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Reporting The News In 2020, With Sydney-Based New York Times Journalist Isabella Kwai

Dream Job

As a journalist working from the Australian bureau of The New York TimesIsabella Kwai‘s job is unlike most other 26-year-olds’. She’s had beers with people like writer Tyson Yunkaporta and ex-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, in an aptly named NYT column, ‘Beer With Bella’, and has traveled all over the world on assignment, from regional Australia, to Hong Kong, to New York City.

We chat with the young journalist about how she landed this job, and what it’s like to work for one of the world’s biggest news organisations in what has been, to put it lightly, a pretty weird year.

31st July, 2020

Isabella Kwai, a journalist at The New York Times, at the Sydney bureau’s offices in Bondi. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

Bella is currently writes briefs directed to a European audience. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

Bella started working for The New York Times in 2017 when the Australian opened. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

‘I think it’s important to know who you are, why you’re doing it and to find whatever it is that makes the journalism meaningful to you’, says Bella. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

Sally Tabart
Friday 31st July 2020

‘I love that journalism is a kind of truth-telling that can broaden and open us to different worlds, and it’s so rewarding to be the conduit.’ Isabella Kwai.

New York Times journalist Isabella Kwai does not do anything by halves.

Originally from Sydney, after school she got a scholarship to undertake a liberal arts degree overseas at Duke University in North Carolina. ‘It bought me some time to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, because I was interested in literally everything’, Bella reflects. She ended up double majoring in Public Policy and English Literature, figuring she could balance pragmatism ‘while also writing terrible short stories in Creative Writing that will never see the light of day’ – relatable. It wasn’t until her final year that she started to seriously explore journalism, a field that might just allow her to combine all her interests.

From there, Bella was part of Atlantic Media’s fellowship program, where she worked outside of editorial scope, more on the business side of things. But by this stage, Bella knew she wanted to write. Under the mentorship of ‘some very supportive editors’, she got her foot in the door by having a few clips published in The Atlantic. Not a bad start for a fresh university grad!

Although by now you might have figured out that Bella is naturally driven and ambitious, she credits this time in the US as an eye-opening experience. It gave her an appreciation for the hustle, as well as the privileges of working in Australia. ‘It’s not easy to grab a hold of someone on a Friday evening here – and that’s not a bad thing’, she says. ‘I remember being very inspired by people’s sheer self-belief and drive when I first moved there. At the same time, the glorification of the hustle is born out of things like wealth inequality, a lack of universal healthcare, and short maternity or paternity leave policies.’

Before The New York Times, Bella’s work experience more or less mirrors that of most in their early 20s – tutoring, working in cafes and cake shops, and odd freelance writing jobs. But when The New York Times opened its Sydney bureau in 2017, Bella immediately knew this was what she wanted to do. And now, she’s doing it!

The most important verb in my get-your-dream-job vocabulary is…

To start. I try to remind myself that the first step to getting something I want is to be in the running. It doesn’t even matter if the chances are long – they’re even longer if I never apply. After that, it becomes a series of problems to solve – who do I need to get in front of to make it happen? What are the strengths I have that will help convince them I’m the best person for the job?

I landed this job by…

Networking on top of my application. I was finishing up my fellowship at The Atlantic when I heard that the New York Times was opening a bureau up in Australia, and I knew immediately I wanted to be a part of that team. I applied through the site, and then I began stalking people I knew at the New York Times. I found one journalist who had been a former student at my university and asked if he might give me some advice over the phone. To my surprise, he did. And then I rustled up the courage to ask if he might mention to my current boss that I was very interested in the position. I remember this because I thought for sure I was pushing it, after this nice person had already agreed to a chat. But he did, and a few days later I had an interview and eventually landed the job.

Working for one of the world’s biggest news organisations in 2020 has been…

Surreal. Challenging. I was sent to Hong Kong for a month in February, supplementing our coverage when the pandemic was mostly contained in Asia, and at the time I was in awe of our reporters in Wuhan who were reporting while in lockdown there. Our reporters have also been on the frontlines of the protests over the killing of George Floyd and even within the media, there has been a reckoning over media and diversity. Sometimes it’s hard to shut out the news when you need to regenerate, but I feel like I’m witnessing first-hand a revolutionary moment in history in many, many ways.

A typical day for me involves…

I wake up. I drink coffee. I read the news. I drink more coffee. Right now, I’m helping cover the Europe morning briefing, which is a daily summary of the news aimed at readers in Europe, so I’ll make sure I’m across the biggest stories in the region and what we’ve written on them. We also have a global report on coronavirus news, so if Australia has major developments, which lately has focused on Victoria’s lockdown, I’ll write updates for that.

This is probably the most routine I’ve ever had. Before the pandemic, the hours could be more irregular, depending on the news, and we’d be out in the field more for feature stories. I just got back from the first reporting trip since the borders reopened, and that’s the most fulfilling part of the job because you’re really there as the story unfolds.

The most rewarding part of my job is…

Being able to bring something real and raw about the human condition – particularly if it’s something that’s been underreported – to an audience that might not otherwise come across it. I love that journalism is a kind of truth-telling that can broaden and open us to different worlds, and it’s so rewarding to be the conduit. For myself, the fact that people have allowed me into their homes, their lives, their intimate thoughts is such a privilege. It’s helped me understand people I’d never meet otherwise, challenged my preconceptions and opened my own world up. I’m a more grounded and empathetic person because of it.

On the other hand, the most challenging aspect is…

Staying resilient and optimistic in an uncertain industry. There are a lot of job losses in the industry right now, and given how competitive it can be, it’s easy to compare your own progress to others. So much of making it work is a combination of persistence, timing and a gate-keeper giving you a chance. I think it’s important to know who you are, why you’re doing it, and to find whatever it is that makes the journalism meaningful to you.

A lesson I’ve found useful is…

Better done than perfect. For me, any project worth doing, any new challenge worth taking on, the fear of not executing it perfectly can trip me up because I have an image of it in my head. But I’ve learnt that you can only ever prepare so much and to stop thinking and theorising and just get started. I recently came across RZA’s guided explorations and he puts it pretty well: Bite, or stop barking.

Also: if confused, just ask! Or you’ll end up apologizing to a linguist about confusing diphone with diphthong and, well, it’s just awkward for everyone.

Keep up with Bella’s work at The New York Times here.

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First Nations artists, designers, makers, and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files. Please email bea@thedesignfiles.net