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Q&A with OTownTV.com

Scott Walker co-anchors the morning and midday news on WESH-2-NBC. He was hired in August 2007 from WPMI-15-NBC in Mobile (Market #59), and, during his two years on air, the Channel 2 morning news has made significant ratings gains.

In 1995, while attending Southern Miss, Walker landed his first TV job as weekend sports anchor at WDAM-7-NBC in Hattiesburg, MS (Market #165). He reported and anchored sports at WLBT-3-NBC in Jackson, MS (Market #90). At WXXV-25-Fox in Gulfport, MS (Market #163), he made the transition from sports to news and was hired two years later as the morning news anchor at WPMI in Mobile.

A native of New Orleans, he was recently offered the opportunity to return to his roots as an afternoon news anchor at Hearst Television sister-station WDSU-6-NBC in New Orleans (Market #53). He’ll anchor an hour-long news block at 4 p.m. and a 30-minute show at 5 p.m. The exact date of his move to New Orleans is still being negotiated.

Scott is married, has a 3-year-old son (Jack), and a baby on the way. He also has a house on the market, if anyone’s interested. “I certainly had no plans to leave here after two years,” he told us. “I wouldn’t have bought a house.”

Scott agreed to answer our questions in an email interview conducted July 18, 2009.

OTownTV: When you were in Mobile, how did you envision the Orlando TV market? Did it turn out to be as you expected?

Walker: I knew the Orlando market would be bigger, hugely competitive and we’d have more resources at our disposal. Three reporters in the morning (compared to none in Mobile) and Chopper 2 are huge assets that I think give us a distinct newsgathering advantage.

In our case at WESH, there had been a lot of upheaval on the morning newscast right before Syan and I arrived here. In two years we went from 3rd/4th in the morning to knocking on the door of first place. So I would say my time here turned out exactly as I expected. I knew we had the right pieces in place and it would only be a matter of time before the viewers noticed. There were a lot of people outside our building who doubted us, but I think we’ve proven to be more than capable of winning in the morning here.

OTownTV: How would you describe the Orlando TV news scene? What’s your thumbnail sketch of the market?

Walker: It really goes without saying that Orlando is an ultra-competitive and crazy news market. From the outside looking in, I’d seen all the wild stories coming out of Central Florida. Once I got here and actually reported on the madness it became clear that I was in one of the best news markets in America. In the newsroom, we always talk about the big national stories having a Central Florida connection and more times than not it pans out. The Casey Anthony case obviously made a huge impact on me. What a story to cover. It’s not everyday a story that big – one that captures the hearts and minds of people across the world – happens in your backyard.

OTownTV: When other people say they wish they could work in Orlando, how do you respond?

Walker: Personally, I would say there is no better place to live weather-wise. I’ve lived across the Gulf South and I’ve enjoyed the weather here the most. The summers obviously can be unbearable at times, but could the weather really be any better the rest of the year? Also, there is never a shortage of things to do outside of work. Weekend activities abound.

Professionally, I would say get ready to step it up. Not only is Orlando a top 20 market, but we cover nine counties. It is big in every sense of the word. A lot more is expected of you and it takes more to cover more. Pressure is high, competition is fierce and the bosses are tough. But it’s fun. I loved it. I don’t think a competitive person would want it any other way.

OTownTV: What did you like most about your time in Orlando? The least?

Walker: It’s hard to narrow down to one thing I liked most. When then-Sen. Obama came to Amway Arena last year I was the only member of the Central Florida media to interview him that night. We met backstage, he signed books for people at the event, then I had a few minutes one-on-one with the future president. That is the highlight. Covering Super Bowl 43 in Tampa is right up there. Seeing shuttle launches from my backyard was incredible. My son is three and LOVES all things shuttle-related. Sharing those experiences with him is something I’ll never forget. A few of the big stories that stand out are the 70 car pileup on I-4 in early 2008, the 2008 wildfires, the presidential election and, of course, Casey Anthony. I was proud of the way we delivered, and continue to deliver, on our “Big Coverage of the Big Stories” promise.

I mentioned the weather before. My goal coming in was to wear shorts and sandals outside of work every day – even during the winter. That worked pretty well for me. I work with some top notch people at WESH, too. People make the place and WESH has some great ones. It’s tough to leave this group after such a short time. Our morning crew is a pleasure to work with. We’re on TV for four straight hours in the morning so we obviously spend A LOT of time together in tight quarters. Having such a close, fun group — from the director to the producers to the anchors to the floor crew — makes getting up so early easier.

OTownTV: Who do you watch and enjoy at the other stations? Anyone you were particularly impressed with?

Walker: I like Darrell Greene and Vanessa Welch at WFTV. Darrell was in New Orleans for a while and we met years ago when I was still in Mobile and he was there for a while post-Katrina. He’s a great guy. Vanessa is top notch reporter in this market and has transitioned into an anchor role well. Q. McCray was in Mobile for a while when I was there, so I keep an eye on him a little bit. I like to watch Amy Kaufeldt at FOX 35. I also check out the morning competition to see what they’re up to. Greg and Vanessa have done a great job here for a long time. Erick and Lauren put out a solid product. It has been a lot of fun competing against the other guys. The morning race between WESH and WFTV is as tight and competitive as it’s been in years.

OTownTV: What do you make of the industry’s shift to younger, less experienced reporters and anchors?

Walker: To be perfectly honest, I think it hurts and helps the business. It hurts because if you lose someone with 20-30 years of experience from your newsroom, you lose perspective. That person has been a part of every major event in that market for a generation. That’s a lot of local knowledge and insight lost. You lose a little bit of trust and loyalty from viewers. Maybe they’re more willing to look around. But as we all know, the business is changing. People who can adapt and roll with the punches have a chance to stick around.

Young reporters, anchors and producers make mistakes. It happens. But now they’re making those mistakes in much larger markets than before. At 34, I’ve done this for a while. But I took a very traditional route. A very small market to a not-as-small market to a medium market to a top 20. I learned a lot during those stops. I’ve run studio camera, shot my own stuff (including a lot of one-man-band), edited video, covered sports and news, managed a sports department, produced newscasts and anchored news and sports. I don’t say all that to toot my own horn, but to point out that a lot of people in this business right now have done all those things and more. I think that kind of multi-faceted background breeds success. There is a better understanding of the entire operation. But many of the journalists coming out of school today, for various reasons, jump over several of those stops and are less prepared when they reach a bigger stage. Some handle it, some don’t.

OTownTV: What was your typical day like here? Talk about the good and bad of the morning shift.

Walker: Out of bed at 3:15-ish, get to work at 3:45-ish. I usually eat cereal while I’m reading over and editing scripts until about 4:40. I slap on some makeup (my least favorite part of the day), make a fresh pot of coffee (I’ll have 2 or 3 cups, depending on the day) and hit the set by 4:55. Or 4:58. We cut it close sometimes. Then it’s four hours of morning news. That can be grueling. The two hours on WESH flies by, but things start to slow down a bit by the fourth hour — hour two on CW18. But we have fun. We play music during commerical breaks and keep the mood loose. At 9:00, at the end of the four hours, we shoot our next-day promo that runs all day. I take a quick food/coffee break, then gear up for Today show cut-ins and the noon news. I love being home by 1:00, but it gets harder and harder to get up early. I’ve worked the morning shift for nine years. I’m getting some gray hair. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining – mornings have been very good to me – but I’m a night person by nature, so this shift goes against everything I’m built for. People always ask if I get used to getting up early. I say you never get used to it, you just deal with it.

OTownTV: You’re headed home to New Orleans and a market that still hasn’t recovered from Hurricane Katrina. You’re taking a 34-market drop. Can you explain how you reached the decision to leave Orlando after less than two years.

Walker: Opportunity and family. We didn’t plan to leave here after two years; I signed a three year contract. When I got wind of an opening at WDSU, which like WESH is owned by Hearst Television, I asked my news director if I could pursue it. I know it put our management in a strange position because they didn’t want me to go, but they also understood the reasons behind the request and were totally supportive. They knew it was an opportunity for me to anchor in my hometown at a great TV station and still stay within the company.

At this point in my career market size doesn’t matter. I’ve been doing this since 1995. Priorities change. I look at this move as an exciting new opportunity in a city that is coming back strong. Yes there are still challenges, but it is such a unique place with a great history and culture. We’re going to have our second child in November, so the timing couldn’t have been better. The opportunity was a rare one that I couldn’t pass up. Anchor jobs don’t open up very often in New Orleans.

OTownTV: What’s your take on the current state of television news?

Walker: Obviously I hope it gets better. The past couple of years have been tough across the board. As the business changes and approaches to the business change, the people who work in the business have to change. That’s no secret. I think there will always be a place for talented journalists, but there is so much more to think about now and we have to be skilled in a multitude of things. Not long ago, a reporter had one or two stories to work on each day and that was it. Now, specifically at WESH, our reporters use Flip cams to get “Web Extras” for WESH.com. The video can be fed back to the station through their laptops. The reporters all have new Blackberry’s that they use to file scripts and send still pictures back for a slideshow on the website. Also using their laptops, reporters now have the capability to broadcast a live web stream of any event cover. That stream could also be used on the air if necessary. When a live shot through one of our trucks isn’t possible, we use Skype. Many of our anchors and reporters, myself included, use Twitter throughout the day. During our newscasts, we promote interactivity. We ask viewers to send us pictures and upload video to our website. And they do. We get some great material that way. The rapid onset of technology is almost mind-boggling. But by keeping up with it, and the needs of our audience, I think we can stay relevant for years to come. People will always want local news. The question going forward is in what form will it be delivered.

OTownTV: When you are named News Czar, how will you change local news?

Walker: I would have two or three monkey stories in every newscast. Monkeys are ratings gold.

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