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Susan King blazed trails for women journalists

By Kevin Greer
Lakeside Communications Manager

Susan King has traveled to many places during her career. The trailblazing and award-winning journalist, who opened doors for women in male-dominated television newsrooms, will be making her first trip to Lakeside and serve as the Keynote Speaker at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 18 in Hoover Auditorium.

“Chautauqua has interested me because when I started as a reporter, it was in Buffalo, not far from Chautauqua New York,” King said. “I really want to feel the atmosphere of a Chautauqua. I’ve done a lot of research. Before media, Chautauqua was a place that really cultivated ideas and helped move them forward. I’m looking forward to feeling that pulse.”

Newspaper influence

King grew up reading newspapers. Her parents had subscriptions to The New York Times, The Daily News, The New York Post and The Journal American.

Her mom was a big radio listener and they started watching TV news as well. Legendary CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite during that time went from a 15-minute newscast to a half hour.

While attending Marymount College, an all-women’s school in Tarrytown, New York, she went to the library every day and read The New York Times. King earned a degree in English because the school didn’t offer journalism, but she knew which direction she wanted to take.

“I was interested in the world of television and media,” King said. “I was really driven to do that and decided that I would go into television because I had been a public speaker. I did oratorical contests in high school, and I was pretty confident on my feet.”

It’s a start

King graduated about a decade before the 24-hour news cycle, so there weren’t many job openings, especially for women. Before starting on her master’s at Fairfield University, she landed a job with NBC News at 30 Rock in New York. She worked in the “White Paper” documentary unit, which was an award-winning documentary series that ran from 1960-89. However, the position wasn’t what she thought.

“I was a secretary,” King said. “I could type really fast and that’s how I got my first job. They didn’t ask, ‘What do you want to be?’ Women were not in editorial jobs then.”

During her lunch break, she would have her resume handy and went job hunting. Within a year, she landed a position working for Cronkite. She was a researcher, the highest job for women at that time, and answered all his mail. She took night classes to complete her master’s, which was partially paid for by CBS.

King started a newsletter for all the CBS bureaus and did it from the Cronkite newsroom. She analyzed what stories were getting the most impact, so it gave the reporters an idea of how the public was responding to their stories. It also let people know who she was within CBS and showed off her writing skills.

“I wanted to be a journalist,” King said. “I was trying to build up what I could, and doing a little newsletter was a way to do that.”

Making Buffalo history

While King said it was “a privilege” working for Cronkite, she knew it would be difficult to move up the ladder in New York City. When her new husband took a job in Buffalo, she started working in the information news department at what was then called the State University of New York at Buffalo (now the University of Buffalo). She came up with story ideas and found out which professors were doing interesting research. She was writing more, but it wasn’t a secret she wanted to be television news reporter.

She applied to TV stations after moving to Buffalo, but none hired her. Stewart Dan of WGR-TV knew this and told her of an opening at the station about a year later. They were remaking the NBC affiliate at that time and looking for new talent.

“He came to me and said, ‘You want to be a television journalist, right?’ King recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Well, we’re looking for a woman.’ I told him, ‘I fit that credential.’”

King went through the interview process and made history as the first woman in Buffalo to be a street reporter. During her first week, she did five-minute cut-ins during the “Today” show and said she didn’t get off to a great start.

“I was terrible,” King said. “After my first time off the set, I overheard the guy who ran the assignment desk tell a caller, ‘Well, she’s new, she’ll get better.’”

She did. King later added weekend anchor to her reporting duties. The 6 and 11 p.m. weekday anchor left in the summer of 1974 at the height of the Richard Nixon Watergate controversy. It was a time when Americans were glued to the TV, and the station made her temporary weekday anchor, the only woman in the U.S. in that role. The station eventually hired a new male anchor, which wasn’t well received in the city.

“The headline was, ‘They didn’t have enough guts to put Susan King in as anchor,’” King said. “He’s a great guy and we became friends. The town really accepted me and it was a wonderful experience. I think I was there at that moment when there was the opportunity for women, and people wanted their children to have opportunities and women wanted to be considered professionals. I felt like I rode the crest of the woman’s movement.”

King was inducted into the Buffalo Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 2014.

On to D.C.

King stayed in Buffalo only a couple more months before moving to WTOP-TV (now WUSA), the CBS affiliate in Washington. She was the only female reporter for over a year and when they hired another, it was assumed they would be competitive and not get along. They wanted to quickly turn off the noise, so the two had a brief meeting and thought they could make each other better reporters. King is still friends with that reporter to this day — NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell.

King worked for every network affiliate in the competitive Washington market except Fox. She was also at the Washington bureau and White House correspondent for ABC News. She got to cover Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and presidential campaigns. She was the No. 2 reporter behind Sam Donaldson and did updates on “Good Morning America.” She said it was a good experience, but covering the White House wasn’t for her.

“It’s very intense, and you’re locked into a very small area of the White House press room,” King said. “It was a privilege to do that for almost a year and I liked covering some of the campaign events when you traveled with the President, but I didn’t like just being locked down and unable to do what I consider reporting. With the ‘GMA’ reports, I felt like I was just doing a preview.”

King left ABC but stayed in Washington to work for NBC affiliate WRC-TV, where she earned two Emmy awards. One was for her documentary on Beirut, Lebanon, after working 10 days in what was at that time a dangerous city. She did mostly political reporting while there, but also spent a “nerve-wracking” night on the front lines with the Marines. After one night, she scratched war reporter off her list of potential reporting roles.

“We were waiting for incoming missile attacks, and that’s when I knew this is just not for me,” King said.

Her second Emmy came from segments titled “Susan King’s Cover Story.” She wouldn’t just tell viewers what happened, she would explain what the story meant and put it into context.

“I’m most proud of that Emmy because it’s about my body of work,” King said.

Career change

After a decorated journalism career in Washington that also included stops at CNN and CNBC, King decided to go in a different direction. She was asked to run the Family & Medical Leave Commission established by Congress when the legislation passed early after Bill Clinton became president.

The first success for Clinton was the Family & Medical Leave Act, giving people time off mostly for birth and adoption. Now many people use it to take care of aging parents and medical health issues.

The work she did was noticed in the administration, so King was approached by Secretary of Labor Bob Reich about being assistant secretary. She accepted and she was in the role for nearly five years.

“I’d already made the leap into government, and this was a presidential appointment,” King said. “I thought I should take this and see what it was. Labor is not a spin place like the White House. You actually do communication that makes a difference.”

During her time in the Department of Labor, King realized she was a good strategist. She spearheaded the successful labor campaign, “No Sweat,” which moved to protect abused workers in American sweatshops.

The Dean

King was one of four vice presidents at the Carnegie Corporation, where she started a magazine that continues today. She had a portfolio and a budget to do journalism grantmaking and ran the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the future of journalism education. They started a program to focus on the needs of a changing journalism world, collaborating with the nation’s 11 top journalism schools.

The University of North Carolina was one of the colleges involved, and when the Dean of the Journalism School left, King became one of the top candidates to take over. King doesn’t have a doctorate, which is usually a requirement for the position. Her credentials were too impressive to pass up, so the search
committee selected her for the job.

King proved the committee’s’ decision to be the correct one. In her 10 years as Dean, the university fostered student achievement at the highest levels. In six out of her final seven years, it won the Hearst National Championship, the most prestigious student journalism award in the country.

She raised $85 million to help fund a new building on campus. King and her staff created television shows and hubs where the students could go out and do news, then get it published in newspapers across the state or beyond their digital channels.

Among some of her recognizable students are former CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin, current CNN Senior White House Correspondent Kayla Tausche and CNN anchor Pamela Brown. There are also several at the Washington Post, Politico and local news stations all over the country.

In 2020, King was named the 2019 Scripps Howard Administrator of the Year by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, the highest recognition for a Dean in her field.

She is a 2022 inductee into the NC Media & Journalism Hall of Fame. However, King isn’t taking all the credit for the success of alums and the journalism school.

“The students earned the Hearst Awards, and we had fantastic faculty,” King said. “I wanted the students to have the experience of doing work that was professional, and Hearst noticed it. I really felt we needed to be experiential. We didn’t just tell students what they were going to do, we wanted to have them do it.”

The future of journalism

Trust in the mainstream media is at an all-time low. Things have changed dramatically since the dawn of the internet and social media.

King says one issue is that people follow and believe what King calls “dangerous” non-journalists who spread lies and conspiracy theories on social media platforms. She also noted a big problem on some networks is lack of barriers when it comes to what gets aired.

“It’s become more opinionated,” King said. “In most cases, it’s not even debate, it’s food fights. When I was working for Walter Cronkite, there were gatekeepers of how the news should be structured, what should and should not be emphasized. Now it’s all out there, and you become your own gatekeeper. Who has time?”

King said the best way to get viewers’ trust back is good leadership. She believes better decisions need to be made and the bosses have to live up to journalistic values, rather than superficial ideas of success. She says whether things will change remains to be seen.

“I think we have to get through the 2024 election,” King said. “Change and the tensions will exist for quite a while. We’re in for probably a few years of more turmoil before we have a sense of where the business is going to settle down.”


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