Alumni Q&A: Kristen Conner, Anchor and Reporter for WHNT News 19

IMG_9197Kristen Conner is an anchor/reporter for WHNT News 19 in northern Alabama. In 2017, she received the Edward R. Murrow Award for her work on the 30 min. documentary A Rescue Mission. She graduated from Rowan University in 2012 with a B.A. in Communications and Journalism and a Minor in Political Science. You can follow Conner on Twitter at KConnerWHNT

Can you describe your job at WHNT News 19 and what you do on a day-to-day basis?

As Sunday anchor, I am part of a weekend team with limited supervision and a smaller staff. I act as a manager often, assigning reporters stories and sending out crews on the news of the day as it breaks.

My typical day in this role begins in the afternoon. I come in, work with the producer to read through the shows, make suggestions as needed, and research stories and make calls in order to decide how to handle news happening throughout the day. Then, I get up in the chair and anchor the show with the meteorologist and sports anchor. We typically do two shows on Sundays.

During the week, I shift back into a reporter role. I come into the afternoon meeting with researched and vetted pitch ideas. After I’m assigned, I’ll grab my gear and head out.

As a multimedia journalist, I set up, shoot, interview, write, edit and then present my own stories on multiple deadlines. We have a 4pm, 6pm and 10 p.m. newscast. It’s a busy day, but you’re always doing something different, new, and often exciting!

Watch Conner’s Story: Tennessee Valley Marvel fans react to death of Stan Lee

You did internships in Philadelphia and Maryland and have worked in West Virginia and Alabama. What has it been like getting to work in different areas of the country?

My job has helped me understand people of all walks of life in all kinds of places. It has also helped me to understand reporting from multiple viewpoints. 

In Philadelphia, I learned about reporting in a big market of the major metropolitan area. I delved into life in an investigative unit, but then I thought it was important to head to a more rural spot. In Maryland, I saw the other side as a general assignment reporting in a small market.

My first job was in West Virginia as a bureau reporter, meaning I was working separate from the station, a good hour and a half away from any of my coworkers. I covered an entire area of the state by myself. It really showed me how to lean on myself, build and maintain sources, and work independently. It also showed me the incredible kindness that you’ll find from people all over the place. People were quick to help me, take me in, trust me to tell their stories, and welcome me into their communities.

Once I moved to Alabama, I was ready for a more metropolitan reporting experience after building a solid foundation of reporting skills.

All these stops have shown me that humanity has a lot in common, from region to region and state to state. I have learned more about how the world works in every county I’ve been, and soaked up what things are important to those people. That really helps me gauge my audience and their interests. It’s important to remember your audience isn’t one-dimensional. They have complicated needs and they need you to enrich their lives with what matters to them. 

You were part of a team that received the Edward R. Murrow award for the documentary A Rescue Mission Can you give some backstory on the documentary and the work that went into it?

A Rescue Mission” was borne from a problem the mission had. They didn’t believe that the community really understood what they do, or who they are and who they serve. Our team leader, David Kumbroch, helped us narrow down the goals of the piece to hit those key ideas. I worked on multiple contained segments of the documentary and contributed to other portions, too.

The piece is set up in an interesting way. He assigned us each an idea, and a song that to edit to, and cut us loose. For me, this was a different way to approach a story. Editing to music is different than crafting a news package. It gave the entire piece a different feel I think really spoke to a lot of people.

It took a long time to gather the elements and put them together because I often came into work before my shift. I did the news of the day, and then stayed later to log sound bites, as well as a lot of the writing and editing in my free time on the weekends.

In the end, I found it to be a deeply religious experience the way things fell into place. These stories we told in the documentary were raw and real, and I hope it helped people by providing them an inside look at what the mission does and why it deserves community support.

As a multimedia journalist, what are skills that you feel are the most valuable for journalists to have these days and why?

Ask any news manager and they will tell you that time management, communication and drive are the top. You’re working on tight deadlines and often away from the newsroom, so you have to keep your team informed about what you’re doing, where you are, and what you’ve gathered for the day. 

But I think the biggest thing you can have as a journalist is heart. This business can be tough. You have extreme highs and the lowest lows. It can be grueling work, long hours and often you see terrible things or have to ask people difficult questions on the worst day of their lives.

Heart is caring about people, a passion for storytelling and a desire to do good. Heart helps you communicate why the audience should care about what you’re saying, but it also motivates you to treat people with kindness and respect when they deserve it most. 

What would you say is the best piece of work that you have done and why?

I’m one of those people who is never satisfied with a story they’ve done. I just know that I can watch it a year from now and come up with a thousand things I would do differently. I think that just goes to show you that you’re never finished growing.

What I consider my “best” isn’t always, on its face, the most interesting. I look at my best work in terms of not just how impressive the story is, but the people who helped make it possible.

It’s the story where the controversial superintendent of the Huntsville city school system invited me to his home for an exclusive that he was resigning, or the time a family whose daughter was very sick with a disease that would later kill her, looked me in the eye and said, “We have faith.”

Those may not seem impressive, but the people who trusted me and let me in enough to tell the world what they’re about, make it the best in my opinion.

I guess I can say I’m really proud to have covered the Doug Jones Senate race, which made national news for a while. I was following the Luther Strange campaign originally, but when Roy Moore became the sole Republican in the race I was assigned to Doug Jones. I followed him all the way to Washington, D.C. That was a cool moment—being crammed in with the other press who routinely work on the national scene, figuring out the best place for a “stakeout” to get interviews. I still have the temporary press badge. All of that’s cool to me on a nerdy-reporter-type level.

Another one of my favorite stories was “borne of tragedy.” A Huntsville-area church bus crashed outside Atlanta carrying missionaries prepared to go to Botswana, and a sweet girl was killed.

I traveled to Atlanta with a photographer and did countless live shots from all over the city in the brief two-day period we were there, but I will never forget when the girl’s family called a press conference from a nearby church where the American Red Cross had it staged. They stood in front of media from all over the place and read from the girl’s journal. She had been praying and journaling about her faith within the hour of her passing.

Later, that family would allow me into their home to tell more about her story, and the whole community would rally around them to donate to her favorite charity. That family’s story of faith and loss is one of the most beautiful and tragic events I’ve ever witnessed. I think about them constantly.

Watch Conner’s Story: Harmening family shares the way you can help

How did your time at Rowan University help prepare you for where you are today?

At Rowan, I immediately jumped into the Rowan Television Network (RTN) where I met lifelong friends and picked up skills that serve me every day. I got more comfortable with cameras, I anchored the news as a freshman, and practiced on the desk.

Being willing to adapt is a huge part of the job. I learned a lot about the political world with my political science minor which carries me through—from tiny local races to the big leagues in Washington.

What advice would you give to Rowan University students who want to pursue a career as a multimedia journalist

To begin I would say, never give up if it’s truly what you want.

I applied to some 60 jobs to get my first call back, and I took that first job. It was, to me, in the middle of nowhere but it ended up being a huge blessing. Don’t let people tell you you’re not good enough; one news director’s opinion is not equal to another. Just keep practicing your craft and never stop growing. Eventually, someone will want to help you get to the next level.

When I was interning, a reporter I admired told me to never assume things, and ask  questions even if it seems like a stupid question, It’s far more dangerous, he said, to assume something and be wrong than to check with someone and be right. 

Finally, in order to get a journalism job I’d just start working with what you’ve got. Use the resources in communities around you! Email reporters you admire. Ask them to get coffee. Pick their brains for as long as you can.

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