You’d think that standing on 5th Avenue, just yards from the Empire State Building, with police, tourists and business people swarming everywhere, would drive home the reality that I was finally reporting on the nation’s biggest stage.
But none of that had really sunk in until I started my 10th or 11th straight live shot of the afternoon and a big New York City garbage truck pulled up about three feet from my left hand. As I began recounting the story of a deranged man killing a former coworker outside the city’s most recognizable landmark for an NBC client in Australia, a guy jumped off the back of the truck, walked nonchalantly between me and the camera, grabbed a sidewalk trash can, walked back to the truck, slammed the can loudly on the deck, and crossed back in front of me to put the can back on the sidewalk.
As I tried to maintain a straight face, all I could think was, “welcome to the Big Leagues, kid.”
A year ago, I never imagined I would be reporting for NBC’s affiliate service alongside consummate professionals like Jay Gray, Michelle Franzen, and Brian Mooar. In fact, there was a good chance my journalism career was over.
In December 2011, I left my job as Senior News Reporter and fill-in sports anchor/reporter at the NBC affiliate in Birmingham, Alabama.
I had been there 11 years. I was getting married and moving to New York to be with my wife, Sunday, with no job and no real prospects.
For most of my tenure at WVTM, it was an NBC O&O. So from time-to-time, I was fortunate to do some work for Newschannel: a hurricane here, or a tornado there. I worked with some phenomenal producers and editors over the years and kept in touch with a lot of them.
I guess I impressed enough people because last May I got the call: go to 30 Rock and package the Facebook IPO for NBC affiliates around the country.
As I pecked away at my script in the newsroom on the 7th floor, I’d occasionally peer to my left… in the same row of desks: Robert Bazell, Anne Thompson, Michelle Franzen, Ron Allen… and Chris Pollone.
I went to voice my first script and the booth was occupied. When the door opened, out walked WNBC anchor legend Chuck Scarborough. He gave me a hearty, “Hey there!”
The booth smelled of integrity and excellence.
Sitting on my couch that night reflecting on my day, it hit me that there are two things that separate the major markets from the “lower rungs”: eyeballs and toys.
At the end of the day, the work I do for NBC is the same work I did at WBNG in Binghamton, at WCCM in Lawrence, Mass., at WJTV in Jackson, and WVTM in Birmingham. Yes, the stakes in New York or at the network level are higher, and the margin for error is tighter, but the work is no more important than what journalists do in every market around the world.
There are a lot more viewers at this level, and we might have producers, runners, shooters, and bookers by the dozens, and the best lights, cameras and microphones on the market, but those toys mean nothing without strong, compelling storytelling.
So what’s different here?
When I left WVTM, I had earned enough trust that generally no one reviewed my scripts before they aired.
Now, I work very closely with my on-site producer, the managing producer in Charlotte, and sometimes the top levels of NBC Newschannel management to make sure my scripts are accurate, concise and compelling.
The script development process is also a lot more collaborative.
On some stories, I actually conduct interviews and do original reporting.
On others, my producer will email me a list of shots and logged sound bites, and I write the story without interacting with any of the newsmakers at all.
In the hours following the Newtown school shooting, I started doing live reports for our U.S. NBC affiliates, MSNBC, CNBC, and our clients in Asia, Australia, Canada, and England.
I did nearly 80 live shots from 2PM to 2AM, and every bit of information I shared with the world was being fed to me through my IFB from Charlotte and emailed to my iPad because our field producer had not yet arrived on scene.
I never actually attended a press conference or interviewed victims and townspeople until the day after the shooting.
Some days, I never leave my living room.
When Newschannel is short on correspondents and needs a package put together for the affiliate video-on-demand service, I get a list of elements from a producer, I write the package on my couch, and record voice track on my iPhone with a $50 Tascam microphone.
Working with Newschannel, there is a lot of travel and a lot of decisions made on a split-second notice. The day the new Pope was to be announced, I flew to Boston, ate dinner, and flew back to New York just in case Boston’s Cardinal O’Malley was named the new Pope.
There are long hours and not a lot of sleep.
During the Jerry Sandusky trial, I started my days at 3:30 AM and did live shots and packages through 3PM. My producer and I would grab an early dinner and then I’d sleep until about 8PM when I’d wake up to write and voice my morning package.
On that story, we had the benefit of a morning correspondent (me) and an evening correspondent (Brian Mooar).
On some stories, like the NCAA sanctions against Penn State, I was a one-man show. We started at 3:30 AM and did live shots through 9PM. One-day stories usually get this type of treatment.
At this point, I have no illusions that I have “made it”.
As a freelancer, the work comes and goes. Sometimes I’m working several days a month, or even weeks at a time. And then other times, I’ll go several weeks without an assignment.
I supplement my news income with various endeavors for PR firms in New York and Boston. Ideally, I’d like to move to full-time or
“perma-lance” with Newschannel, or even do some work for WNBC between Newschannel gigs.
I can’t overstate the importance of networking.
It’s the top lesson I teach when mentoring young journalists or speaking in broadcast journalism classes.
Throughout my career, I’ve tried to be nice and work hard in every situation no matter how difficult the circumstances.
You’d be stunned at how much doing everything that’s asked of you quickly, correctly and with a smile will win you future assignments.
I’ve been blessed to have some great coworkers and friends who believe in me.
Newschannel’s main correspondent, Jay Gray, has been a great friend and advisor, as well as Chicago-based producer, JoEllen Ruvoli, and Charlotte desk supervisor, Bill Riss, but there’s no chance I’d spend one day at Newschannel without the backing and support from my friend Jodie Jennings. She’s an absolute rock star producer and is “so” NBC, she’s part peacock.
When you’re trying to make “the leap” to a major market or network, it’s crucial to have great contacts like these who like you and believe in you.
Coming to New York, I had won AP, Emmy, and Murrow awards. I covered Hurricane Katrina, major tornado outbreaks, federal, state and local scandals and corruption, and 3 BCS National Championships. I had confidence in my experience and abilities. I had performed every newsroom job over the span of 16 years.
When I first moved here, I met with a local News Director. She was very nice, but exhibited that hackneyed cynicism that basically says, “New York is the only place that does news, and everyone else in the other 209 markets are just a bunch of circus clowns.”
I HATE that.
If anything, I firmly believe the smaller the market, the harder you work. You have fewer resources, fewer toys, less money and just as important stories as the big markets.
This news director said she didn’t generally hire reporters from “that small a market” (Birmingham is market 42) and that her reporters exhibited a certain type of “sophistication”. As she said that, I could see one of her “sophisticated” reporters on the monitor behind her doing a story on an armed robbery.
Yawn. We’ve all done that 150 times.
I wished she had just come out and said she didn’t like my nose, or my (lack of) hair, or whatever, instead of belittling my experience, my former coworkers, and my home of 11 years.
I’m here to tell you, whether you’re in North Platte, Nebraska, or in the North Bronx, the process of doing good journalism is the same.
To get a shot in the “majors”, you have to be a great writer, digger, and a rock star on live shots.
Don’t believe the people who tell you how great you are, and don’t, for a second, believe the people who say you aren’t good enough.
If you have the experience, the drive, the talent, and have made some good friends and contacts over the years, it’s likely you, too, can make the “leap” to the big leagues.
Chris Pollone lives in Manhattan. He’s on Twitter: @ChrisPollone and Facebook: facebook.com/cpollone. Questions? Email him at [email protected].