Just doing it with Dan Rookwood
In a sense, Dan Rookwood’s whole career to date seems to have been building towards his present position as Global Senior Editorial Director for Nike. He started out as a sports journalist for the Guardian in London before switching to Men’s Health magazine. Moving to Australia, he was editor at Time Out Sydney as well as a columnist for GQAustralia (12 years and counting). Next, he became US Editor for MRPORTER in New York, before finally bringing all of that editorial, sport and style experience together in his current role with Nike in Portland, Oregon.
Dan now has a key role with a brand that has occasionally crossed over into the world of art. Just last year, Nike commissioned seven creatives to design Air Max trainers, and accompanying posters, inspired by art movements like Bauhaus, pop art and psychedelia. Though Dan is keen to point out he had no involvement with this.
We caught up with Dan to ask him about his career to date.
Was it sports or journalism that was the big draw in your first job at the Guardian?
Both. It was the obvious combination of my two obsessions growing up – writing and sport – which remain the same to this day. I’ve known since I was 4 that I wanted to be a writer. My mother kept my first ‘book’. (I specifically wanted to be Roald Dahl and to have my writing illustrated by Quentin Blake.) I was an easy kid: give me a book and a ball and I was happy.
I grew up in Liverpool in the 1980s when the city’s two teams were dominant. Football is integral to the city’s identity – and therefore to mine.
By the time I was 14, I knew I wanted to be a football writer, and so I spoke that into existence: “I’m going to be a sports journalist.” And it had to be The Guardian, too, because of my left-leaning politics. I can remember having careers guidance at school and them trying to broaden my options. But my target was singular, unwavering, and uncompromising.
What prompted the move to becoming an editor?
I’m competitive with myself. And I’ve ended up gravitating towards and actively pursuing positions of leadership (captain of sports teams, editor of the school magazine and student newspaper, etc.).
Becoming an editor was just seen as the career path. The person at the top is the editor-in-chief – therefore work your way up the masthead until that person is you.
Writing can be a solitary pursuit and I wanted it to be a team sport: getting the best writers and editors and designers all creating together.
There’s Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory: to master a craft requires 10,000 hours of purposeful practice. I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I’m better with words than numbers, but I reckon I’ve put in the time and effort to develop the talent that I have. There are way more talented people out there, but I would say I work harder than most.
I’ve always continued to write for myself on the side. These days, I need it as a creative release. But it’s vital to keep the creative synapses firing.
How did you get your first journalism job?
First of all there’s everything that led up to the first job. While at university, I wrote to several newspapers and magazines to set up unpaid summer work placements. I was the sports editor of Varsity, our student newspaper, and then editor of Daily Varsity, which was a daily paper we put out at the end of the academic year. I was fortunate enough to win Sports Writer of the Year in the National Union of Students Journalism Awards.
I wrote a cheeky one-liner to my favourite sports writer Henry Winter, telling him I wanted his job when he was finished with it. He ended up taking me under his wing, which was amazingly kind and something I have never forgotten.
After graduating I got my first paid job – a summer on the sports desk of the Cambridge Evening News. And then I travelled the world for a year, and did placements at a number of newspapers in Australia and New Zealand to help justify the trip.
Upon my return, I did the postgraduate course in newspaper journalism at City University’s School of Journalism in London, which has for years been a conveyor belt into Fleet Street. To help pay my way through that, I took a night job around the corner at The Guardian, uploading the next day’s sports section onto the website. It was considered lowly grunt work but my job was to read the sports section of my favourite newspaper before anyone else, while sitting in a humming newsroom. I studied every word, looked at how articles were crafted. My job was to put it all on the site and tweak the display copy (headlines and subheads) to optimize the content for online. I loved it.
One night I saw a stack of CVs on the sports editor’s desk so I figured there must be a job going. I printed my CV out and put it on the top of the pile with a handwritten note.
I got the job – on a starting salary of £18,000, which was barely liveable in 2000 – and it was the most fantastic and formative on-the-job education I could ever wish for. We were a small team on the website, writing minute-by-minute match reports etc. Four of the other five people I worked with (including my mentor, Scott Murray) are still there, 20 years later.
So, ultimately luck had a lot to do with it – but I do believe that you make your own luck.
Do you see a consistent thread running through your career so far?
Without a doubt: sport and writing. And everything that comes with that – a healthy competitiveness, the importance of teamwork, the opportunity to show some individual flair.
I’ve had jobs outside of sport – in health, lifestyle, and fashion – all things I am interested in. But crafting narrative, obsession with craft and journalistic rigor, and trying to tell meaningful stories in a way that will best resonate with a target audience… those things are universal.
The globetrotting side of my career partly comes from having done a degree in Geography which gave me the travel bug and opened my eyes to the possibility of working abroad.
Do you enjoy working in both the print and digital world?
I do. I’m a magazine nerd and have spent a decent chunk of my career really studying magazine craft and getting quite good at it… just in time for the demise of the magazine industry. Great. But I believe print is good and there will always be magazines, just far fewer of them. There will be a resurgence at some point, like there was with vinyl.
But having started my career in digital at The Guardian, it’s not like I’ve suddenly had to pivot. And a lot of the craft of print storytelling can be seeded into digital storytelling. MR PORTER does it beautifully. The MR PORTER Journal is a true digital magazine – the best of both. It doesn’t cut any corners. It was a pleasure to be part of that team and hard to leave it.
How did the role at Nike come about?
As an editorial purist, I’d not envisaged working for a brand. But then traditional media nose-dived and I wanted to stay ahead of the curve. Hence the move to MR PORTER which really changed the game. A lot of people were looking at what we were doing in combining content and commerce. The Nike opportunity came out of the blue. And, as you say, it felt like all the parts of my career added up to this. I believe in the brand’s purpose to change the world in a positive way through sport, and to make sport a daily habit. We’re making content to really deliver on that. It’s a privilege.
Do you have anything lined up at Nike in the near future you can tell us about?
We’re working on something new but sorry, the first rule of Nike is KIT: Keep It Tight.
Photo by Matthew Priestley.