"This generation of athlete is going to be more connected to the struggles of Black and African American people, real-world struggles, than ever before."
Rob King is the Senior Vice President and Editor-At-Large for ESPN’s content division. He is an executive producer for the Emmy Award winning documentary The Last Dance and has an extensive career in cartooning, graphic arts, journalism, and video production.
We sat down with Rob to find out about all things journalism and what it takes to be successful in this craft. He has always loved telling meaningful stories and credits his parents with getting his interest started early:
My mother was a retired English teacher who taught me to read at a very early age. I started reading at such an age that in order to feed me with things to read, my parents bought comic books. As a result of growing up on comic books, the only thing I wanted to be was a cartoonist.
After attending college at Wesleyan University, where he played division III basketball and earned a bachelor’s degree in English, Rob got a job sorting mail at the Washington Post. He continued to work hard, moving through a series of jobs in the newspaper industry including cartooning and graphic arts.
Eventually, I got a job at the Philadelphia Inquirer redesigning the sports section. I took that job in 1998 and was Stephen A. Smith’s boss. In 2004, ESPN offered me something I couldn't refuse. I moved out of newspapers into television without knowing much about television, but knowing a lot about journalism and visual presentation. I’ve spent 16 years now at ESPN doing a host of things from studio production to digital publishing, magazine publishing, and direct consumer digital work.
Now I'm an Editor-At-Large, where I've been involved in all aspects of our journalism, all aspects of big projects. I was an executive producer of The Last Dance. And I am working with the team that's working with Colin Kaepernick on his upcoming projects. I also run our editorial board, and I stay very close to the day-to-day storytelling.
Can you elaborate on what helped you throughout these turns, going from a cartoonist to working now in television?
The advice of my parents, first and foremost. They have always been there guiding. When you go into the professional world, it's a very isolating place sometimes—especially for Black people. It's an environment where you need people to be there for you as a mentor. I've been very lucky. Beyond my parents, I've had so many great mentors. I learned very early on that we need to be present for each other in newsroom environments.
I got a wonderful piece of advice from a mentor who said, “Between the ages of 22 and 32 you're going to be four different people. You're going to fall in and out of love. You're going to have two different cars, might have different pets. There are clothes you’re wearing now that you might not ever wear again. There's music you're listening to now, you might think is silly 10 years from now. It's okay. It's a period of time where it's okay to work through these things, make your mistakes and learn. It’s this in-between stage between starting out and getting to where you want to get.”
It is important to treat the opportunity to find mentors as an active process, because people who are there for you and can see in you things that you don't see in yourself are really important.
What does an average week look like for you in your current role?
There are a lot of planning meetings. I work with folks who do work that takes time to do. It takes time to create a film. It takes time to create a video piece or a podcast or a piece of long form writing. There are many meetings where we are strategizing and brainstorming. We spend a lot of time looking at the sports calendar. Sports is a little bit different from most news organizations because much of what we're going to cover sits on the calendar a year or two years out, so you can prepare and try to deliver your content right around the time it's most relevant.
At the same time, I spend a lot of time getting involved in things that just happened. Something that you can't predict—a crazy finish of a game or some sort of bad action, or the police get involved, or like where we are in this moment, where the athletes that we cover, the leagues that we cover have come to identify even more strongly with heroes in our past—whether it's Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Wyomia Tyus, John Carlos, Tommy Smith. This generation of athlete is going to be more connected to the struggles of Black and African American people, real-world struggles, than ever before. I'm very involved, along with so many people here, in trying to make sure that we're prepared to record this moment in history.
What skill sets should people develop if they want to pursue your career or be a journalist in the future?
I think you have to read a lot of great journalism. If you are a writer, you have to write, write, write. You have to write terrible stuff. You have to write good stuff. Find your voice. It's important to learn how to report. Develop that ability to interview, to ask open-ended questions that aren’t biased one way or the other, that allow the person you're interviewing to really respond.
Journalism is a practice that when done best strengthens our democracy, makes people aware of what they should know about, and empowers them to do things about what’s going on around them.
It is heavily labeled as trying to take somebody down. I don’t look at journalism that way. I think it's really about making sure we're laying out truths that people can process and use in their lives, so that they can have a deeper understanding of the world.
It's important to work hard to find facts. Journalists are somewhat embattled because there is a narrative that there's “fake journalism” or “fake news.” And there's a level of mistrust across all audiences around the things they read or see, especially if they're reading and seeing these things in some social platforms. Anybody who wants to be involved in this craft has to take very seriously that this is a really important part of our society, and it can't be done lightly.
Journalism also takes many forms. Photojournalism is incredibly powerful. I think the reason we are in the level of enlightenment that has brought us to this reckoning about race in our country is because of video journalism. We are now seeing things that we were never able to see before.
Have you identified potential roadblocks in your career that people should be aware of?
I think you can find roadblocks just about anywhere. The first roadblock is not believing in yourself and saying, “I'll get around to it,” or “Maybe I can't do it.” That is a real challenge. For Black and African American people in the workforce, we can feel relatively isolated. We can feel as though we are not entirely welcomed, or we haven't been made to feel as though we belong the way that we naturally want to feel. That's a very heavy load we have to carry. I urge people to push through that, and I urge people to understand that—particularly now in this moment—workplaces are charged with making sure that everybody belongs in ways that [they] might not have been thoughtful about over the last 15 or 20 years.
It's also an opportune time for us to be open about the ways in which we have been made to feel like the other, but in an effort to get to a place where we all understand the importance of working together. It takes some courage to be vocal in that space. Finding that courage, that is the thing that gets you over the obstacles.
What's next on the horizon for you?
I don’t know. I only switched into this role about seven months ago, and I love it. I think the coolest thing right now is that ESPN is part of the Disney company. At the Disney enterprise level, there's all this energy to put together like-minded efforts, to pull together people across various divisions. I had the opportunity to work closely with folks at Pixar and Lucasfilm and Marvel and Disney. And we're starting to talk about some really exciting projects, big projects. Those things really got me energized.
I am looking forward to seeing what comes of our work with the Colin Kaepernick team, and I am looking forward to some films we've got in the works. There are a bunch of projects that we want to get to that I think could be really fun for audiences.
What is the ultimate legacy that you would like to leave behind?
I hope that everybody that I've worked with feels as though the time we spent together was a good time, that we created things that people remember forever. I want to make sure that there are people who can reasonably aspire to do what I've done. And I want to make sure that people, particularly Black and African American people, view my time at ESPN as a time that was beneficial to them as well. My wife and I have three kids, and I want them to be proud.
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