t know the basics of journalism. I didn’t know what a style book was, I really didn’t understand anything about it. So, I enrolled in journalism classes, I did two years of classes at Reynolds [The Reynolds School of Journalism] and then I moved back to Asia.

Croft got into contact with Weinland for this interview by reaching out to Weinland through Twitter. Weiland’s twitter handle is @donweinland.

Q: What made you want to be a journalist specifically?

A: I was living in Korea at the time studying Korean and I was doing a lot of reading and writing and I feel like it just seemed like a natural move to do journalism. I knew a couple journalists and after talking to them it seemed like the natural career fit. It also seemed like a career I could do overseas or in the United States.

Q: How did your professional career begin?

A: I really started writing for publications in 2009 in Reno. I started reaching out to publications that would publish people’s writing about China. I think the first place I reached out to is called Global Voices Online. It’s basically a global publication that is looking at social media and reporting on what people are talking about on social media. In 2009 that was a really interesting area in China because social media had not been completely shut down, it was less heavily censored in 2009 and it was something I could do remotely from Reno. I reached out to these guys and I told them, ‘Look, I can read Chinese, I’m really interested in the discussion that’s going on on Chinese social media.’ I started writing for them for free.

The first place I ever got paid for writing was at The [Nevada] Sagebrush at UNR. I almost feel like the most difficult journalism job I ever had was at the Sagebrush because I was trying to do six classes and also basically publish a full newspaper every week. I started writing there probably in 2009 or 2010. Working for a school publication like that is excellent experience. People often ask what classes should you take in journalism, what should you read, and really the real answer for how to break in to the field is just to write as much as possible and the Sagebrush allowed me to do that.

Q: After graduating from UNR, what was your next move?

A: As I was graduating in 2011, so a decade after I started at UNR, I just started sending emails to publications in Asia and asking ‘Hey, do you guys need someone to report on Chinese business or economics or whatever?’ I sent a note to the editor to the Phnom Penh Post which is a publication in Cambodia, and they got back to me really fast and said, ‘Hey when can you come? There’s a lot of Chinese investment coming in right now and we don’t have anybody on staff who can speak Chinese so come as quickly as possible.’

I moved to Phnom Penh, I had never been to Cambodia so there was a little bit of a learning curve associated with writing there. That was my first full time journalism job. It was great! All the jobs that I’ve had have been awesome, that job was particularly awesome. The paper was a national level paper but there were a lot of young people there, you could really work on whatever you wanted and pursue stories in whatever area you wanted. By the time I left, I was the business editor of the paper.

Q: With an editor position, why did you leave and where did you go?

A: I stayed in Cambodia for a year and three months, and it seems like a short time but in Cambodia it’s a very long time. Cambodia is not the easiest place in the world to live and I did want to return to work in China.

A year into that job I began sending resumes to publications in China and a magazine called China Economic Review eventually hired me. It was very much in the direction I wanted to go, reporting on economics. Before I joined China Economic Review, I thought I understood economics and Chinese business, it turns out I knew very little. I think that’s very often when you’re just getting into the field.

Q: Can you speak to the challenges you faced at the China Economic Review and how you overcame them?

A: Putting yourself in those types of situations, it’s a great place to be where you need to go home every night and just read books and learn everything there is to possibly learn about what you’re supposed to be reporting on. That was the situation at China Economic Review.

I moved from Phnom Penh to Shanghai and began working there. That publication at the time was a monthly magazine that focused on economics and business. I worked there for about two years and that was basically a two year training session on how the Chinese economy works, how business in China works, it was a very informative two years.

Q: After your intense ‘two year training session’ where did you head to next?

A: After that I moved to Hong Kong, where I am right now and worked for the South China Morning Post (SCMP) which is a very old publication that is really Hong Kong’s only daily newspaper that matters in any way. I became the China banking correspondent for the South China Morning Post. I’d written about banking sporadically before that, I didn’t know a lot about banking, but again it was a situation where I put myself in a job and very very quickly tried to learn what was going on. It worked out very well, but one thing about if you start reporting about large banks and you haven’t done it before and you suddenly have a job that requires you to, within the first couple days you’re writing about these large global banks. I’d never really read a bank earnings report before, I’d seen them before, but I hadn’t needed to write a newspaper story in 30 minutes based on one of these reports.

Q: That sounds like a lot of sudden pressure, how did you handle it and what did reporting on these banks entail?

A: That job was really good in learning how to interpret earnings reports which banks put out quarterly and annually. It’s a sheet that’s just full of a bunch of numbers and banks will often try to mislead you and make their numbers look a lot better than they actually are. Learning how to download one of these reports, and very quickly interpret it is part of the skill of being a business journalist. That was a crash course in doing that type of work. SCMP was kind of in a multi-year decline at that point and it wasn’t a very collegiate place to work I would say. It was very fragmented, I hardly talked with people that worked on other sections of the paper, I didn’t really get to know people very well. A lot of that had to do with the culture at SCMP, people were coming and going very frequently so I think a lot of the people that had worked there for a long period of time didn’t really see any purpose in getting to know new journalists that were joining. I stayed there for less than two years and eventually got a job with the Financial Times (FT) which is a London based publication. Again, I shifted my focus of writing from Chinese finance and banking to deals coverage at Financial Times.

Q: What was this next shift of coverage?

A: Deals coverage or M&A coverage is basically trying to write about a merger or acquisition that is taking place, but before it’s been announced. It’s very high pressure, it’s incredibly stressful, scoop pressure is very very high. If you’re not delivering scoops in that area then you’re not really doing your job very well. I worked at the FT for about five years and I did that specific job for about three years. It was incredibly rewarding. Moving from a regional paper to global paper was a huge head change. You’re constantly talking with your colleagues in London and New York, as you go to bed you send a final email and when you wake up in the morning you pick up where you left off and there’s 100 emails waiting for you from people in London and New York. That beat specifically is very fast paced and is very stressful. You get something wrong, you can send the stock price of a company in New York or in Hong Kong shooting up, you can send it crashing. Often, when you get these stories right that’s what happens, but it’s incredibly delicate and you’re always working under that type of pressure. Knowing what you’re writing is going to cause a possible 10 of millions of dollars of change in the shareholder price of a company, it’s not a light thing. In 2019 I moved to Beijing and continued doing my Hong Kong job.

Weinland commenting on a Jackie Chan quote on his Twitter feed. The actor’s support for Chinas Communist Party has caused controversy in Hong Kong.

Q: If I’m right, this was about the time that the COVID-19 pandemic hit. How did that impact your job?

A: Covid hit in early 2020 and it seemed like for the next six months, the only coverage that I was doing was Covid related stuff which was great. Especially in the early days of COVID-19 before it had really spread elsewhere, everybody was looking at China and what was going on. We really got to write quite a bit and it was being read very well because people in London, people in New York were still wondering what was going on. As terrible as it’s been, being in Beijing at that time was a good place to be as a journalist. I ended up in April last year in Wuhan where COVID-19 started. It was locked down for 70-something days and I ended up going in before the city was opened and did some reporting there and then reporting on the opening of the city when they allowed people to start leaving Wuhan, so that was very interesting.

Q: You’ve had quite the credentials up to this point, how did you get to where you are now, at The Economist?

A: I left the FT and moved to The Economist. July of last year was my last month at the FT and I started at The Economist in November of last year, so that’s where I’ve been since then. My current area of coverage is in some ways very similar to what I was doing at the FT, I’m writing about Chinese business, Chinese finance. I think this is the first job where I don’t feel like I’m jumping into a completely unknown area of coverage, I feel like over the past seven or eight years I’ve learned a number of different skills and now I don’t feel like I’m flinging myself into an unknown area.

In terms of joining The Economist I guess what I can say is The Economist pitched me on a job that sounded very very interesting to me. I guess coming at this from a personal angle and looking at the past couple years, I’ve been in the daily news reporting business for pretty nearly a decade. The opportunity to work for a publication that’s weekly and write less but in a way kind of say more is the attraction for me of moving to the Economist. The FT’s great and I loved working there and I love my colleagues there, but there are weeks when you write six or seven stories, that’s not a normal week. A normal week you might do three stories but still that’s a lot. To really nail a topic and really explain to people what’s going on, if you’re trying to write five stories in a week, you’re probably coming up short on really getting across what’s really going on. That’s kind of the nature of daily news reporting, so many stories that we write, people often read the top couples paragraphs and that’s it. The Economist is second to none in terms of taking the time to really figure out the heart of what’s happening.

Q: Thank you for spilling your life story to me, finally I have one last question left. What is some advice you would give to any young journalist?

A: I would say, go to where your interests are or chase after whatever you find interesting. If you do end up in a career as a journalist covering something you’re not interested in, you’re probably not going to excel at it. Even if something is not incredibly lucrative I would still recommend chasing after whatever your passions are because that ultimately is going to produce your best work.

To add on to that, just go somewhere new. Get out of your bubble, go to a place that you don’t understand very well even if you’re not going to live there for very long. It can change your perspective on things, it can help you write about where you’re from. I think it’d be very interesting to go back to Northern Nevada and do coverage there because I think I see the U.S. from a very very different perspective now. So yeah, get out and go someplace interesting.

Interview answers and questions edited for length and clarity.

Reporting by Alina Croft for the Reynolds Sandbox



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