Transferable Skills: FROM TV NEWS TO THE BOOK BIZ
People often ask me how did I make the transition between two seemingly separate universes: television journalism and book publishing?
My answer is always TRANSFERABLE SKILLS!
While my first career which lasted more than two decades involved chasing news stories, turning the camera on the big headlines and identifying the softer features that gave people information, or goosebumps, or simply brightened their days…. my second career has been an extension of my desire to put important, and meaningful stories into the zeitgeist.
My experience has taught me that the skills you pick up early in life, and work to improve, will be useful to you as you climb the career ladder or even if, like me, you jump off of one ladder and onto another.
The process starts earlier than you might think.
My first indication that I could have a career in breaking news was in middle school when I asked if I could read the daily announcements over the loudspeaker. The assistant principal let me do it. That gave me confidence. It taught me that asking for what you want, whether it is to the universe or a school administrator, is a necessary first step in getting what you want.
As my parents used to say “You Don’t Ask, You Don’t Get”.
In high school, I was a pretty sad and bored teenager in a druggie crowd on a path to nowhere in a tiny Westchester County, New York suburb. At the tender age of fifteen, realizing my life’s path was dangerous and doomed I asked my parents if they would let me double up on my classes, take the SATs, graduate early from high school and hopefully enter college.
TRANSFERABLE SKILL— THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX ABOUT YOUR OWN LIFE
Thank goodness they agreed and at 16, I wound up at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
That fresh start in college saved me!
TRANSFERABLE SKILL— THE ABILITY TO START FRESH
Senior year, with not too many clear career choices, I set out on a path based on my assumption that my degree in Comparative Arts combined with my abilities in Spanish and my work as the self-proclaimed “News Director” of the college Radio station and my role on the Washington University concert committee would easily land me an entry level job at a local television station.
Not so fast.
On an informational interview someone suggested I ought to get my FCC Radio-Telephone operator’s license for a “foot in the door”. Off to Missouri Technical College I went followed by a big exam in Kansas City, which I passed –just barely.
Once receiving my FCC License, I was finally able to “get in” at the local PBS TV station KETC as a high-paying part-time camera person. With my foot in the door my passion also connected me to another part-time position as a production assistant on a cultural affairs show called St. Louis Skyline where I helped produce stories about things like the St. Louis Ballet.
One day a station executive came to me and told me I had to choose between the two jobs. There had been complaints that a union worker was also doing non-union work. The union job paid three times more.
Choosing between the high-paying technical job and and the practically unpaid producing one was stressful. But I knew in my heart I was an intuitive creative type and that’s where I belonged. I made up the financial gap by getting a gig as a waitress. I worked nights and weekends at Pupillo’s Riverfront Underground on Laclede’s Landing alongside the Mississippi River in downtown St. Louis.
TRANSFERABLE SKILL — LISTENING TO YOURSELF, KNOWING YOURSELF, AND BEING WILLING TO MAKE SACRIFICES TO REACH YOUR GOALS
Waitressing taught me to take orders with a smile, to remember people’s favorite things instantly, and that it was just as important to treat the restaurant owners nicely as it was to care about the dishwashers and the cooks in the kitchen not to mention the customers, who are ALWAYS right!
My love life took me to Louisville where there were zero TV jobs to come by so I used skills from my modern dance training to land a job at the Kelly Lyn Figure Spa as an exercise instructor and soon thereafter as the club manager. We answered the phone “Good afternoon Kelly Lyn Figure Spa — would y’all like to gain, lose or maintain your weight for just 49 dollars a year?”
While in Kentucky I learned to manage other people, and to fit into a culture that was as foreign to me as if I had been dropped onto another planet. I also heard some pretty awful racist and anti-semitic rants on the parts of my co-workers.
Running a fitness club taught me a lot about management style. I was 21 years old and very inexperienced. I was “supervising” the weight control of many women who said they joined because they wanted to slim down.
I thought that by being very strict and enforcing the rules of being weighed and measured with each visit, I was helping the clients.
They were not so appreciative and started a petition to oust me as the club manager. That did not work but I did learn my lesson.
TRANSFERABLE SKILL — LISTENING TO YOUR CUSTOMERS
The ladies really just wanted to have a good time while they worked out!
When things did not work out with my boyfriend in Louisville, I returned back home to New York (this time NYC as my parents had divorced and moved to separate Manhattan apartments).
Wrestling with my eclectic resume stressed me out. What skills did I really have? What career played to my skills?
I knew I still loved the collage of images, words and ideas and that I was capable of writing short punchy copy because I had excelled at writing poetry in high school in English and in college in Spanish.
TRANSFERABLE SKILL — CONCISE WRITING
Eventually through a family friend I landed an interview with Channel 11 News in NYC where I started back at the bottom as a production assistant even though I had that TV experience from back in St. Louis.
TRANSFERABLE SKILL — KNOWING HOW TO TAKE A STEP BACKWARDS IN ORDER TO GET AHEAD
At this point I realized writing the news was what I really wanted to do. It was the next rung up on the ladder from my PA job. Watching one person after the next get promoted ahead of me was extremely frustrating for seventeen months.
So I attached myself to the second-in-command of the 7:30 Action News and every day for about a year I wrote the 30 second news promo and handed it to her until eventually they started letting my words go on the air.
TRANSFERABLE SKILL — FINDING MENTORS WHO WILL HELP YOU WHILE YOU HELP THEM TO LOOK GOOD!
About a year after I was promoted to news writer, WPIX decided to increase the number of newscasts by creating the Independent Network News and hiring a famous network reporter/anchorman from CBS.
By that time I was already pretty good at writing the news.
Morton Dean, that network anchor, had a very specific and somewhat poetic style of news writing which I called “news haiku.”
I worked hard to imitate his writing style. Mort noticed that and begin to mentor me. Eventually I was promoted to copy editor, overseeing all of the news writers.
TRANSFERABLE SKILL — WRITING IN SOMEONE ELSE’S VOICE!
While my colleagues were busy complaining about how their news copy had been “mortified” by Mort, I took the opposite tactic and embraced his style and tried to please him with my writing.
Eventually not only did this pave the way for another promotion to news producer it also allowed me to submit my writing to a woman at CBS network news who hired freelance overnight news writers for the CBS Morning News.
That’s when I began to juggle my life between writing overnight news from midnight till nine o’clock in the morning three days a week at CBS and continuing my Monday through Friday evening shift at WPIX.
Before long I also took on some weekend news writing duties at CBS as a freelancer for both Bob Schieffer and Charles Osgood: two famous, established and incredibly impressive anchormen.
My schedule was increasingly demanding. Sometimes I worked up to 100 hours a week from midnight till 9 AM at CBS network news followed by a four hour nap with blackout shades in my apartment arriving at two o’clock in the afternoon back at WPIX and working till eleven p.m. plus weekends.
It was exhilarating, and exhausting, so much so that I landed in the hospital with viral meningitis and was forced once again to make a decision.
The doctor said I had to cut back and there was no way I could continue at that pace.
I was 26 years old.
Luckily for me a position opened up at Channel 2 News for weekend producer and I got the job.
It was a big position for a young woman and I was supervising people who were decades older than myself and often times flying by the seat of my pants in the control room.
There was a small staff each weekend with four newscasts to produce Saturdays and Sundays. That meant supervising the reporters, deciding which stories were the most important, overseeing the scripts and writing the program on deadline.
There’s little room for error because if you screw up producing live TV all of New York witnesses your mistake. No pressure.
TRANSFERABLE SKILL — STAYING CALM UNDER PRESSURE AND MAKING INSTANT DECISIONS ON DEADLINE
My career in local news lasted a total of sixteen years moving from Channel 2’s weekends to the 6 PM News and once I became a mother, moving by my request to the noon news.
TRANSFERABLE SKILL — KNOWING WHEN TO ASK FOR A CAREER SHIFT OR CHANGE TO MAKE IT WORK FOR YOUR LIFE
While the noon news was less prestigious, I was able to showcase authors who had new books and experts who I helped with their weekly segments on everything from Money and Fitness to Cooking and Medicine. I was the master of my little afternoon news fiefdom and I loved it
Nine years into my stint at Channel 2 with the #1 rated noon newscast, I was suddenly recruited by FOX 5 news as a senior producer, to start a talk show, and run their midday news.
The 1996 talk show Carol Jenkins Live, was groundbreaking and even had a live internet component!
It was a beast to produce and in a rough time spot (up against my former show at Channel 2 News), and it only lasted nine months before being cancelled.
I still produced the noon news but my days were numbered.
One day while I was literally in the middle of the woods at a Buddhist Monastery near Woodstock, New York conducting a hard won exclusive one-on-one interview with the Dalai Lama, my beeper went off (yes this is before cell phones) and I was summoned back to the news director’s office. I was told my job had been eliminated.
I was EMBARRASSED AND HORRIFIED!
After all, I had left a job where I was successful and comfortable and taken another job with high hopes for a long term work relationship. To make matters worse, the person who had helped recruit me not only was firing me but she would not even look at me and seemingly showed no compassion for my predicament. I was also a breadwinner for my family and the one who carried the insurance policies for me, my husband and our two young sons.
I was given six weeks (which today seems like a luxury) to work out of the office and thankfully landed a position at the syndicated news program American Journal where I immediately became a go-to producer. King World cancelled AJ after that season, and I was moved to another one of their shows, INSIDE EDITION where I broke some of the biggest stories in the country!
I interviewed notorious serial killer SON OF SAM behind bars and was actually working on a story with PAULA JONES the day she made a deal with President Bill Clinton to accept 850,000 dollars in exchange for not pursuing her sexual harassment lawsuit against him.
TRANSFERABLE SKILL: HANDLING IMPORTANT ASSIGNMENTS PROFESSIONALLY AND WITH A POSITIVE OUTLOOK
My next step up the ladder of television news took me to Good Morning America where I was placed in charge of the regular contributors on the show (this was as a result of my old experience at Channel 2 News and my journalism skills from Inside Edition) and I spent 5 years working around-the-clock now with three young children (having given birth to my daughter while working at Inside Edition).
While at GMA I began to really get interested in making television segments from the books that would come into the newsroom and in a few cases turned books that might have gone unnoticed into blockbuster bestsellers.
That caught the attention of then HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman who asked to meet this ABC News executive who was (for free) helping them to make a lot of money. I pitched her the idea of me coming to work there and using my skills as a TV journalist to sign up books by newsmakers and experts. Instead of having to compete with other editors when agents would shop their clients books all over town, I offered to chase the story so to speak.
TRANSFERABLE SKILL: KNOWING HOW TO TALK SOMEONE INTO DOING SOMETHING THAT WILL BE GOOD FOR BOTH OF YOU!
Jane and I talked on and off for five years through my tenure at GMA and even when I was hired away to be the president of a Today Show weatherman’s production company.
One day I read that a book publishing executive had just been let go from HarperCollins and I reached out to Jane yet again. Her response…. Let’s have drinks.
TRANSFERABLE SKILL: KEEPING THE LINES OF COMMUNICATION OPEN IN YOUR NETWORK OF COLLEAGUES
Jane offered me exactly what I was looking for. A job in which I oversee a team of editors, acquire high profile books that are published into the zeitgeist and the ability to run after stories that touch people’s hearts in meaningful — inspirational and game changing ways.
When I first arrived in book publishing I knew very little about the world of creating books. But I kept asking questions. I hosted dinners with people who had interesting ideas. I reached out to my news sources who by this point were spread out all over the media landscape and let them know I was on the prowl — this time for BOOK IDEAS.
I must say that from a corporate culture perspective, I am much happier in the book business and I have experienced some success in the stacks including dozens of New York Times Bestsellers.
After a few years on the job, book marketing videos were becoming more and more important to the authors and to the marketing teams. So I asked my boss to let me oversee the talented video team, which has been so much fun in addition to what I continue to do with book acquisitions.
TRANSFERABLE SKILL: RAISING YOUR HAND AND OFFERING TO DO MORE TO HELP YOUR COLLEAGUES
Then, just this summer, I started a Facebook Daily Live Program at HarperCollins, the first of its kind in the country and somewhat modeled after the local news programming back in my early days on the noon News. Each day since June, Monday through Friday and sometimes on Sundays we have authors and book publishing professionals go live from their pages or ours to connect with readers and to increase their visibility.
We have more than 10 MILLION VIEWS AND GROWING.
TRANSFERABLE SKILL: KEEPING UP WITH TECHNOLOGY AND ALWAYS GETTING AHEAD OF THE CURVE
Here are a few more transferable skills and traits I believe can help anyone, regardless of your age, or your profession.