Alex Witt of MSNBC

Posted on: Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Today we’re diving into the world of Alex Witt. She’s the host of MSNBC’s “Weekends with Alex Witt” and has worked with the network since 1999, covering everything from Presidential elections to foreign news. There’s a lot we can say about her but we’ll let this interview on her impressive career do the talking instead.

Alex Witt, MSNBC, Weekends with Alex Witt

GLAM Life Blog: So. You’re a USC alum (Fight On!) and now work as anchor with MSNBC, but when did your interest in journalism begin?

Alex Witt: My interest in journalism really began before I can remember. I’m told I was always asking questions, always interested in whatever was happening around me. So I think my pursuit of a career in journalism was innate. I know I started getting serious about it when I started writing stories for my high school newspaper. I studied Broadcast Journalism at USC and learned how to write, interpret and share the news. Of everything I learned at USC, probably the most valuable was how to write. I say this over and over again. But I think writing well it is the singularly most important aspect of being a good journalist. I was lucky to get some great internships during college at both KCBS-TV and KNBC-TV. Those led me to my first production assistant job and I was off and running. I worked my way up behind the scenes in various LA local newsrooms, until I got a job field producing pieces for the TODAY Show out of the NBC News Burbank Bureau. I loved every minute of every day producing.

GLB: How did you move from behind the scenes as a producer to on the air?

AW: Going on the air, in front of the camera, was something I’d thought about, but it never stuck with me enough to give it a try. In part because it meant I’d have to leave my home in LA and head to a small market to learn how to be a reporter and anchor and make the inevitable mistakes in a place where the consequences of that weren’t as high as they would be in the number two market in the country. One day, while back in New York producing a series, I was called into an exec’s office. It was suggested I should try on-air reporting. When I asked what made him think I could do it, he said, “Well, you don’t look like Quasimodo and you don’t sound like Minnie Mouse and you’re pretty much doing the work of a reporter already without shooting stand-ups and tracking the scripts with your voice.” I decided the timing was right, so several months later I got a job in the Monterey-Salinas-Santa Cruz, CA. market, and spent about two years learning how to report from the field and deliver the news from the anchor desk. My path eventually brought me to MSNBC where I have worked as an anchor for 16 years since January 1999. I can’t believe I’ve been here that long but I am really proud of it.

GLB: We’re huge fans of HBO’s “The Newsroom” and saw that you were a consultant for its final season! What did that role entail?

AW: “The Newsroom.” I can’t say enough good things about being a consultant on that show. Aaron Sorkin is the most brilliant and distinctive playwright and screenwriter of our time. (No pressure sharing my thoughts on the inner workings of a TV newsroom!) Aaron would come up with his ideas, scenarios, and send emails asking me whether they were realistic, or how they might play out in a newsroom. For example, the Boston Marathon Bombings made up a big storyline in Episode 1 this final season. Aaron asked me to describe how my newsroom first got word of the bombings… and then how we gathered information… the timeline in which it happened… the logistics of how we covered the unfolding events of that terrible day… and so on. He wanted to gather information to make his characters as credible as possible. I wrote in detail the answers to his questions, as well as some questions reporters on the scene would ask in the various press conferences from officials. I added some logistics from Boston that day, like the area hospitals and numbers of patients and types of injuries they got. Aaron wanted as many details as possible. I think that’s reflected in the way he writes dialogue. His characters are wonderful in part because they are always so authentic. When I flew out to LA for the premiere of “The Newsroom” in November, Episode 1 was screened and it was beyond cool for me to see how Aaron incorporated my notes into his script.

HBO, The NewsroomVia The Newsroom’s Facebook 

GLB: Do you have any interesting stories from working on the show?

AW: I inadvertently made an appearance in Season 1, Episode 4. The episode covered the 2011 Tucson, Az., shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. I was anchoring on MSNBC that January Saturday. At one point, referencing the NPR report that Rep. Giffords had been killed in the shooting, we joined the chorus of networks inaccurately reporting her death. Obviously, and thankfully, she survived. However, I still feel guilty about the chaos of that day and making such a terrible mistake. Cut to July 2012, and me watching “The Newsroom” at home in my pajamas, eating popcorn… when that storyline appears. I sat up on the couch and intently watched Aaron’s interpretation of how things went down. Right up to the point when Don and Mac are in the control booth. Don tells Mac, “CNN, MSNBC and FOX are all saying she’s dead.” And Mac says, “Let me hear MSNBC.”

So guess who says in the show, “A lone source is reporting Representative Gabrielle Giffords has been killed in this heinous attempt on her life…”? Me. I yelled, “NO!” and threw popcorn at the screen, before burying my face in my hands with a resigned, “Ugh.” After talking for a couple of hours the first time Aaron and I met, he was about to make a clean getaway… until I said, “You know, Aaron.. I have a little something I want to discuss with you…” and I proceeded to explain in excruciating detail the experience of watching myself report on Rep. Giffords ‘death’ and having that difficult day now available on DVD replay forever on “The Newsroom.” Poor guy. He listened and then kindly explained that he rarely – if ever – used sound from news broadcasts in the show, adding that he wasn’t calling ME out for reporting the Representative had died. Rather he liked how I reported it and needed that to make his point for Will and the senior staff at ACN. And so began our friendship. Go figure.

GLB: What are the most memorable stories you’ve reported on?

AW: When you ask me the most memorable story I’ve reported on, it has to be 9-11 and the week following from Ground Zero. It was the biggest story of my career. It was the biggest challenge for me to not get personal or overly emotional with the story. But it quickly became apparent things would never be the same. We live with the reverberations of that day across our daily lives in every community. I’ve also covered Presidential elections, reporting from both Democratic and Republican campaigns. Election night coverage is always thrilling. I have done exit polling reports from a studio at 30 Rock, and once from the ice rink at Rockefeller Center with a huge map of the 50 states colored in red and blue as the state vote finals were tallied.

In other news, I reported from outside Kensington Palace in London during the 10th anniversary commemorations of the death of Princess Diana. I also broadcasted my show from a set offering Windsor Castle as a backdrop the day Prince Charles married Camilla Parker Bowles. I recently held my own with Jon Stewart in a great interview for his 2014 film, “Rosewater”. It’s quite a potpourri of experiences.

GLB: Who inspires you?

AW: There are so many people who inspire me with acts of courage or compassion every day. But if you are talking about journalists, it’s got to be those who put themselves in dangerous places where terrorism runs rampant and innocent lives and individuals rights are threatened. It’s also the reporters who have a wealth of experience and articulately put today’s news into context for us. Those reports often seem to offer a sense of history repeating itself. I could name so many who have influenced me over the years. But I’ll narrow it down to two women for their consistency: NBC’s Andrea Mitchell and ABC’s Diane Sawyer. They are my definition of intelligent, capable, industrious, intrepid, respected journalists.

Alex Witt, MSNBC, Weekends with Alex WItt

GLB: What’s your favorite part of your job? Least favorite?

AW: My favorite part of the job is covering breaking news. There is no rush like being in the anchor chair with information coming at you from every direction. I love the challenge of delivering the news clearly and accurately to my viewers when it’s chaos in the studio, the control booth, all the while with my Executive Producer talking to me in my ear through my IFB. I’m sure that makes me sound a little bit crazy. But I love it. My least favorite part of the job is waking up in the middle of winter at 4 AM to get to midtown Manhattan to start my day. I never get used to it. But I am really bad at going to bed early enough to better manage it. I’ve got to work on that. Getting my hair and makeup done for air every day is also a pretty fabulous perk. “GLAM Life Blog” totally understands that!

GLB: What advice would you give to a student or young professional just starting out in TV news? You mentioned in a presentation once the importance of finding a niche. What are some other steps you would take if you were beginning your journalism career now?

AW: I think digital journalism is the key thing for up and coming journalists to focus on. Learning the nuances of broadcasting via the internet, rather than a large tv screen. The mechanics of putting a story together are the same of course – marrying words with pictures – but the trick is understanding how to capture the attention of the audience. Finding a niche… immersing yourself in one subject and making yourself an expert in that area can be helpful. But I want to add this: no matter what you set your sights on, don’t take shortcuts to get there. If you do, you won’t last in this business. It’s like trying to learn an aerial without first mastering a cartwheel before you try doing it without using your hands. Create for yourself a solid foundation and build a career from there. Put in the time… do the hard work in a small market and then move up the ladder. Make your mistakes and learn from them.

GLB: If you could choose one, what has been your proudest accomplishment so far?

AW: My proudest accomplishment is earning the respect and loyalty of my colleagues. I’ve survived 16 years at MSNBC. Hard work, preparing well, being flexible, appreciating your colleagues, and being respectful of the rigors of the industry are all key to turning a job into a career. Many of the people who work directly with me have done so for years. That’s not the norm. I’d like to think they’ve stayed because they value the show we put on the air and enjoy working with me and our team. There’s a fair amount of ego involved in the business. But that can better be translated to being confident. I love what I do and I’m good at it. That said, I never forget that anyone can be replaced. If I’m not sitting in the anchor chair one day, I guarantee the network won’t come out of commercial and point the camera at an empty chair behind the anchor desk. Perspective.

GLB: Finally, where do you see the future of journalism and the media world in general heading?

AW: I’m a little cynical lately at what I sometimes see passing as “journalism.” I can’t tolerate shoddy reporting. Sloppy inaccuracies… using gossip as a story source… copying a story from a news website and posting it without either verifying it or digging deeper into the story… not providing context when it’s needed to fully understand the story… things like that are all too common across the vast universe of news on the ‘net. But seeing what’s happening in USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism restores my faith in what lies ahead. I am so impressed with what’s available to the students in both the technology and the personnel. Every administrator and professor with whom I have spoken demonstrates the highest standards of journalism. Students are eager to learn and get out there in the working world. And I can’t wait to see what they bring to it.

You can catch Alex on “Weekends with Alex Witt”
Saturdays 7 AM ET, Saturdays and Sundays 12 PM ET —
And of course, on Twitter and Facebook!

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Kimberly N. Foster of For Harriet

Posted on: Monday, January 12, 2015

Kimberly N. Foster is the founder and editor of For Harriet, an online “community dedicated to celebrating the fullness of Black womanhood.” We talked to her about the site she created while she was a student at Harvard, as well as the future of diversity in media. Take a look!

Kimberly N. Foster, For Harriet

GLAM Life Blog: Tell us a little bit about yourself and why “blogging saved your life.”

Kimberly N. Foster: I am the founder and publisher of For Harriet. I started it back in 2010 to create a space for black women and I found in creating that space, it allowed me a place to explore and provide opportunities to talk about my own personal experiences. There’s something about the anonymity of the Internet and approaching your story with no preconceived notions; that’s how blogging saved my life.

GLB: For Harriet is targeted at women of “African ancestry.” What was your reasoning behind that phrasing?

KNF: Sometimes the way we talk about black or African American people has a very narrow idea about who is black or African American. I wanted to make sure that it was very clear this space was for all women of the African diaspora.

GLB: For Harriet aims to have honest conversations about the “beauty and complexity of Black womanhood.” How has the mainstream media traditionally covered black women’s lived experiences?

KNF: The mainstream media reflects the history of how black women have always been seen in society. The media reflects the racism, sexism, and classism that continue to keep black women as marginalized. Our stories are told through stereotypes and one-sided, which impacts how we are presented in positional outlets.

GLB: I love that you’re an admitted “Internet addicted pop culture fanatic.” (Believe me, I understand.) What is it about pop culture that hooks you the most?

KNF: I grew up consuming a lot of media, watching a lot of TV, read magazines, listened to music. You become invested in celebrity culture and invested in the musicians you listen to. I really liked clothes and following what they wore. I think if you’re interested, it becomes easy to become invested in that story of culture. I’m not ashamed of it!

GLB: Along the lines of pop culture, do you think the arrival of diverse programming like How to Get Away with Murder and Empire is doing enough to create representation?

KNF: It’s a step in the right direction. I don’t think we’re ever going to get a point, because of the nature of mainstream media and Hollywood, where the black experience is fully represented or in big budget films. I think we should continue to push and question and cajole, but it’s important as consumers to recognize that it’s not probably where we’re going to get the fullest representation of ourselves.

GLB: What are some of your favorite sources of black entertainment?

KNF: Black and Sexy TV, Issa Rae, and lots of smaller web series that pop up. Quarter Century is written and directed by a black woman. I love podcasts and to read smaller blogs. Black Girl Dangerous is doing really great work with pushing alternative images [of black women]. I like for them to know their work is appreciated.

GLB: You were a keynote speaker at Cornell for a conference on Gender, Race, and Representation in Magazines and New Media. Tell us about what that experience meant to you.

KNF: It was really crazy. That was my first time being invited to speak anywhere for a real amount of money. It was the first time they were like, “we’ll fly you out!” I really appreciated that the older, well-established women respected my work. They let me know they understood what I wanted to do and reassured me that the work I was doing was important.

Sometimes we think if it’s on the Internet, it’s frivolous or that it’s not impactful. Getting the opportunity to speak at that conference about what I want for the work to eventually be with this platform really confirmed for me that I’m on the right path.

GLB: Where do you hope to see yourself and For Harriet in ten years?

KNF: I want to be able to create more opportunities for black women to produce content and provide more ways for them to tell their stories. I want more ways for them to do different types of things like long investigative journalism, video, and podcasts. I want For Harriet to be multimedia and multiplatform.

GLB: What is your personal philosophy?

KNF: “Don’t ask for permission. Just do it.” You have everything that you need to get it done, so just do it!

For Harriet

Can’t get enough? Check out Kimberly on Twitter, as well as For Harriet‘s website and Facebook.

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No Pressure, Okay?

Posted on: Monday, January 5, 2015

So what if we’re already five days in? Happy, Happy New Year anyway!

happy new year

We’re not really into making grand, sweeping declarations (anymore) just because it’s January 1… But it is still a good time to take inventory of your accomplishments and failures and see what lessons can be found in them. After all, an entire planet revolved around a sun. Makes you think, what have you been up to exactly in these past hundreds of days?

Where were we?

Ah, yes. Here are a couple of things we’ve had on our minds:

weheartit, studying, pens, money, mba program, journalism, graduation, coding, transferringCredit: WeHeartIt @lilamgb, @KylieBliss, @EndlessSummer14

Maika: I’m officially an MBA student! I’m proud of what I’ve done since graduating college a few years ago – from starting my own company, to living and working in New York and Atlanta – but I’m excited to see what more I can learn in the classroom.

Maritza: I’m happy with my progress in school but with only a semester to go, I really want to take advantage of being in Los Angeles. Hopefully I’ll do better juggling my classes and hiking, or whatever it is those kooky Angelenos do on their time off.

Jessica: I didn’t get much of a break before grad school (three months!) but I like the momentum of getting everything out of the way now. And then, hello world – a particularly fitting sentiment after taking a beast of a coding class this semester.

Lydi’Ann: Okay guys, not to brag or anything but I have absolutely killed college so far. I can’t wait until I transfer after this semester and take my talents elsewhere. I like a challenge and I plan to work hard on my writing skills.

Clearly we’ve got school on the brain.
What are you looking forward to this year?

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