Michele Norris, 41, joined NPR in December 2002 as co-host of the daily news program "All Things Considered." Before NPR, Norris worked as a correspondent for ABC News from 1993 - 2002. Norris also worked as a reporter for The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times. A four-time Pulitzer Prize entrant, Norris has received numerous journalism awards, including the 1989 Livingston Award. She majored in electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin, and studied journalism at the University of Minnesota. She spoke with JournalismJobs.com about her new job.
Michele Norris: Coincidence and opportunity. When I started out in print, I did not necessarily aspire to work in television. I was first contacted by NBC and then ABC, the network I ultimately worked for, almost two years before I went to work for them. At the time I had written a series that won a Livingston Award. At the luncheon, someone from NBC who had heard me had gone back and suggested that the powers that be contact me. Later on, someone from ABC, I think it was Carole Simpson, said here's a reporter who's talking to NBC, maybe we should be talking to her also. After talking with them for a couple of years, I realized I had done a lot of the work I wanted to do in print and here was an opportunity to do build some new skills.
The folks at The Washington Post were extremely gracious and the publisher, Don Graham, was like if you want to go and check this out -- we'd hate for you to leave -- but if you go there and you hate it or they hate you, the first call you make is to me and come back home. It's just so rare that someone would say something like that. I decided that it was a wonderful opportunity to build some new skills and learn how to tell stories in a new way. So I decided to give it a try. Nine years later, the transition into radio happened much the same way -- literally a call out of the blue. NPR was looking for a new host of All Things Considered and they asked me if I would consider throwing my hat in the ring. The timing wasn't great. I was under contract and I had a great job that I loved. But it was a special opportunity and they were fairly persistent. It was also a time when I had two small children. It was one of those rare opportunities, in which you could take a gigantic step forward in your career without taking a concomitant step away from your family. I was actually able to stay closer to home because I'm tied to the studio, which meant I would be traveling less. The job isn't easier. In fact, it's the hardest job I've ever had. But I'm working in a more predictable environment, at least with more predictable hours.
JournalismJobs.com: Was the transition from TV to radio easier than from newspapers to TV?
Michele Norris: They were both pretty tough. I would say that the transition to radio has been a little bit easier. Some of that is because I'm ten years wiser. But the biggest difference would be the way NPR has approached this transition. It's not to say anything disparaging about ABC because they really had a well thought-out plan for that transition. But I don't think I've ever received the kind of institutional support for anything I've done like I have at NPR. They have really thought this through and anticipated the training I would need to make a quick transition.
JournalismJobs.com: Which medium do you feel you can do your best work -- newspapers, TV or radio?
Michele Norris: They all offer unique opportunities. Radio is wonderful because you use the storytelling and descriptive writing that you call upon in print and you enhance that with sound. There's something incredibly powerful about the intimacy of radio and the way that it plays on the listener's imagination. A soldier knocks on someone's door to deliver bad news. You can describe that in print. You can show that in television. But somehow when you combine the descriptive powers and the ambient sound that they use so well here at NPR to take the listener to that place, it's a very powerful medium.
JournalismJobs.com: What has been the most challenging part of your new job?
Michele Norris: Time management. It's one long sprint once you come out of that morning meeting. We're on the air at four o'clock. There are few journalists outside of the wire services with a deadline that early. It is an extremely early deadline. Our morning meeting is at ten. Basically, we have a very compressed day. We produce two hours of live programming between 11 and four o'clock. Do the math. Every day is a miracle on the order of loaves and fishes. And we do it with a teeny staff.
JournalismJobs.com: Do you enjoy working in a live format?
Michele Norris: Love it. It's a big challenge. We do live journalism, but we also do a number of taped pieces. You get the immediacy of live reporting, but you also get the high production from adding a pre-packaged, well-crafted, beautifully produced piece. So you really get the best of both worlds.
JournalismJobs.com: As a news anchor, most of your reporting is now done from your desk. Do you miss going out into the field to cover stories?
Michele Norris: That's another great thing about the structure of our program. We have three hosts and there are only two on the air at any given time. It allows you to get out in the street and do reporting.
JournalismJobs.com: At ABC News, you reported extensively on education, inner-city issues and poverty. Now you're dealing with all sorts of news. Do you like the variety?
Michele Norris: I love the variety. It's wonderful. One of the reasons I like education is that it allows me to encroach on other beats. I have always viewed education as a window onto the world. So much of what has happened in society would ultimately find its way to the schoolhouse door, whether it was immigration policy or homeland security or diversity in America. Really anything. You can find a way to connect the dots and tether it somehow to education. Now I don't need that ruse because the name of the show says it all when you're "All Things Considered." There are certain challenges in that also. A producer could appear at your door and say in 45 minutes you're going to do an interview with a scientist who discovered a new species of bug. Or you're going to do an interview with a nuclear scientist. It's exhilarating and challenging.
JournalismJobs.com: What's your take on coverage of the war in Iraq? Is this the best war journalism ever?
Michele Norris: I think it's been pretty good. I'm not going to say it's been the best war journalism ever because I think there was some fantastic journalism that came out of the Vietnam war and World War II. I think we've seen some incredible reporting. There are so many journalists who have done such great work who've been working under the radar. Go online and read some of the dispatches from embedded reporters. Many work for small and mid-sized papers and major dailies. There've been a lot of unsung "embeds" who have been doing some incredible work. Also if you watch the daily briefings, the folks who are covering the Pentagon have done fantastic work as well. I have to give a shout out to our Pentagon reporters, Tom Gjelton and Jennifer Ludden. I've been really impressed with the toughness of their reporting.
JournalismJobs.com: Are you surprised by the number of journalists who have died so far?
Michele Norris: I'm saddened. I braced myself for this, as I think most of us did when we realized that reporters were going to be embedded with the troops, particularly as they got closer to Baghdad. It's something you brace yourself for. But when it happens and particularly when it happens to people with whom you feel a camaraderie, it hurts.
JournalismJobs.com: Did you want to go to Iraq?
Michele Norris: I have two young children. There are plenty of mothers and fathers over there. But it would not be the right assignment for me for lots and lots of reasons. Primary among them is that I need to be in the studio here at NPR headquarters. But I have two very young children and one of the reasons I took this job is that I wanted to be closer to them.
JournalismJobs.com: Will you ever go back to print journalism?
Michele Norris: I have had so many transitions in my life I've learned to never say never. Always write your future in pencil. But I really like it here.
JournalismJobs.com: You majored in electrical engineering and then studied journalism. What attracted you to a career in journalism?
Michele Norris: I've always loved writing and I've always loved telling stories. I wrote for my high school paper. I wrote for my college paper. I always tell the story that when I was in engineering, I would wind up rewriting the word problems, then maybe I would get to solving the problem. Engineering was interesting, but it was a diversion. Although it did help me because it teaches you to think logically. So it wasn't a waste of time. But I've always been interested in writing and storytelling and ultimately found my way to my calling.
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