(I wrote this story for Poynter.org/NewsU.org after covering a great talk by journalist Leon Dash. The article disappeared from Poynter’s own website, so I have added it here to coincide with Leon’s birthday, March 16. — Bob Andelman)
Tact and tenacity.
Patience and rapport.
Those are the four elements that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Leon Dash said a reporter needs in covering children and families. Not that they aren’t important characteristics for investigating any story, but they’re particularly valuable traits in forming relationships and trust for stories that require a higher comfort level than daily deadline work.
Dash won the industry’s ultimate prize in 1995 for explanatory journalism following publication of his eight-part four years in the making reporting on Rosa Lee and her family published by the Washington Post (and later expanded in book form as Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America). Following his 32-year career at the Post, Dash is now the Swanlund Professor of Journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He participated in the Poynter Institute’s first-ever “Covering Children” seminar week and shared tips that helped shape his own highly regarded work.
In reporting his opus on the intergenerational poverty connection, Dash started off with the intention of interviewing 20 men and 20 women across four families. He soon realized that approach was too ambitious and unwieldy, focusing instead on one family and its matriarch, Rosa Lee. She was anchored, caring for her grandchildren because one of her daughters was in jail for selling crack. And she, herself, had AIDS.
“Rosa Lee was in one place and followed a routine,” Dash said, “which made following her easy.”
Of course, nothing this grand in scale is ever “easy.” And Dash struggled from the beginning with an editor who was frightened by his use of the word “underclass” to describe his story. “There was blood on the floor from trying to find a definition that worked,” he recalled.
Dash never lacked the self-confidence and self-assurance to follow his vision of tough stories, something he advocated for reporters in the children and families arena.
“Early in my career I heard a number of reporters talking about being risk takers,” he said. “I always thought that was the way to go. I lived with guerilla fighters in Angola twice. My editors thought I was dead. So taking risks was always something I was willing to do.”
A reporter willing to take risks is often more common than finding an editor with matching backbone, he said. Dash said he was infamous in the business for finding the right advocates for his stories – sometimes side-stepping even the most respected names in the business (including Bob Woodward once) to do the job right.
“I did end runs around editors who I found to be obstacles,” he said. (He didn’t actually advocate anyone following his example, but didn’t discourage that step, either.) “When I picked up on that happening, I would do end runs on them and go to editors who had broader views.”
For Dash, journalism wasn’t a job that he did from 9 to 5 – it was a career.
“I wasn’t in journalism to do lukewarm stories,” he said. “I wanted you to pick up my story and say, ‘Holy shit!” If I hadn’t achieved that, I wasn’t working. I was there to provide you with information that you couldn’t learn any place else.”
Those are some things you need to know about Dash so that his specific advice on reporting and investigating children and family stories could be presented with context.
“I’ve often proceeded on projects on presumptions and all my presumptions were incorrect,” he said. “That was fine because my questions were based on the presumptions. I learned the most by forgetting what I thought I knew. And some things I never knew had always been there but had never been looked at.”
During a study into adolescent childbearing (collected in the book, When Children Want Children: The Urban Crisis of Teenage Childbearing), Dash learned a valuable lesson in humanity. The essence of the study, he initially thought, was finding out why young girls got pregnant.
“When I began, I made the mistake of starting with when the baby was created,” he said. “The girls were very uncomfortable with this question because I punched right into sexuality. Big mistake. They gave me answers that would satisfy a high school guidance counselor. But I didn’t want answers they would give to a counselor.”
Dash recognized the importance of bring tact to an interview, being extraordinarily patient with extremely personal subjects, and yet never losing the tenacity that made his style special and effective.
“I wanted people to get used to my style of interviewing, my curiosity, and to develop a rapport,” he said. “Ask questions based on your own experience and the person you’re interviewing will tell you about their experiences.”
Don’t come to these interviews with a prepared script of interviews; questions for families and children have to be open-ended, he said, much the way a conversation would be.
Some suggestions for breaking the ice:
• Ask about going to church;
• Ask about growing up outside the family;
• Ask about the first time they ran an errand by themselves;
• Ask about their first pair of in-line skates.
“Through that process,” Dash said, “you will reach pubescence, and their interest in boys, in girls. Through that we research sexuality.”
In the case of his adolescent childbearing study, each interview took anywhere from two to four hours.
“By the fourth interview,” Dash said, “I had eight to 16 hours on tape. Collectively, to me, that was interview number one. I would do eight or nine interviews per person. As I went along, the interviews got shorter because people started to contradict what they’d told me. But that’s a happy moment because they start to remove their public mask. When they contradict, I know they’ve grown comfortable enough with me to tell me something.
“I tell my students, ‘You’re not going to get the absolute truth. You won’t find couples married 70 years who tell each other the absolute truth. That’s how they stay married. Your goal is to get as close to the truth as possible. Ours is not an adversarial relationship. This is a process by which you have to get the person to let you in. You only get that by building rapport.”
A big part of relationship building goes beyond smooth talk on the reporter’s part. In fact, early on, what you say isn’t your most meaningful contribution. Your reaction to what the interviewee says in the early stages will set the tone for all conversations that follow – or that don’t.
“They will miss the content of your questions because they’re focused on your eyes and your voice,” according to Dash. “They’re looking for judgment. If you are a judgmental interviewer, they will never let you in. They will not sit there and be interviewed and judged simultaneously. If they know you’re middle class – and 99 percent of reporters are middle class – and they’re not, they will test you to see if you’re judgmental. If they see it in your eyes – the first place they look – they will not trust you.”
What’s the big deal? Why must reporters be impartial in their reactions as well as their final reporting?
“My journalism students are young and think the world is black and white,” Dash explained. “I tell them it’s not. There’s lots of grey. I say, ‘Keep your mask on. If you are offended by something people say, you have to be prepared to handle that without being judgmental. If you’re trying to get a serial axe murderer to talk to you, you can’t be judgmental. Leave your opinions and sneers at the door.’”
Not that it’s always that simple. During the course of the four years he spent with Rosa Lee, Dash had several moments when his subject’s behavior gave him throbbing headaches. It usually happened when he “got on stage,” Dash said, “instead of being in the audience.”
He coped – and learned from the experiences – by writing a letter to his editor every week describing the past week’s events. Later it was helpful to Dash to go back and re-read his letters to better understand where he was at different points in his research.
This topic has to do with the barriers a reporter must erect between himself or herself and a subject in order to establish and maintain separation. At one point, for example, Rosa Lee and her family bought Christmas gifts for Dash. He was in their lives almost every day, a virtual extension of their real family. He had to resist the gifts, which were offered in the spirit of the season, not in an effort to influence his reporting. “I’m here as a reporter,” he reminded the family.” “I’m not your friend.”
On another front, Dash said he never gave Rosa Lee or her family members money, but he did give her rides in his car and did on occasion pay for meals in restaurants. Dash – not his editor – set the boundaries.
“When they came into the project, I told them I would never give them money,” he said. “If they wanted a pack of cigarettes, I would buy them that. If they wanted a meal, I’d buy a meal.”
As for “experts” – often the bane of a reporter’s existence because editors insist on them as the glue that holds together most every story whether they do or not – Dash had his own rule of thumb for their inclusion in research for children and families stories.
“I never interview experts until after I’ve done my reporting,” he said. “Every time I do it this way, the experts end up interviewing me. They’ve never spent as much time with individuals as I have. But we call them experts so we can call them on the phone. That’s for the daily story. If you have time while looking at a social phenomenon, please don’t talk to experts until after you’ve done your real research. You’ll get a very different story from them then. You’re not there to verify their Ph.D. You’re there to go beyond it. At least you should want to. If your editor says, ‘Talk to the experts,’ say you want to talk to the people first. You’ll find a much richer story.”
In November 2017, the Knight Foundation published a collection of 10 profiles of organizations that received Knight News Challenge grants from it over the past decade. I wrote five of these stories, which you can read at the Knight Foundation website by clicking the links below:
DIY SCIENCE TOOLS COST LITTLE, CREATE BIG IMPACT IN MONITORING THE ENVIRONMENT
(The following story first appeared in Tampa Bay Life Magazine in 1990 and was reprinted in the book Navigating the Yellow Stream.)
By Bob Andelman
First things first: I don’t smoke, drink or do drugs. Never have.
So, why did I fail my drug test?
It was May 1987 and the Tampa Tribune had just hired me to replace long-time pop music critic David Okamoto. To celebrate my first day on the job – and his last – Okamoto and I went to lunch. I ate a fried grouper sandwich on a poppy-seed bun and a root beer.
My second day on the job, I became only the second new employee of the newspaper to be subject to a drug test, which were then coming into vogue. I drove to a lab on West Kennedy Boulevard, peed in a cup and went back to work.
I wasn’t thrilled that the Tribune was subjecting me to this – it is an invasion of privacy at the very least – but I went along to show I could toe the company line. There was some justifiable hesitation to hiring a 26-year-old who had never had a full-time job despite years of being a correspondent for the Pulitzer Prize-winning St. Petersburg Times (which does not test employees for drugs) and other publications. I wanted to prove to the editors and myself that I could play the game.
And besides: I don’t smoke, drink or do drugs. Never have. There was nothing for me to worry about.
A few days after the test, a terse, middle-aged woman called me from the testing laboratory. She said I had tested positive for opium and heroin. The tests showed these drugs in my body.
“You’re crazy!” I screamed. “You obviously mixed up the tests.” She said that was impossible. I told her to run the tests again. She said they had already done that. I distinctly suggested that the test was flawed. She said the tests are infallible. She told me to take the matter up with the Tribune’s personnel department, which had already been informed of the positive results. I cursed her and hung up, stunned.
Personnel was quite dubious. Who wouldn’t doubt that a rock ‘n’ roll critic was a drug user? seemed to be the prevailing attitude. No one was surprised that I failed, which was extremely disheartening in terms of the way you are perceived. I took the matter up with my editors, who were uneasy. They knew my professional reputation to be pretty good but personally, they knew me not. To their credit – and my relief – they decided to support me.
Because I was one of the first Trib employees required to urinate for a paycheck, there was considerable interest in the newsroom in the results. My own loud anger made it easy for my deskmates to guess what was going on; I filled in one or two of them and word got around fast to the rest.
Features writer Warren Epstein, who now works with Okamoto at the Pulitzer Prize-winning Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph (which does not test employees for drugs), had just read a wire story on the types of foods that can cause false results in drug tests. That’s when we developed the poppy-seed theory: Poppy is the plant from which opium is derived. We suspected that my grouper on poppy-seed bun skewed the tests.
(For the record, opiates are detectable in the bloodstream for two days.)
Expecting to clear myself, I called the lab back and described my lunch. The technician stonewalled me. Poppy-seeds, he bloodlessly informed me, do not affect urinalysis. I protested to no avail.
Armed with this information, however, former BayLife editor Judy Hamilton accompanied me to former managing editor Paul Hogan’s office. (The Tribune ain’t who it used to be.) Hogan clearly had his doubts. I was ready to tell him to shove my job. We agreed to a second, binding test. This time, Michael Kilgore (now assistant managing editor for features) would have the joyless task of watching me pee into yet another jar to be certain the results weren’t tainted. He literally followed the path of the liquid to the lab.
Then I waited. I fielded endless inquiries from my new colleagues at the Tribune – and my old friends at the St. Petersburg Times who knew me better and were astonished. What impressed me was how fast the results of my CONFIDENTIAL drug test were broadcast across two counties. I heard from people I hadn’t talked to in years, including story sources. Reporters are notorious gossips – especially about each other.
The results came back – negative. The lab tech who called this time denied the first test was flawed, but couldn’t argue the end result. No opium. No heroin.
I was cleared as far as the Tribune hierarchy was concerned, but for the six months I stuck around – things didn’t get much better after such a lousy start – I never quite felt the stigma was erased. People who got to know me realized I wasn’t stoned on or off the job, but those who didn’t know me and heard the story doubtless believed I had pulled a fast one.
The irony is this: Three years after the Tribune began drug testing of new employees, it reprinted an editorial from the Baltimore Sun which read, in part:
“It seems the black poppy seeds sprinkled on some bagels and rolls leave a residue in the system that may resemble heroin in urine sample tests.
“The seeds don’t make you high, of course. But try explaining to your boss that you weren’t really taking drugs Friday night – just pigging out on bagels and cream cheese.”
OCTOBER 2016 — Last night, pajamas-clad 22-year-old Tessa Shapiro spent four hours curled up on her couch, computer on her lap, a pot of tea and snacks at arm’s reach, texting with strangers.
She’s part of the volunteer army at Crisis Text Line, a former Knight News Challenge winner that Knight Foundation continues supporting in a big way.
And Shapiro may have just saved a life.
“There’s a lot of activity at night,” she says, “and I like to have the challenge of talking to as many people as I can.”
Shapiro is one of 1,500 trained volunteer counselors manning Crisis Text Line, a national service spun from DoSomething.org in August 2013 and funded, in part, by Knight Foundation.
The recent University of Michigan graduate – Shapiro earned her bachelor’s degree majoring in biopsychology, cognition, and neuroscience – plans on a career in mental health counseling and has been volunteering four hours a week with Crisis Text Line for the past year. She has helped more than 160 people to date. (Volunteers receive 34 hours of training before being allowed to handle incoming texts.)
She’s knock-down beautiful, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed stunner, the kind of woman the television camera loves and the home viewing audience can’t seem to resist. But being a talking head on the evening news is about the last thing on earth Kelly Ring ever envisioned for herself.
Tonight at 6 and 11 p.m. she may seem oh, so natural sitting besides co-anchor Frank Robertson, questioning reporters in the field, chatting up the weather with Roy or sports with Andy. But behind those twinkling baby blues, a simple mantra is being repeated over and over again.
“I am a reporter. … I am a reporter. … I am a reporter.”
Before being arm-twisted into an early morning news anchor seat at WTVT Ch. 13 a few years ago, Kelly Ring was a no-nonsense reporter from the highly respected University of Missouri School of Journalism with a special talent for tapping into Tampa Bay’s most heartbreaking stories.
She and cameraman Brad Wasson were an inseparable team for years, winning two Emmys in 1989 for “The Tarnished Years,” a series and documentary about mistreatment of the elderly. They spent three months with an Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) investigator, investigating abuse in nursing homes. (Ring won a third Emmy that year for a collection of stories.)
“You don’t find individuals that look the way Kelly does that possess the reportorial skills that she does,” says Bob Franklin, vice president of news and operations at WTVT.
Over the years, Ring and Wasson developed a special relationship with Clifford and Louise Ray, parents of three hemophiliac boys who were accidentally given AIDS-tainted blood transplants.
“That was the first big story I did here,” recalls Ring. “When it started in ’86, people didn’t realize what would come of it. We followed it through.”
Wasson was Ring’s partner on virtually every story about the Rays from 1986-89. “We used to leave for Arcadia as soon as she finished the morning newscast,” he recalls. “I got in the habit of bringing an extra pillow so she could conk out on the way there. It was a two-hour drive and she was already putting in 12- to 14-hour days.
“It was an intensely depressing experience,” says Wasson. “We were there practically every day for months. I know she, on several occasions, sent gifts for the kids. It affected her quite a bit, the unfairness of AIDS, the way they got the disease through misfortune. Three innocent kids.”
The Rays developed a personal relationship with Ring that continues today even though other Ch. 13 reporters may cover the story of their struggles and heartache on a day-to-day basis.
“When she first started reporting on us,” recalls Louise Ray, “the media was the only friend we had. We got real close to Kelly. She was real people. And when she reported, she did her job. When she left you didn’t feel raped. Some reporters leave you feeling that way. She’s not only out to get the facts and get the story. She cared. And that makes a difference. My kids love her. She always had time to spend with them off-camera.”
Wasson says his former partner’s ability to project genuine sincerity is what makes her so successful in the field.
“She doesn’t have that practiced, polished smoothness; I think that’s a strength,” he says. “We would go into a situation and I would be convinced we weren’t going to get squat. But in minutes, people would spill their guts to her. She has the ability to get people to open up. Kelly projects a sense of vulnerability that makes people want to be nice to her.”
o o o
The evening anchor’s day at WTVT begins with the 2 p.m. news meeting and continues on through midnight.
Such hours don’t allow the flexibility Ring came to enjoy as a morning anchor; no longer can she chase stories all day. So when Ring replaced Kelly Craig on the evening news on April 2, 1990, she had to learn to pick and choose her spots more carefully.
Saudi Arabia was as good a place to test Ring’s reporter-over-anchor state of mind as anywhere. She was the only woman last December on a 48-hour, pre-Desert Storm press junket from the Tampa Bay area.
The flight aboard the C-130 military transport plane was long and arduous. Each member of the press was given a gas mask and a handbook on the Persian Gulf region. “The military said make sure you understand this. There’s so many cultural differences. You better know what you can and can’t do — especially you, Kelly,” she recalls.
In Riyadh she saw the “human” side of life in the Middle East — a woman was stoned for adultery in Judgement Square at high noon. She interviewed Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf before he became “Stormin’ Norman.” She talked to troops from the bay area and brought back pictures of them for their families. She saw Patriot missile batteries where bored soldiers passed the days by playing cards. Saudi kids who had probably never seen hair so blonde pointed and stared. She was tossed out of a store by the proprietor because her head was uncovered.
She didn’t sleep for the entire two days, eager to take in every sight, every experience that was available.
“TV news people have that reputation of being more worried about their hair than the story,” says Paul Wilborn, who represented the Tampa Tribune on the junket. “But Kelly threw herself in. She worked hard in Saudi. I think she’s working to develop her journalism skills to match her anchor role. She tried to soak up as much as she could. She actually perspired.”
Within 24 hours of her return, WTVT aired a one-hour special based on the sights, sounds and impressions of her trip. “It was the best assignment I ever had,” says Ring. “I’m going to go back there on my own some day.”
o o o
Frank Robertson says his new co-anchor on WTVT’s “Eyewitness News” made a smooth transition from reporter to anchor because of her journalism skills.
“She brings a lot to the table,” according to Robertson. “People saw her reporting every day for four years before she became an anchor. She grew into the position and is growing in the position, as well. The acceptance of her in the market is great.”
Off-air, the co-anchors sit side-by-side at a computer pod in the front of the newsroom, writing and timing introductions to the stories that will appear on the nightly news. They also compose questions to be asked of correspondents at the beginning and end of their stories.
Atmosphere around the newsroom is light, jocular. Ring and Robertson have a visibly warm relationship, whether it’s discussing stories or mutual plans to play golf or double-date for dinner. There is a good deal of joking and laughter around these two and producer John Hoffman (Kelly is continuously fixing him up with blind dates) as the afternoon wears on and the big broadcast draws nearer.
“Frank has become someone I respect enormously. But he is also someone I can tell anything to,” says Ring. “He’s a great friend.”
On the set, anything can happen. A minute to air, Ring holds up a hand mirror and touches up her hair. Once the theme music rolls, the anchors put on their game faces and begin. Cameramen wad up pieces of paper and shoot baskets at a trash can. While Roy Leep does the weather, Kelly and Frank talk to Andy. The guys in the soundproof production studio send Kelly kisses over her earphone.
Ring and Robertson never roll their eyes over some insipid, off-the-cuff remark one or the other might make, unlike John Wilson does in reaction to Sheryl Browne at Ch. 10 or Gayle Sierens does in deflecting Bob Hite at Ch. 8.
Well, almost never.
One day Kelly spent the afternoon showing someone’s 10-year-old child around the newsroom. Then WTVT President Clarence McKee brought in a group from the United Way to say hello. “My attention was everywhere but on the copy. I didn’t have time to look it over,” she says. During the 5 o’clock news, anchors Kathy Fountain and Denise White turned to Frank and Kelly in the newsroom to ask what stories were coming up at 6. That’s when it happened.
“I said ‘orgasm’ over the air instead of organism,” recalls Ring, blushing. “It was the most horrifying moment of my life. It was awful. I thought I was going to faint. Luckily, Frank didn’t laugh. I threw it back to Kathy and she didn’t laugh. When we went to commercial, the place erupted.
“Don’t ask me how I came up with orgasm,” she says. “I still have nightmares about that day. It made every blooper reel imaginable.”
o o o
It isn’t easy to maintain eye contact with Kelly Ring. As beautiful as those steely blue eyes are, a man can’t help but take in all of her. She dresses like a vibrant young woman, unafraid of high heels, short skirts, plunging necklines. There’s no forgetting this 30-year-old is at the height of her powers and appeal.
“Great eyes,” says her friend Rick Nafe, who is director of Tampa Stadium. “You could get lost in those eyes.”
“She’s a doll,” says Fred Doremus, another pal. “She’s got that million-dollar smile.”
Over grilled chicken sandwiches at Jimmy Mac’s in Tampa, it’s apparent to everyone but Kelly what a sensation she creates by simply entering the dining room. She’s oblivious to the stares — from men and women alike — but people can’t seem to contain their impulse to study and admire her.
“I’m pretty conservative,” she says, although Kelly Ring in a burlap sack might be considered sexy to some. “I’m still young. I can still dress young. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with dressing the way you want. But I always dress like a lady. I’m representing the station wherever I go. I always want to give a good image. I’m never going to go out looking sloppy.”
o o o
Kelly Ring’s mother dated Elvis for a year.
No, it’s not some fantastic National Enquirer headline, it’s the truth.
The former Bonnie Brown is a country singer whose early career development with her siblings in The Browns paralleled Presley’s. They met as unknowns in 1955 when both were on the Louisiana Hayride in Shrevesport, at the threshold of their careers. The pair — Bonnie was 16, Elvis, 19 — were steadies for an entire year.
“Elvis was a real sweet person,” says Bonnie. “But he liked to eat peanut butter and plain tomato sandwiches. That was weird to me.”
By the time they broke up, The Browns signed with RCA Victor for the first of 13 record albums. They garnered three gold records and three Grammy nominations. In fact, they were nominated for best performance on a religious album in 1958 and lost out — to Elvis.
Bonnie Brown met Dr. Gene Ring not long after her affair with Elvis. They settled in tiny Dardanelle, Arkansas — pop. 4,000 — a village tucked in the side of the Ozark Mountains, where John Wayne later filmed “True Grit” and Dr. Ring set up a general practice. Bonnie gave up full-time singing and touring to raise Kelly and her sister Robin.
Kelly was apparently more impressed by her daddy’s medical office as a child than with her mother’s famous country music friends.
“I love to tell this story,” says Mrs. Ring. “In a doctor’s clinic, you always have pictures of the human body. That’s how Kelly found out there was a difference between males and females. One day I found she was taking her little friends through the back door of the clinic and charging admission to show them pictures of the male body.”
Mrs. Ring remembers her eldest daughter as very inquisitive. “She was always asking questions. I should have known she was going to be a reporter. She had to know about everything.”
If Kelly is considered a beauty today, she and her mother agree it wasn’t always that way. She was a tomboy for years, envying the boys and their toy guns and boots, playing catcher on a softball team.
Kelly stood out in high school. Editor of the yearbook. Majorette. (“I’d never be a cheerleader. I couldn’t jump up and down like that.”) Voted most likely to succeed. Class president. Homecoming queen.
“I could have stayed in my hometown and lived happily ever after,” she says. “But I knew it would never happen. I had all these aspirations. By the tenth grade I knew I wanted to be a reporter and I wouldn’t let anything mess it up. I was on a mission, if you want to call it that.”
o o o
Dante Palmieri is the make-up wizard of Channel 13. He tends to all the station’s stars — Ring, Robertson, Kathy Fountain, Denise White, Alan Wendt and Leslie Spencer.
“It’s kind of a luxury,” says Ring, who needs Palmieri’s guidance. “I’d never been told how to wear make-up. My mother used to say to me, ‘You need to go to a department store and get help with your make-up.’ But it was not something I had high on my priority list.”
A former make-up director at Lincoln Center, Palmieri retired to the Tampa Bay area a few years ago. While watching Ch. 13 one night, he became so upset with the anchors’ poor use of make-up he called the station and offered his services. “The shading of their faces was so bad,” he says. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Everybody looked washed-out.
“When they introduced me to Kelly Ring,” says Palmieri, “I said, ‘Geez, if they’re all like this, it’s easy.’ The only other person as beautiful I have had to work with was Brooke Shields.”
“I don’t think I’m in her league,” says Ring, more than a little embarrassed.
Palmieri ignores her.
“This girl has a sensational face,” he insists. “And you know what’s even better? Her heart. She’s got a true heart.”
o o o
Visiting local schools to read aloud or give motivational speeches is almost a weekly part of Ring’s life. Even the youngest students recognize her from TV and pay rapt attention.
Last winter, Ring received a most unusual call from a teacher at Sandy Lane Elementary School in Clearwater. Her own fifth grade teacher from Dardanelle, Ak., Jane Dukes, was now a teacher in Clearwater. Would Kelly come speak to her school? Of course.
Walking down the hall of Sandy Lane with principal Frank Garcia, Ring is the object of much affection and many a startled gaze from students and teachers alike. One little boy, in fact, steps in front of her, points, and says to his friend, “That’s Sheryl Browne!”
Ring laughs. Men! Boys! They can’t tell one blonde TV anchor from another.
During two assemblies, Principal Frank Garcia carefully recites the connection between Ring and Dukes, adding that Kelly’s father delivered Dukes’ first son back in Dardenelle. This elicits a chorus of “oohs” and “ahhs.”
When it is her turn to speak, Ring steps down from the stage and into the crush of schoolchildren sitting cross-legged on the floor. “When I was your age,” she tells them, “I started writing in school. I loved writing stories. I was terrible in math, but I loved English. One teacher told me I was a very good writer. And she encouraged me. She made me feel I could do anything I wanted to in the world. My goal was to be a reporter.”
The kids hang on her every word.
“If you want to explore the ocean, you must have the courage to lose sight of the shore,” Ring says. “You know what I think that means? When you have dreams, you have to put your mind to what you want to do and just go for it. Just do it.”
A cynic would say it all comes together there: the blonde TV anchor quoting the tag line from a TV commercial. And as the videogenic personality finishes, the kids burst not into applause but a rhythmic “whoo, whoo, whoo” — mimicking the audiences on Arsenio Hall’s late night talk show.
After the assembly, kids line up shyly to shake Ring’s hand. She smiles and says “Hello” to each one. Many of the little girls, instead of shaking her hand, encircle Ring’s waist with their little arms in an emotional hug.
Diane Sawyer would be envious.
o o o
“Hey, Kelly!” somebody says, “How about giving Ernie Lee a hug before he goes?”
It is the countrified gentlemen and early morning television host’s last day at Channel 13 after 33 years on the “Breakfast Beat.” The staff party is wrapping up and Ring walks over to pay her respects to her former partner on the early show.
“Are you a-courtin’?” Lee asks.
Ring laughs, not sure if the old guy is making a pass or just curious.
“I have a very good friend,” she says. “His name is Tom.”
Tom Zucco, that is, a features writer at the St. Petersburg Times. The pair met a few years ago, during the videotaping of the “Join the Team” music video for baseball season tickets, and have become inseparable. At the time, Ring was seeing WYNF morning man Ron Diaz, a buddy of Zucco’s.
“That’s when the sparks started to fly,” according to Diaz, who says he’s still friends with both Ring and Zucco.
“Zucco’s put a lot of bounce in her step. She really seems happy,” says Fred Doremus, former Tampa Bay Bucs marketing director and current director of administration for the Orlando Thunder.
Ma and Pa Ring probably hope Zucco is the one. All of Kelly’s peers back home in Dardanelle are married and making babies. Not Kelly. “I have two daughters and every time they call home, I say ‘tick-tock, tick-tock,'” admits Mrs. Ring.
“Every time I go home, they bring it up,” Kelly confirms. “And that’s putting it lightly.”
o o o
“I am a reporter … I am a reporter … I am a … ”
When Bob Franklin came to Ch. 13, Kelly Ring was a weekend anchor and weekday reporter. He pushed her into the morning slot and then the 5 o’clock position. And when Kelly Craig took a job in Miami, he guided her into the 6 and 11 o’clock shows.
Franklin risked a lot on Ring but never looked back.
“She’s not only an excellent anchor and an attractive person, she’s a remarkable reporter,” says Franklin. “We require our anchors to write and report — to be journalists. We have no readers here. I daresay anchoring is something we encouraged her to do but it was not paramount in her mind. Kelly, first and foremost, is a reporter. Who happens to be gorgeous.”
The bottom line has been improved by Ring’s anchor presence. Ratings are up since she filled the co-anchor’s job opposite Frank Robertson. The public seems to like the new team; “Eyewitness News” has risen from second in the market to first.
All that’s well and good for Ring. She’s popular, instantly recognizable wherever she goes and drives a nice car. But it all means nothing if she loses the ability to get out in the field once in a while and put in an honest day’s work as a reporter.
“I came to 13 as a reporter. I had no desire to be an anchor,” reiterates Ring. “I’m still not totally confident with it. The best days I have are when I go out and do stories and then come in and anchor the news. I went to a very strict journalism school, the University of Missouri. My professor said, ‘Don’t be an anchor until you’re the best reporter you can be. Don’t let the idea of stardom or being on TV every night get to you. You’re here to be a journalist.’
“I think most people could care less who I am,” she says. “If they have a good story that needs to be told, I’m just another reporter. That’s the way I want it to be.”
Things You Didn’t Realize You Wanted to Know About Kelly Ring
* She has an autographed picture of the anchor of the CBS Evening News on her desk. It reads: “Kelly, Courage — Dan Rather.”
* She has a kitten named “Peg Bundy.”
* She can’t cook.
* She calls everyone “honey.” Another favorite expression: “Oh, QUIT it!”
* Her favorite foods are cornbread, navy beans and caramel custard.
* She runs 5 to 6 miles per daily and can run a 10-minute mile.
* She loves to waterski.
* She attended Louisiana State University for two years but graduated from the University of Missouri.
* Her best friend is Tampa attorney Kim Merlin.
* She loves to dress up for Guavaween, Ybor City’s bizarre annual Halloween party. Last year she wore a black abaya and went as one of Saddam Hussein’s wives. Her date, Tom Zucco, was a flasher. One year she went disguised as Dolly Parton.
* Her bedroom back home in Dardanelle is lavender. It’s still full of her dolls, stuffed animals, books and awards because her mother hopes to show it off to grandchildren one day (if Kelly ever takes the hint).
* Roy, Frances and Scud Leep live upstairs from Kelly.
Her Friends Speak Out
“She’s real down-to-earth, warm, kind. There’s nothing phony about her. She’s even nicer in person than she is on television. … Other than the fact that she ripped out my heart and handed it to me while it was still beating, she’s a great girl.” — Ron Diaz, WYNF 95 FM morning disk jockey and former boyfriend
“We loved her, damn it. It crushed us when she and Ronnie broke up. But I could understand her reasons. She was a rose between two thorns.” — Ron Bennington, Diaz’s partner at WYNF
“The greatest difference between Kelly and her mom is her mom sings like an angel and Kelly can’t sing to save her life.” — Philip Metlin, former WTVT executive news producer
“Last year when there was a baseball strike and spring training was shortened, Kelly got confused about how many games there were in a season vs. during spring training. She wanted to know how they were going to get 162 games into two weeks.” — Frank Robertson, co-anchor of Ch. 13’s “Eyewitness News”
“We met in ’85 at Tampa Stadium a few days before Rod Stewart gave the stadium’s first outdoor concert in years. She interviewed me for three hours that day. I was amazed at how in-depth her questions were. And how pissed off she was when she learned I wasn’t Rod Stewart. I knew she was from Arkansas — I knew I could fool her for a little while — but not three hours’ worth.” — Rick Nafe, director of Tampa Stadium
“She was ‘Miss Yell County’ in high school, but she won’t admit it.” — Fred Doremus, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers marketing director
“When she first started to work at 13, she found out I’m one of the few people in the civilized world who knows the words to the ‘Green Acres’ theme. When we’d be in the car, going to cover a story, she used to love to hear me sing ‘Green Acres’ while she clapped along.” — Brad Wasson, former Ch. 13 cameraman
“We were at the Fountainebleu Hotel in Miami Beach the night ‘The Tarnished Years’ won three Emmys. When they announced we won the first Emmy, she let out a squeal of sheer delight. She had a grin on her face that could light up a room.” — Wasson, again
“We were going to the Super Bowl in Tampa and a soldier told her how much he appreciated the story she did on Saudi Arabia. That’s when those big ol’ blue eyes lit up. She appreciates when someone compliments her on a story. Not on how pretty she is.” — Bonnie Ring, Kelly’s mom
For a celebrity roast of Kelly Ring sponsored by The Centre for Women in Hyde Park last October, Tampa Tribune reporter and cabaret performer Paul Wilborn wrote a song he calls “Watchin’ Kelly.” It’s sung to the tune of “Makin’ Whoopee.”
I’ve got something, I must confess. I’ve got to get this off my chest. I’m a banker, in love with an anchor. Her name is Kelly.
Car wrecks and murders, give me the blues. Still I am glued to the evening news. Six and eleven, I’m in heaven. I’m watchin’ Kelly.
(Bridge) Gayle Sierens used to drive me wild. But lately she’s become, well, motherly. And that other Kelly, oh that little kewpie doll, she did nothing for me …
Kelly’s blond hair falls, to her shoulder pads. Her mouth says, ‘I’m good.’ Her eyes say, ‘I’m bad.’ I’d rob my own bank, if I could just be Frank, sittin’ next to Kelly.
(Bridge) I have a little dream that I dream, that I’m somehow newsworthy. The live truck is in my driveway. At my front porch stands Kelly.
(Spoken) She comes inside and asks me all her questions and I do my best to give her some good sound bites. When she’s finished, she asks if I have anything to add and I say, ‘Oh, yes’ and I tell her everything. She blushes and looks to her right, as if she wants to hand this story over to Frank, but Frank’s not there. When she looks back, her eyes are flashing, like the lights of downtown when they put that twinkle filter over the lens. And Kelly begins to slide … slowly … slowly … across the couch toward me …
(Singing again) She tells the photographer to take a hike. She puts down her microphone and says, ‘You, I like.’ We go to heaven. Film at eleven. Of me and Kelly …
Then I wake up. It’s all a dream. Kelly’s up there on my TV screen. You can’t go to bed with a talking head whose name is Kelly …
(Spoken) Some men worry about the girl of their dreams leaving them for another man. I worry mine will leave me for another market. Kelly, don’t go baby, you mean more to me than the news itself …
I wrote this story for Poynter Online. It’s packaged with a video interview I did with editorial cartoonist Chip Bok, and audio interviews with American Association of Editorial Cartoonists President John Cole and DailyCartoonist.com editor Alan Gardner.