What It's Like to Be: A Network News Anchor
Jon Scott is the co-anchor of "Happening Now" on the Fox News Network, a former reporter for "Inside Edition" and an Emmy-winning news writer for his work on "Dateline NBC." Below, Scott gives us the lowdown on his early days in radio, what it was like to be on the air during the Sept. 11 attacks and why being a news anchor is a lot more than reading a teleprompter.
You went to school for journalism, but did you always know you wanted to be in broadcast?
Jon Scott: The simple answer is yes. I was always comfortable onstage or in front of audiences, so it seemed to be a good fit. Plus, my dad had a long career in both radio and television (although not on the journalism side), so I was somewhat steeped in it. You could say it was "in the genes," but that's not really true; I have five older siblings, but I'm the only one pursuing a broadcasting career.
How did you get to where you are now? Did you start as an intern or with a school news outlet? What was your first on-air job?
My first paid on-air work came after my freshman year in college; I was a DJ and news reader for an AM/FM radio station in Longmont, Colo. It was everything you'd want in a job -- challenging and fun. I was already enrolled at the University of Missouri-Columbia, one of the nation's foremost journalism schools. What's great about Mizzou is that it offers journalism students of every discipline the opportunity to practice their craft in a real-world setting. The school owns its own network-affiliated TV station on which the students produce virtually all of the news content, shooting video, editing, writing scripts, producing and anchoring the newscasts. The training I received there was so thorough I was able to graduate and jump straight into a job in a top-20 market (Denver).
Now, as a live-news anchor, what does your job entail? How much say do you have in what goes on air?
It's simple. I try to follow the Boy Scout motto: "Be prepared." We've thrown out the mold of the anchor who reads scripted intros to reporter packages, followed by a couple of scripted voiceovers. "Happening Now" emphasizes live coverage of breaking news worldwide and live interviews with newsmakers. We're constantly breaking away from our intended rundown so we can cover newsworthy events as they happen. When I'm on live and news is breaking, there's really no one to hold my hand or put the words in my mouth. Yes, we have a strong team of producers and others helping with our coverage, but ultimately, it's the anchor on-air who is bringing that story to the viewer. If I'm not connecting with viewers or if my coverage is not making sense, that's my failure. So the job requires that I stay abreast of current events and recent history. If a newsworthy event happens somewhere in the world and I don't possess at least a working knowledge of what's going on -- if I'm not prepared -- then I haven't done my job.
The "Happening Now" staff sits down several hours before the show each morning to discuss the big stories of that particular day. We spend a lot of time kicking around ideas for ways to move the coverage forward; we figure most viewers have seen news the previous evening or one of the morning shows. That's old news to them; we need to be on top of what's coming next in those stories, what's 'Happening Now.' Everyone on the staff has input into what we cover, but ultimately, my co-anchor [Jane Skinner] and I are the final editors. If we're unsure of a fact or unhappy with a phrase, it doesn't go on-air.
Since your show is live, what do you do when things don't go as planned?
In a weird way, that's what I really like -- when we have to throw out the rundown for the show we'd planned and just start covering breaking news as best we can with whatever resources we can corral. That's more interesting for me and I think for viewers as well.
Have you ever been on-air during a big breaking news story? What is that like and how do you stay calm and focused?
A few minutes after a plane slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, I was called to the desk early to anchor our coverage on Fox News Channel; I stayed there for the next eight hours as the second plane struck, the Pentagon was attacked, the towers fell and the heroes of United Flight 93 took that plane into the ground rather than allowing it to compound the devastation of that terrible day. It wasn't easy to stay calm. One woman in our studio was openly weeping; it's hard to hear that and not join in. But I decided that if I got distraught, it wouldn't help viewers comprehend what was happening. So I tried to swallow hard, keep my emotions in check and simply tell the story.
Would you say that trying to leave your emotions out of tough stories is one of the hardest parts about your job?
Sure, it's difficult. I'm an empathetic guy. A few weeks ago I got all choked up during an interview and it wasn't even my segment -- it was Jane's! I've seen a lot of tragedy in this job, but that doesn't make me immune to the heartbreaking experiences some people have to endure. On a personal level, it's getting harder and harder to bring viewers to the battlefield -- Iraq and Afghanistan -- and not get emotional, especially when we tell of the heroics performed and sacrifices made by our troops virtually every day. My oldest son just finished his third year at West Point; in all likelihood, he'll be in combat in a year or two. It's hard not to think of him when we air those stories. My heart is bursting with pride at his accomplishments and, at the same time, weighed down with a father's concern over what lies ahead.
Despite the hard parts, what do you like most about your job?
Journalism is the first draft of history. I like being there to witness the changes in the world and try to record them in real time. The variety in the job, the ever-changing nature of the stories we cover, is exciting.
Are the any perceptions that people have about news anchors that are untrue?
I think a lot of viewers assume that everything we do is scripted, that it's all right there for us to read from the teleprompter. That's a big misconception. When news breaks and the rundown goes out the window, that's when I earn my paycheck -- and that's when I'm thrilled to be a Fox News anchor.