I am fascinated by local news, and have been for a long time.
Why? Because it’s so tightly focused, where every story is specifically generated to explain something that happened in a geographic region. It’s not about political leanings, sports leanings, energy or military or technology.
No, it’s about the place you call home—and only about the place you call home.
Save for a brief stint at The (Nashville) Tennessean and an even briefer stint at Newsday, I’ve never had that. And it seems both enriching and exasperating; rewarding yet punishing. You’re reporting on the people and institutions who then watch and hear the words you speak. They’re your subjects and your audience and, quite often, your critics. It can’t be easy.
Anyhow, that’s my way of introducing Shannon Perrine, today’s magical 346th Quaz Q&A. A Pittsburgh native, Shannon anchors the 5 pm, 5:30 pm and 7 pm newscasts on her hometown station of WTAE. She genuinely loves her city, and considers the job not merely a task, but a calling.
Shannon Perrine, you live in the 4-1-2, but you’re now the 3-4-6 …
JEFF PEARLMAN: So Shannon, you co-anchor the 5 pm weeknight newscast for Action News 4 in your hometown of Pittsburgh. And I wonder, in this age of social media, why we still need a weeknight newscast. I don’t mean that to sound belittling at all. I just mean, in this age of instant news at our fingertips, do people still plop down at 5 to watch? And why?
SHANNON PERRINE: More than in any other city, Pittsburghers do still plop down to watch the 5 o’clock news.
Here’s why: Wednesday morning at 2:20 reporter Katelyn Sykes and photographer Eric Hinnebusch went to cover a fire. It didn’t take long for them to realize a 4-year old was killed in the fire—along with two women. Then the news cavalry kicks in and supporting journalists from producers to assignments managers start getting more information. By 5 pm the traditional local newscast by WTAE provided the big headline: Four Year Old killed in fire. It also provided the detail that someone set that fire. Three innocent people murdered, thanks to a bar fight moments earlier. Context. That information is not easy to get. There are real people gathering it and writing it, people with experience and skill. The 5 pm news is where you find it.
The 5 o’clock evening news is special. In Pittsburgh at least, people seem to value it similarly to the way my parents and grandparents did. It’s not interactive. You get to sit down and watch what reporters and photographers have worked all day to present to you. The news you consume on Twitter or Facebook asks something of you: what do you think? Please share! Comment below!
The 5 o’clock news only asks two things of you: your attention for half an hour and your trust—that we have the ability to choose which stories to cover and how to cover them. Are the roads or transportation you use compromised? Is your local, county, state, federal government working on something you agree with? Is the criminal justice system a well-oiled machine? Who are the special people doing special things where you live? Who committed a serious crime, and where? A local newscast offers stories, hopefully in context, that reflect the best and worst of your town. That’s why we need the 5 pm evening news.
Oh, and the weather, that’s a big draw.
I put a lot of pressure on Paul Van Osdol, our investigative reporter. He elevates what we offer. Figuring out how CYS is broken and how ambulance response times could be better. Things that very well could impact you—that you can’t find anywhere else.
The reason people still listen to local radio stations when they drive to and from work is why Pittsburghers like local TV news. It’s presented by people you know. As lovely as digital, a la carte, social media news is, it feels like it’s born of algorithm, not of human effort.
Watch local news often, read the local paper, and listen to local radio and decide if those things are important to you.
We are all getting better at marrying what we do on the air with what we do on social media. But, for now—traditional tv news programming is our bread and butter and drives our workflow.
J.P.: You grew up in Pittsburgh, and now you’re an anchor in Pittsburgh. So I ask—does that matter? Are you at any advantage over, say, someone from San Francisco or Denver anchoring the news in Pittsburgh? And why? Or why not?
S.P.: It does matter. There are anchors here in Pittsburgh who are not local and they are effective and well-received. The advantage I have is history. My boss once asked me to report on the herculean cleaning effort of the exterior of The University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning. It’s a large gothic revival building that was covered in black soot. I told the story of how my grandparents met when they were undergraduates—in that building—when it was still under construction. The smog in 1930s Pittsburgh required both Charles Perrine and Sara Digby to return to their dorms and change their shirts midday, every day. I know all about Pittsburgh soot—and efforts to get rid of it.
My friends’ parents lost their jobs in the 1980s when steel mills closed. The city’s efforts at rebirth impact me personally.
I caught a foul ball from Jay Bell at Three Rivers Stadium. And I was there for the very last game at the stadium and was live on the air as it was imploded.
I remember when Sid Bream broke our hearts. My father was ejected from the 1960 World Series because his grandmother was cussing at the umpire too much from their seats right behind home plate.
Without that perspective, I maybe would not have noticed that at the 2013 National League wild card game—that no one was buying nachos, or hot dogs, or beer (OK, maybe a couple fans had beer); not only were fans standing for the entire game, some stood on tiptoes. The Pirates had not seen the post-season in more than 20 years. Being local comes with a resonance of perspective and pure understanding of why this city exploded with elation when Johnny Cueto dropped that ball.
I do not think Pittsburgh is perfect. But, it is more important to me than any other city and I think that helps me in my job.
J.P.: I’ve always found the staffing of TV news to be sort of fascinating. What I mean is—I remember as a kid, the anchor teams were always white man, African-American woman and—if the woman is not African-American—either the sports or weather person would be. I also recall a parody song, “Smaller Boobs,” about how anchor women couldn’t have large breasts, and another one about all weathermen being bald. And I wonder, from your experience, how much goes into the makeup and look of the “news team”?
S.P.: I am not in charge of hiring. Thankfully. I am grateful to the managers who put our current team into place. We do have a bald meteorologist. The others have lots of hair.
J.P.: You won an Emmy Award for coverage of the U.S. military’s brain research on injured servicemen and women suffering from traumatic brain injury. Soup to nuts, what did your reporting entail?
I started having conversations with different brain banks around the country initially about autism research (I had read that the Harvard brain bank lost most of its samples because of a power outage). That led me to learn that the U.S. military created its own brain bank specifically to study traumatic brain injury in service members. I also learned a lot about a local couple who could not take their young children to Chuck E. Cheese because they didn’t know when the husband, a war veteran, would erupt in a fit of anger. He has contemplated suicide. He has friends who have done more than just contemplate it. He was injured by an IED in Iraq serving in the Marines. His brother, also a Marine, died in a separate explosion. His brother would have been a great candidate to donate a brain specimen to the brain bank. The surviving brother and his parents said they would have gladly consented to donation to help in the research. But the military never asked his family to donate his brain upon his death. It was taboo to ask, too unseemly. So, they were not getting the number of specimens they needed to do the research. Compounding the silliness of that, the military already has a legal system in place that grants servicemen and women the option of consenting to donating organs and tissue to research. They all sign those papers when they enlist.
We interviewed the director of the brain bank and the marine and his wife, along with a local congressman who tried to figure out a solution. We got video of scientists slicing brain matter for research. The center is slowly getting the specimens it needs to do real research.
J.P.: We live in the age of #fakenews. I’m not saying news is fake. I’m saying we’re often being told it’s fake. How has that impacted you? Impacted the business? And how do you feel about it?
S.P.: It has had an unintended benefit. I’m just doing my thing and people I encounter are supportive. At least to my face. The fake news hashtag is a reminder to journalists to check their work, confirm information, and get things right.
I’ve witnessed Facebook friends share an article only to realize it’s garbage from a garbage website and then they start looking deeper into where all their information is coming from. They checked themselves after they wrecked themselves.
News consumers are having to stop and think about who is writing what they’re reading or watching. I love that. Do that more please. It can empower viewers to take stock of their news sources. Be smarter than Facebook America.
J.P.: I know you attended Delaware, but how did this happen for you? Did you know you wanted to go into TV? When? And what was the big break?
S.P.: My mom had a friend whose child went to Delaware and she heard good things. I visited and I fell in love with all those bricks (remember the brick scandal—Books Not Bricks). I think I chose Delaware because it was far enough away from Pittsburgh to feel adventurous, but close enough if I needed my mom real bad. I was 17 when I started (September 11th birthday) and I didn’t know a soul there. I loved it. Truly. And who else was going to root on the Blue Hen cross country team?
I actually chose Delaware because of its music program. I did consider journalism as a high school student. But, I began freshman year at Delaware as a music major. I had to audition to get in. I sang. At some point I switched my major to communication. That did not pan out. And I declared English with a concentration in journalism as my major and political science as my minor. I still sing and my kids tell me to shut up. Fun fact: freshman year I sang and played guitar/keyboards in a band called Feedback. We had exactly one gig at Christiana Towers. The founding members of Feedback were much more talented than me.
My sophomore year at Delaware, my mother (I’m now seeing a trend) suggested I go check out the campus radio station. I did. There was no real news department there. We had a system where we read AP wire copy on the air. But, we didn’t actually report, write, or produce news. So, I found some dusty tape recorders and went out into the world to cover the stories that the Review covered (campus newspaper that Jeff Pearlman eventually helmed). I became news director at WVUD and assembled an earnest cadre of reporters doing real radio news. I remember the Unity rally when the KKK showed up and WVUD was live on the air as we rolled down street in a retro-fitted camper. That was a technical challenge. I interviewed Bill Clinton and Al Gore when they campaigned separately in Wilmington. And Jimmy Carter came to campus. The university president only wanted to allow questions from the newspaper, but I insisted on asking what I’m sure was a meaningful and impressive question.
During my junior year at Delaware I saw a job posting for a radio reporter at WILM Newsradio in Wilmington. I left my job at the Coffee Beanery and was a paid reporter. I found myself covering city hall, the courts, school board meetings, even a small airplane crash on I-95, and the big blizzard of 1993—while I was a student at Delaware. To this day, that job interview at WILM stands as the most difficult of my career.
After graduation in 1994 a full-time radio job in State College, Pa. required I cover Penn State football and interview Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky several times. And lots of borough council meetings.
I realized I wanted to work in television, because I could see myself using video to tell stories. That State College radio job also paid $11,000 a year in 1994. That’s like $12,000 in 2017 dollars. I liked radio work a lot. But I love TV.
Fast forward: TV jobs in State College/Johnstown Pa, then Harrisburg, then Pittsburgh. Not one big break, a 24-year series of micro-breaks. Now, I am the proud owner of three different kinds of makeup just for my eyebrows—and pretty often I talk my boss into letting me do a story I really want to do.
J.P.: What’s the biggest on-air screwup of your career? And what do you remember from it?
S.P.: I called James Earl RAY James Earl JONES on the air, and I didn’t even notice. It taught me to focus, every day, on every word that comes out of my mouth. It’s the first time I felt the gravity of all the power I had been handed—with simply an open mic and a live camera.
J.P.: What was the must gut-wrenching experience of your career? And what do you remember from it?
S.P.: A man here in Pittsburgh decided to rape a toddler and leave her in the snow to die. She did die. There is evil in the world. On a continual basis, I am thrown by how many people will risk everything so they can view child pornography. There is a huge appetite for this stuff. I don’t think the world is properly freaking out about it.
J.P.: I’m gonna throw a slider your way. Your bio includes the sentence “Perrine is active in her church and is a volunteer Sunday school teacher.” With all the bad going on in the world, how do you maintain faith?
S.P.: Not a slider. I’m not skeered. I am a Christian. I am a journalist. I am very proud of my church lately. Like my city, it’s not perfect. I belong to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and when I say I am a Christian that means I try to emulate Jesus. I often fail. Often. It means I try to be inclusive, forgiving, compassionate, understanding, and loving. When I am successful at emulating Jesus, I feel better and I think the world around me benefits. The afterlife stuff is less important to me, because who knows what happens? Hoping for the best.
My father is a Presbyterian minister and he is a gifted preacher. He’s also a gifted pastor, but, his preaching is apropos to this question. He loved to deliver this one anecdote about a little boy who drops his ice cream cone on the sidewalk and tells his mother, “That’s not fair.” To which the mother replies, “Who ever said life was fair?” I hate that anecdote. It makes me uncomfortable. It forces us to remember that no one is guaranteed fairness. As Christians we are asked to seek righteousness—to me righteousness is pretty close to fairness and justice. At the heart of journalism for me is fairness, or at least seeking fairness. The hunt for fairness helps me keep my faith. It also helps me spot others seeking fairness—and point it out on the air—when others are doing good and newsworthy things in their community. My own religion is about more than just not being a jerk. But not being a jerk is a major tenet.
J.P.: OK, so I found the attached clip on YouTube. I often ask myself this question, so I’ll ask you. Why are we reporting on stuff like this? What I mean is, who does it help? Benefit? Is it merely a matter of awareness? Of space to fill? Or are these stories necessary?
S.P.: That clip was from the early days of getting stuff of the web fast, and it looks like that was a story we could have passed on. But, I hate making excuses for what we/I have covered in the past. I do have some say. Not a ton, but some. It’s a daily battle with some of the lesser offenses we see.
Stories I would include in my engineered Google Search include Brain Computer Interface and why insurance won’t pay for it. And the series about women pilots who served in WWII and were mistreated by the government recently. Fellow Delaware alumna Maggie Leffler wrote a novel about them called The Secrets of Flight—makes a great gift.
QUAZ EXPESS WITH SHANNON PERRINE:
• Five reasons one should make Pittsburgh his/her next vacation destination: 1. Randy Land and world class museums—The Mattress Factory is my favorite, there’s also a quirky bicycle museum that is free and is something to behold, along with all the Carnegie museums; 2. Outdoorsy stuff: kayaking, hiking, biking—it’s pretty, like, nine months of the year. There’s enough snow to ski close by; 3. Fancy food—New York chefs eschewing Manhattan for Lawrenceville … it’s just a hipster paradise. Beer, whiskey, locally sourced things, pretentious hamburgers. I love it. Smallman Galley is a chef incubator. They do not create tiny test tube baby chefs, they help fully grown chefs start their own businesses. I had a breakfast pizza there last weekend that also helped me grow closer to God. 4. Sports—Let’s face it if, you’re booking a flight to Pittsburgh, there’s some black and gold in your wardrobe already; 5. I actually don’t think you should just visit, I think most people would love living here (I’m talking to you, Jeff Bezos)
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Visa cards, Pizza Hut, John Stallworth, quarters, My Little Pony, the Stone Balloon, Suzanne Vega, John Stamos marrying a woman 24 years his junior, hunting elk, J. Cole, Diet 7-Up: John Stallworth, Suzanne Vega, Stone Balloon (I saw Eddie Murphy sing there. “Sing” may be too strong a word. He could have used some help from the famous Feedback band), Visa cards, quarters, Diet 7-Up, The Stamos thing (I ask people 24 years younger than me if they’re flossing regularly and if they started their IRA yet—but who am I to judge? Love is love.), J.Cole, hunting elk (you can now do that in Pennsylvania—there’s a herd brought back from the brink of extinction and you can actually hunt them), My Little Pony (I’m against them on many levels, the plastic @#&^% are all over my house and the story line in the books is pedestrian).
• Tell us something unique about your uncle: Richard Stiller served in the U.S. Army during the Viet Nam War and insists he mostly served as a life guard at the officer’s club in Laos. But, he still can’t eat bananas. So, I’m not really sure.
• How did your husband propose?: He had my kids help. We were getting ready to go to a “celebrity” dance competition (I was pinch hitting for an anchor who fell ill and I am not skilled in dancing). The proposal made the night much, much better. Lynn Swann was one of the judges, he told me I was “brave” for competing. I told him he was brave for running for governor of Pennsylvania. My husband is also brave, and wonderful, and tall. He was a scholarship linebacker for Pitt back in the day. Pitt and Delaware recently played each other at Heinz Field. The Panthers were rude to the Blue Hens, not allowing them to get on the board at all. Rude.
• Do you think the Angels overpaid Justin Upton?: I don’t know who that is. Wait—$22 million, I change my answer to yes. There lies the difference between Los Angeles and Pittsburgh. Yet another reason to visit. That’s just crazy pants.
• What’s the grossest thing you’ve ever seen?: Severed foot? Yeah, that.
• When you see this do you feel bad or do you sorta chuckle?: I feel so bad. If you’re on the air long enough, you’re going to do something you regret. I’m so sorry James Earl Jones.
• Why did you go to Delaware?: To become a successful singer. And aesthetics. And to cheer for the cross country team, obviously. (Jeff Pearlman was a college athlete. And so was famous author Maggie Leffler—who was also my roommate. Maggie was smart enough to settle in Pittsburgh and is a wonderful family practice doctor. I still stand in the cold and cheer for her when she goes for a jog.)
• Without Googling, name all the Hall and Oates songs you know: Sarah Smile (favorite), Kiss is on my list, Rich Girl, Rocking around the Christmas tree (unfortunate). [Jeff’s note: It was actually “Jingle Bell Rock”—dammit]
• Who wins in a 12-round boxing match between you and Emmanuel Lewis? What’s the outcome?: Is that Webster? Umm me? That seems mean. Outcome: we become best friends and start a cooking blog or a T-shirt subscription service.