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Published: Sunday, 8/4/2002

Anchors away: Local TV broadcasters leave the business

BY RUSS LEMMON
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Nora Murray and Jon Clark are hardly the first young anchors to leave the business. Nora Murray and Jon Clark are hardly the first young anchors to leave the business.
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While sifting through the contents of a storage box that hadn't been opened in years, Nora Murray came across a paper she wrote in college. In a double-spaced, 12-page journal, she recounted her experience as an intern for a Chicago television station.

She wrote it during her senior year at Northwestern University, but the parallels to today have a back-to-the-future feel about them.

Take, for example, her entry for Nov. 2, 1993:

Today I worked a total of 14 1/2 hours!! You gotta love the onset of sweeps. ... Dave has been working 14-hour days for the past week with no weekend break. His eyes are permanently red. Marsha and Katie haven't seen their kids for the past three days. That is inconceivable to me. How does one explain that a parent had disappeared into thin air for three days because of work?! Of course, I realize these are all issues I must wrestle with when I decide to start a family.

It took Murray nine years to reach that crossroads. But reach it she did. At age 30, she decided that reality TV - or at least the reality of being a TV news anchor - was no longer for her.

Saying her priorities have changed, the WNWO-TV, Channel 24, anchor will walk away from a promising career when her contract expires on Aug. 31. With accrued vacation time, Her last day on the air is scheduled for Wednesday.

Blame it on burnout. She grew tired of working in a stressful, deadline-oriented environment, where getting home after midnight is the norm. Plus, she did not want to sign another contract that would severely limit her freedom in the job market.

The celebrity of being a television news anchor isn't all it's cracked up to be, she insists.

Ah, if she had only known now what she knew then. How did an older, wiser Murray react when she read her college paper this time? "I said, 'Oh, my God. I'm such an idiot.' ... I thought I would be different - that I'd be superwoman."

Superwoman? No thanks. Everywoman is just fine with her. She longs for a "white-picket fence" life with her husband and, hopefully, two children - and, she quickly adds, "a normal job." She and her husband, Matt Lockwood, who spent six years as a television news reporter, celebrated their third anniversary on Wednesday.

Murray's decision was a shocker. She seemed destined for a major market. "It is hard to understand how someone with that much talent can walk away," said WTOL-TV, Channel 11, news director C.J. Beutien. "If someone is having only marginal success, it is understandable. But clearly Nora had a lot going for her."

Ironically, Murray isn't the only 30-year-old WNWO anchor to quit the business in recent months. Jon Clark, who was Murray's on-air partner for more than two years, left the station on June 7. Clark came to the same conclusion as Murray - being a news anchor requires too much personal sacrifice. He and his wife, Robyn, hope to start a family soon. Their seventh anniversary is a week from today.

"The key for me was looking 10, 15, 20 years down the road," Clark said. "I didn't see myself as a television news anchor. The drive to be successful in television news did not supersede my desire to be a good husband, and a good father one day. When my 10-year-old son is playing Little League some day, I don't want to be on the 6 o'clock news. I want to be in the stands."

Beutien, 47, was a reporter/anchor for 10 years before becoming a news director. He said times have changed since he entered the business in 1976.

"It used to be our entire life revolved around TV news," he said. "Things are different now. Maybe the new generation is smarter."

If that's the case, then it begs this question: Why did they get into the business in the first place? It's not like working nights was a surprise - 11 p.m. newscasts have been around for decades.

"You always think it's going to be different with you," Clark said. "When you're 22 and you're just starting out [in a marriage and a career], you tell yourself, 'We can work this out.' But when you're 30, and wanting to start a family, your perspective changes. You realize that you are living for more than just yourself."

Murray and Clark are hardly the first young anchors to leave the business. According to Rebecca Coates Nee, a former anchor and author of Leaving TV: A Guide to Life After News, an introspective career assessment is relatively common at age 30. That's an age, she said, when "you really feel like you need to grow up and get a real job."

Getting out of the business is one thing; staying out is another. Like Murray and Clark, Nee quit the business at age 30 only to find herself back at the same station two years later. (She got out of the business "for good" in 2000, at age 40.) The Florida-based Nee said that in her market, three anchors who had gotten out of the business recently returned to the air.

While each offered a "never say never" disclaimer, Murray and Clark say there's very little chance they'll return. (Even if they wanted to return, noncompete clauses in their contracts would keep them off the air in Toledo until the middle of 2003.)

Two of Murray's peers, WTOL's Chrys Peterson and Diane Larson of WTVG-TV, Channel 13, said a television news career and a happy family life need not be mutually exclusive. Each is married with one daughter.

"Look at nurses, police officers, and waitresses - there are so many jobs that have crazy hours," Peterson said. "I really love my job. I get a lot of personal satisfaction out of it. There are other things I could do, but there's nothing I could do that I would enjoy as much."

Larson, who lives close enough to the station that she can go home each night between the 6 and 11 o'clock newscasts, said: "When your kids are young, I think this can be a great shift. ... It's a lifestyle that has worked out for us."

Then again, working for the two highest-rated stations in Toledo has its benefits. It's believed that Larson, who has worked in the market for more than 20 years, and Peterson, who started at WTOL in 1994, make more than $100,000 per year. Murray and Clark said they wanted to get out of the business before they started making that kind of money and became "trapped."

Larson, 42, and Peterson, 37, said they don't feel trapped. Both praised station management for their flexibility in allowing them to balance work and family life. They indicated they have no plans of leaving Toledo. "This is a really good fit," Peterson said.

WNWO has the No. 3-rated newscast in every time slot in which it competes against WTOL and WTVG. As is usually the case with a No. 3 station, turnover is higher than at the top two stations, creating an atmosphere where employees are more likely to feel they are overworked and underpaid.

Vernon Stone, journalism professor emeritus at the University of Missouri, said he's not surprised by the decisions by Murray and Clark. According to his research, 47 percent of women and 39 percent of men say they might get out of TV news for reasons of family life.

"I'd expect more TV journalists to eye getting out of the field today than a decade ago when I did the careers survey," Stone said. "Stations are filling more time with fewer staff, making the job more stressful. I also sense a tendency toward even greater expectations that [employees] treat their jobs as their total lives. And with ownership change and consolidation, profits take more priority over people than before, so we get layoffs, termination of news departments, and less job security."

Clark's original career goal was to be news anchor in his hometown of St. Louis. But to get there, it would have required "a tremendous amount of sacrifice" - notably moving at least two times. As for Murray, when she graduated from college, she envisioned herself as a network news reporter.

Tomorrow, Clark will embark on a new career - pharmaceutical sales. He said his new employer, AstraZeneca, for which his wife has worked for the past six years, "stresses proper balance between home life and work. They don't want you to work all the time."

Meanwhile, Murray said she has had a job interview for a public relations position and has lined up freelance voice work for a local production company.

"I envy them a little bit. I admire them for taking a chance," said Jose Suarez, 31, news director of WUPW-TV, Channel 36. "I think it's something everyone goes through - we evaluate where we are and what we really want from life. ... In the last five years I've lived in four states. I sometimes feel like the guy with no home. You wonder if it's all really worth it. We often work long hours, have weird schedules, eat the wrong food, and are always on call.

"People who choose a television career are choosing a lifestyle. For some people, that choice sometimes becomes too much."

Apparently, the "home" factor that Suarez mentioned resonates with Murray and Clark. Even though they are getting out of the television business, they plan to stay - and work - in the area.



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