Connecting Texas books and writers with those who most want to discover them
Each week Lone Star Literary profiles a newsmaker in Texas books and letters, including authors, booksellers, publishers.
Kay Ellington has worked in management for a variety of media companies, including Gannett, Cox Communications, Knight-Ridder, and the New York Times Regional Group, from Texas to New York to California to the Southeast and back again to Texas. She is the coauthor, with Barbara Brannon, of the Texas novels The Paragraph Ranch and A Wedding at the Paragraph Ranch.
He's told stories to millions of people during more than three decades as a television journalist. Steve Stoler had a front-row seat to history as a senior reporter with Dallas’s WFAA, one of the state's largest television stations, and recently he's shared his insider’s take in Tonight at Ten. This week tells his own story via an email interview with Lone Star Lit.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Where did you grow up, Steve, and how do you think your upbringing influenced you?
STEVE STOLER: I grew up in South Florida (Hollywood), in a community between Miami and Fort Lauderdale. The area became a true melting pot of culture. During my childhood, I found people were very accepting of each other. Religion, ethnicity and race didn’t seem to matter to young people. That seemed to change when I went to college at a small university in the deep South.
What attracted you to journalism and then, specifically to television journalism?
I did an internship in a newsroom at a Miami television station, WTVJ. I witnessed for the first time what the business was really like. I was intrigued and excited by the possibility of becoming a broadcast journalist. I thought it would be the perfect career for me. It would allow me, as a journalist, to become a torch carrier for truth and at the same time, allow me to use my creativity in how I told my stories. I always used to say “if it’s not interesting or compelling, we wouldn’t be doing a story on it.”
You had a front row to seat to history--some of the stories that you covered that jumped out at me include, Jessica falling the well in Midland; one-on-ones with Ann Richards; The Branch Davidian standoff, and the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. What was your first “big” story and what was it like to cover it?
The rescue of Jessica McClure was probably the biggest story I covered early in my career. It attracted global coverage. I flew to Midland without any other clothes beyond what I was wearing. I ended up staying there a week and had to buy new clothes to wear. A photographer and I were on a tall ladder overlooking the well for most of the fifty-two hours Jessica was in there. When she was pulled out alive, you would have thought Midland had a pro football team that just won their first Super Bowl. People began honking their horns and setting off fireworks. It was one of those “moments in time” that people remember where they were and what they were doing when she was pulled out of the well. I still get emotional watching the video from 1987.
You worked for WFAA-TV, which before cable regulations was on a huge swath of television set-tops across the state. It was a huge organization. What was that like? How many people worked there and what was your role there?
When I started working at Channel 8, the station had the reputation of being one of the best local news operations in the country. WFAA was “the competition” when I worked for KDFW Fox 4 for seventeen years. It was a very large organization and news department. They hired me in the same role I had at Fox 4, covering fast-growing Collin County.
How did TV journalism change — in technology and in tone — during the course of your career?
At my first two jobs, we had no computers or teleprompters. We didn’t even have the capability to go live. Only at my third job in Asheville, North Carolina, did we have a live truck. I did the station’s (WLOS-TV) first live shot in history. The technology has transformed the television news business. The business used to depend on expensive microwave and Satellite technology to do live shots. Now, cellular technology is used. Small 20-pound boxes, including the brands Live U and Dejero, can be worn as backpacks. Digital audio and video is sent back to the station with a cellular signal. Anywhere you can get a cell signal, you can go live quite easily. The advent of social media has also changed the business. People get their news from their smart phones. In order for any news operation to be successful, they must engage viewers on their phones through social media. The TV news business is vastly different than it was just five years ago. The transformation has been rapid.
What made you decide to leave TV journalism?
Several factors made me decide to leave TV journalism. I kept seeing my colleagues land some fabulous opportunities in other fields, and thought “why not me.” I was inching toward the end of my contract at WFAA. I felt confident they would renew me, but it was a good time to explore opportunities. The City of Plano offered me a position to serve as director of media relations. I am a longtime Plano resident. It was a true blessing. I was able to start a second career, while in my fifties, that is closely related to my first career as a journalist.
What made you decide to write Tonight at Ten?
I wanted to write a book more than twenty years ago about my cancer experience, which played out on the local news. I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I never followed through with the book idea. When I left the news business, I reminisced about my thirty-four-year career and the many stories I reported (about 9,000) that had compelling “stories behind the stories.” These backstories are often more interesting than the stories that aired. I always wanted to write a book and I finally had the content to bring my dream to fruition.
Tell us about Tonight at Ten.
Millions of people across the United States watch local television news every day. However, few books have been written about what they don’t see: the stories behind the stories from the perspective of the reporter. With such tight time constraints, tantalizing information and compelling back-stories are often left on the cutting-room floor. In Tonight at Ten, I share my “stories behind the stories” from some of the most interesting and amazing reports of my career. I describe my ascent to major market television news in Dallas after stints at some of the smallest and worst television stations in the country. I share a wide array of powerful stories, from my emotional on-air battle with cancer to eyewitness accounts of covering disasters, executions, hostage standoffs, and a toddler who spent fifty-two hours trapped in a West Texas well. Finally, I “take the gloves off” with a no-holds-barred look at the drastic changes in broadcast journalism that have had a huge impact on the industry.
What is your reaction to the expression “fake news”?
I don’t like the expression at all. I especially don’t like how it is being used to describe stories done my the mainstream media, which [are] by no means perfect and mistake-free, but still the fairest and most effective journalism anywhere in the world. I am especially troubled by the declining trust and respect for the news media. To me, “fake news” is not what the mainstream media is practicing, but a slew of pseudo-journalistic websites and social media sites that fabricate stories. Those sites look just like legitimate ones, and sadly, people cannot always tell the difference as to what is real and what is fiction. We saw this commonly during the presidential campaign. News consumers can now get the type of news they want depending on what they subscribe to. It is dangerous because what they want may not be the truth. It may just be “fake news.”
What advice do you have for young people considering going into journalism?
Don’t be discouraged by the current climate in this country regarding journalists. Young people are our future when it comes to having a free press. It is a tenant of our constitution that ensures checks and balances and keeps us free. It is not for the faint of heart. Young journalists I’ve met have a fire in their heart to continue a craft that is vital to a strong America as a free society. It gives me great hope and optimism that there are so many young journalism students who are now carrying the torch of truth for our future.
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“You’ll feel like were on the scene of some riveting news events. The story of Baby Jessica McClure trapped in Midland, Texas, backyard well for 58 hours—the way the West Texas community rallied around her rescue—uplifted us all.” —Gloria Campos, WFAA-TV, retired anchor
“Tonight at Ten is an inspirational read for anyone beginning a career, especially in journalism and broadcast news.” —Virginia Alanis, author of Love Field
“This book will make you laugh, make you cry and make you mad! Steve Stoler tells the stories some of us knew, and now you will too.” —Dale Hansen, legendary Dallas sports anchor
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