Rising Star Q&A: Derek Wallbank

Derek Wallbank graduated in 2006 from ComArtSci with a degree in Journalism. In 2015, Wallbank was awarded the ComArtSci Alumni Board’s Rising Star Award. As senior editor of Bloomberg News in Singapore, Wallbank’s primary responsibility for the past few years has been running breaking news and covering Covid-19. Born in Miami, Florida, Wallbank has enjoyed a variety of media roles, including reporter at the Lansing State Journal and Washington correspondent at MinnPost.

What was your favorite class at ComArtSci?

Capital News Service was absolutely my favorite class, and it's not even a question. Whenever I talk to students about some of those classes with Professor David Poulson and Professor Eric Freedman, they tell me that it is so hard. That’s good! Life is hard. The real world is hard. But the great thing about that is you are learning from people who just know it. The first articles that I got back from Eric Freedman were just bathed in red pen, but at the same time, Eric Freedman’s Pulitzer is on the wall. So, I sat there and took as much as I could from these folks and tried to get to that level as fast as possible.
What was your favorite study spot on campus?

The best work I got done on campus was when I was out doing it. It wasn’t the third floor of the library or something. I was really encouraged to go out and find things. I was told that the news was never discovered in the newsroom. As much as humanly possible, I was in my car out trying to go find stuff. That was a bit of a comfort for me, actually, and it has been a comfort to me to have my study spot be wherever I am. 
What was your favorite thing to do around East Lansing?

Whenever I am back at Michigan State, I would say that my favorite thing to do is just walk around. Walking around north campus, the Beal Garden, Landon Hall, where I have a lot of good memories, that's good to me. 

What’s your favorite MSU Memory?

I met my wife at Michigan State; that's got to be it. I met so many lifelong friends. Some were professors, some were fellow students, some were guest speakers. I met so many people then that are still in my life. I had so many experiences I had never had before. It was a really wonderful time in my life, and I think it really shaped who I am now. The people that I met, that's my number one.

So, you earned your degree in journalism at ComArtSci, can you speak about how things have evolved in your industry since you graduated and where you foresee things going from here?

The news industry is entirely different now than when I graduated in 2006 from Michigan State. There has been an absolute decimation of the newspaper side of things and an absolute explosion of the online and digital side of things.

I think media has changed so much in the last 15 years, and it is going to keep changing more. I think the most important thing, though, is integrity. Whichever business pressures are faced, the main thing with news is telling people things they didn't know before and things they can rely on. When you say something, people should know that it is accurate because you are a person of integrity and your reputation means something. It's old-fashioned, but you have your name, and you have your word, and if you lose those, you've lost it. 

What was your biggest lesson learned during your time at ComArtSci? And what was your biggest lesson after ComArtSci?

My biggest lesson learned at the College of Communication Arts and Sciences was from a sign in Professor Eric Freedman's classroom that read, "Done is better than perfect."
And what he meant by that is don’t sit on something and try to make it better, make it better, make it better. Get it to finish, turn it in, and then we can make it work. It’s a lesson that has really stayed with me both in journalism and throughout life. 

So, the biggest thing after leaving is very much the same sort of thing. Trying to figure out when you are assessing a situation, where the news is, what matters, and getting that on the wire in a publishable form. If you think back in our industry to 20-30 years ago, you had all day to do something, and your deadline was in the afternoon. That's not life anymore. You have stories assigned at 9 AM and are due at 10 AM. So, one of my essential skills is “Done is better than perfect.” Get it done!

Fast forward to the end of your career. It’s your retirement party and everyone is there celebrating your achievements. What do you hope people say about you?
At my retirement, the only thing that I want is to have my whole "coaching tree" there. Your job is to make life better for the people coming after you. It’s a concept that’s really important to me, working with students and younger folks to try and help build them. There are some people in my life that are really dear to me that I've been able to work with for a very long time now. Some of these folks come from very humble upbringings and are now working on the biggest stories in the world out of Hong Kong, Singapore, London, and elsewhere. I'm really proud of that.

I didn't come from a background where I had everything. I didn't have anyone in the media. I don't have a parent in this line of work. There’s been a lot of times in my career where I struggled. In one case, my publication got bought out, and I was laid off. I have had to take salary cuts [for the paper] to make budget, but I think that it’s important to give back. So, if I’m at the end of my career and I have a bunch of people who I brought with me, that’s all I need. I don’t need anything else. 

To those students who are confused, overwhelmed, not sure what they want to do, unsure about what a degree from ComArtSci can do for them, what would your message be to them?

You don’t have to be a finished product right now. You don’t have to be perfect. There’s no prize for best person one year out of school. Success is not a ladder that goes straight up. Your career is going to be a net where you might go up, you might go down, you might go to the side, you might take a break for three years, whatever it may be. Your journey is a journey. The critical thing here is to flip the question of "What will my degree do for me?" It's not what your degree is going to do for you; it's what are you going to do with your degree?

By Joe Strother