Kelly Sasso has been an anchor/reporter at WTAE since 2017, and has worked in local television news for 11 years. But it’s hard to say she’s new to the business when she has been working on her career since the 4th grade.
As a bookend to a recent column on many seasoned journalists leaving the business — and an exit interview with KDKA’s Paul Martino — we thought it would be good to get the perspective of an up-and-coming reporter. Sasso, a Greensburg native and graduate of both Hempfield High School and Point Park University, always dreamed of working for her hometown station.
That’s something she shares with other young people who tell me that they want to work in journalism but they fear not making it or not earning enough money to support themselves. With Sasso’s story, and what we hope will be a new series of features, we are highlighting the work of a mid-career journalist talking about what it took to get into the business — and to stay there. We hope this will inspire more young people to see pathways into journalism careers.
AC: When did you first know you wanted to be a journalist and why?
KS: My story is rather unceremonious. In the 4th grade, I happened to be in the homeroom of the teacher who called buses at the end of the day through a PA system. One day (and I’ll never know why), he asked me to do it. I took it very seriously, being sure to tell my peers to also “please walk” as I called out the bus numbers. He allowed me to continue with that for the rest of the year. I took it to the next level in middle and high school and participated in Hempfield’s live television morning announcements. This included the most critical news of the day, namely the lunch menu. But, hey, while very primitive, it technically was live television. So I guess I can claim to have been in the business since elementary school. I’ll forever be grateful to Mr. Suttner for giving me the mic that day. He had no idea he set the course for my whole career.
AC: It’s not easy to find a pathway into local journalism. Growing up in Greensburg, could you imagine a route to working in local TV — and then how did you end up finding it?
KS: It’s funny. I never entertained the idea that I wouldn’t work at WTAE one day (guess you could say I’ve always had high hopes). It’s the channel my parents watched growing up and they were loyalists. Like I said, I’ve known since about age 9 that this would be the career for me. I found small ways over the years to get into the station to shadow the anchors. For example, my high school job was scooping ice cream at Bruster’s of Greensburg. The owner of that Bruster’s lived in the same neighborhood as Jerry Martz, a former morning meteorologist at WTAE. He was kind enough to make the introduction and Jerry was brave enough to let a 15-year-old shadow him. Sitting in on the live morning newscast sealed the deal for me. I loved it.
AC: You interned at WTAE, right? How did that experience prepare you for reporting, and did you expect then to come back to the station as an anchor?
KS: I interned at WTAE and WESH-TV in Orlando. Back then, interns chose which days to come in. I chose one weekday where I could go out with a reporter and watch how they gathered news stories. Then I strategically chose to come in on a weekend, knowing they had a photographer without an assigned reporter who I could go out with. On those days, I got to essentially be the reporter. I would ask the questions to the subjects at any stories and events we covered. It was a great blend of observation and real-world experience.
AC: Has anyone at WTAE been a mentor and how have they helped you grow as a journalist?
KS: I could name almost anyone at the station. There is such a good rapport among colleagues. By proximity, Kelly Frey, Michelle Wright and Ashley Dougherty are those I spend the most amount of time with. To be honest, when I first got the traffic job four years ago, I was extremely nervous walking into such a well-established morning team. But the three of them have been nothing but amazing. I get asked constantly if they are as kind and genuine as they seem on-air in real life, and I can only say, yes! Michelle, in particular, is a seasoned reporter. She has been a godsend in helping to navigate the reporter/anchor balance. While most of us do have to start out in smaller markets with other green reporters, it has been a tremendous boost to work with veterans. You become who you surround yourself with, so I’m grateful to be in the company of the best.
AC: When you got your first big break, what was it and how did you respond?
KS: I was offered a job a few weeks before I graduated with a bachelor’s in broadcasting from Point Park University. Knowing I ultimately wanted to work at WTAE, I applied at Hearst corporate (WTAE’s parent company) instead of any individual stations. They set me up to interview at one of the company’s smallest stations, KHBS/KHOG, a duopoly in Fort Smith/Fayetteville Arkansas. For days, I kept my cell phone by my side every second. My heart would pound every time it rang. I was in Ohio visiting my boyfriend (now husband) who was in law school when the phone call finally did come. I was so elated. Knowing I had a job lined up made graduation day that much sweeter. I said goodbye to my friends and drove to Arkansas the next day.
AC: A lot of young people start out in TV journalism but quickly discover how challenging it can be. How have you avoided burning out?
KS: Challenging might not even be a strong enough word. It was such an incredible battle at the beginning, and I would be dishonest to say there weren’t times I considered throwing in the towel. It’s a perfect mix of being torn away from everything and everyone you know, learning to navigate a new city, living on your own for (likely) the first time in your life and being responsible for fronting the major stories of your new city. All of that doesn’t even mention the fact that it’s your first time in this role: Your first piece of viewer hate mail, your first screw-up on live television, your first time being on the scene of awful tragedies and seeing them up close. With so much emphasis on digital content now, too, it’s imperative for reporters to update their stories all day on the web and on usually more than one social media platform. Like many younger journalists, I started as an “MMJ” (multimedia journalist). I was the photographer, writer, editor and reporter on all my pieces, while managing all the digital content. Add in the fact that you’re working on a strict deadline (and trying to look slightly decent on live television at the end of it all … hello Arkansas summer heat!). It was rough. I’ll leave it at that. But I survived. And I’m here to tell you it’s possible!
AC: What advice do you offer to young people who think about working in journalism but who might feel intimidated or unsure?
KS: It can be a really rewarding career, and I would encourage young people who are interested to vet it out. But know what you’re walking into. If any of what I said in the portion above about working in a small market — not being able to handle criticism, working under tight deadlines, moving far away from home, seeing gruesome stories up close — is too much for you, I wouldn’t do it. That’s the reality of the business. I was fortunate enough through my internships at WTAE and WESH to know what I was getting into. All of that is to say, if you do have the traits to handle it, it’s a wonderful career that allows you to be a beacon of information for your community, which has always been an essential role. While it can often be entertaining or inspiring, sad, or outrageous, news is also utilitarian. There is information people need to successfully plan their days. I find satisfaction in having a small role in that for the people of Pittsburgh.
AC: Local journalism continues to evolve so rapidly. Where do you see the local TV news industry heading and how are you preparing for those changes?
KS: My colleagues and I discuss this often. Perhaps those above us know better than we do, but it seems very uncertain at this point. We all understand the movement away from appointment television, except for certain live events. Perhaps in the future there will be an option for viewers to cherrypick which stories they care to see versus watching a block of news? But that’s just a guess, I’m not privy to information on trends. I just know in my short 11 years in the business, the changes have come swiftly and drastically. I wholeheartedly believe there will always be a need for local news and therefore always a spot for true journalists at the local level.
Comings & Goings
KDKA loses another high-profile reporter with Dr. Maria Simbra announcing her departure after 19 years at the station. One of her first stories was related to the 9/11 terror attacks and, as a medical reporter, she has been deeply enmeshed in covering the Covid pandemic.
“I’m so grateful to the viewers for welcoming me into their home (on their TVs) and hands (on their phones) for the past 19 years,” Simbra told me. “It has been an honor and privilege to be part of their screen time as Dr. Maria.”
As for her future, Simbra said she’s in talks with several companies that specialize in medical communications.
Jill Neely, producer of KDKA’s “Pittsburgh Today Live” has also made plans to leave the station and retire. The public might not recognize Jill’s face but they certainly know her work, and they can see what she meant to at least a couple of her colleagues.
The founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, Andrew Conte writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You can find all of his columns here, and you can email him.