By Colleen Otte
It was spring 2006 and journalism student Derek Wallbank’s final semester at Michigan State University.
He was set to graduate and didn’t have a single published clip.
“I bet that going to CNS would get me the clips that I needed to get a job, and if I was wrong, I was screwed,” Wallbank said. “But CNS is awesome, and I wasn’t wrong.”
CNS – Capital News Service – is an MSU class where students cover state government for news organizations across Michigan.
Wallbank is now team leader of the First Word breaking news desk for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Government in Washington, DC.
He endured the snowy conditions recently to visit his alma mater and share his advice with students in the School of Journalism.
“I think Capital News Service is the thing that best prepared me for a career as a political journalist, no question,” Wallbank said. “There’s no other place that you can get the experience of actually covering politics in a professional way for papers that you may then go out and look for jobs with.”
That’s exactly how things played out for Wallbank. He made sure that Lansing State Journal interviewers knew that their paper had already picked up one of his Capital News Service clips when he applied for a job there.
“I told them that they should take a chance on me because I had already been on their front page,” he said. “I tried to impress on them that I had proven that I at least knew what it took to be successful. So they did take that chance on me, and that’s sort of how this whole thing started.”
After a three-month post-grad internship at Gongwer News Service covering Michigan’s capital, Wallbank was hired full-time as the first-ever “mobile journalist” for the Lansing State Journal.
“They said [I] could just basically get a laptop and work out of [my] car—I put a lot of miles on my car doing that,” he said. “But they just sort of sent me out of the office and told me to find news, and it was really cool. I loved it. I learned a lot.”
Lansing is a great town for news, Wallbank said, being the capital and in such close proximity to MSU.
Wallbank captured the first cell phone photo to be featured on the Lansing State Journal’s front page.
“It was either a flip phone or a Nokia,” he said. “This photo, I’m telling you, was like the size of a headshot.”
But it illustrated a tragic event in which a school bus had flipped over. The newspaper approved Wallbank’s request to stay on the fringes of the coverage area to talk to a student who’d been on the bus. The outcome was rewarding: the student said he was looking forward to his birthday the following day.
“He told me that he didn’t think when the bus was flipping over, that he’d make it to his birthday the next day,” Wallbank said. “And he told me about the dents in the roof from the kids and backpacks and other stuff hitting the roof of the bus.”
Such stories can be presented as dialogues about policy, Wallbank said. In this case they can be used to explore whether school buses should have seatbelts.
“In all of these policy discussions, you are talking about something that impacts people’s lives,” Wallbank said. “You distill it down to real people who are living this stuff—it’s not just some academic debate.
“That’s something that I’ve taken with me the entirety of my career.”
His advice for journalism students reporting similar stories is to be mindful of the consumer of the news and to avoid writing from a place of superiority.
“I always write for my mom,” he said.
His mother was a nurse for 20 years who followed politics somewhat minimally mostly because she was working 12-hour days, Wallbank said.
“She didn’t have time to follow every single thing—that’s what I do,” he said. “I cover politics obsessively, that’s my job. It’s not her job. It doesn’t mean that she’s dumb. It doesn’t mean that she’s low-information or whatever other derogatory terms people put out for people who don’t know politics. It just means that she’s busy taking care of sick people and making them better.”
Whenever he writes, Wallbank tries to make sure his mother could understand the story and not just somebody who already knows every last thing about the topic.
“I’m writing for people who are just coming to an issue, or don’t have all of the background,” he said. “And you can’t do that in a derogatory way.”
He enjoys telling people things they don’t know.
“I like the reporting where you publish a story and everything changes,” he said. “That’s an essential part of journalism, I think. Journalism really often just comes down to telling people something they don’t know. That’s the essence of breaking news—you’ve just got to do it quickly.”
Bloomberg’s First Word-DC measures wins and losses in seconds, he said. Traders follow news obsessively, and millions or billions of dollars can move on a single item.
“There’s a lot of pressure to get the story right and get it first,” Wallbank said. “And it’s really fun.
“It’s really fun.”