WTTW’s new stars navigate changing news landscape

Odds are good you didn’t know their names a decade ago, when one of them was just breaking into Chicago radio news and another was barely removed from an internship at Chicago’s public TV station. And now they’re two of the city’s most influential journalists.

In another edition of the Chicago Public Square / Rivet360 podcast, Chicago Media Talks, WTTW News’ multiple award-winning reporters and Chicago Tonight co-anchors, Brandis Friedman and Paris Schutz, talk about their careers, the challenges facing local news and recent turbulent times at Channel 11.

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And now, courtesy of Eric Zorn and Otter.ai, here’s an extremely rough transcript of the show:

Charlie Meyerson 00:00

Odds are good you didn’t know their names a decade ago when one of them was just breaking into Chicago radio news and another was barely removed from an internship at Chicago’s public TV station. And now they’re two of the city’s most influential journalists.

Brandis Friedman 00:14

The truth is I never would have chosen Chicago for myself until I did.

Paris Schutz 00:18

I thought, “At some point, my internship is going to end, and they’re going to hire me and pay me.”

Charlie Meyerson 00:23

Brandis Friedman and Paris Shutz are multiple award-winning reporters and co-anchors for WTTW television’s signature broadcast Chicago Tonight. I’m Charlie Meyerson with Rivet 360 and ChicagoPublicSquare.com. And this is Chicago Media Talks, a show in which people in Chicago media talk about Chicago media. Here’s my co-host, my friend and my Rivet 360 colleague, journalism strategist Sheila Solomon.

Sheila Solomon 00:51

How is Chicago Tonight different from other local news shows in Chicago?

Brandis Friedman 00:57

We e get this question a lot, and Paris can address this as well, I think we try to spend more time on our subject matter. And, no disrespect to our colleagues at the commercial TV stations, you know, there’s a place for each of us in this market. But what’s different is, we spend more time on our subjects. So a report or package, maybe 3, 4, 5 minutes versus the minute, minute-and-a-half that you’d probably get at other stations. So that we can let it breathe, and provide a bit more context, sometimes analysis. You’ll notice that we do a lot of talk segments, so that we can balance out a segment or just explore whatever the topic might be from different viewpoints. And allow folks to really share more of whatever it is we might be talking about that night. And, in addition to the politics, and the education and the business, and all that stuff that we cover, we also give a good bit of time to the arts. We have an arts producer here as well as an arts reporter. And so we get to showcase not just the big arts organizations in town that we all know about, like Joffrey or Lyric or Chicago Symphony, but these two producers are really good at finding the arts stories that you have not heard about and bringing those to our audiences as well.

Paris Schutz 02:09

Our goal is to have our audience understand what’s happening in Chicago and Illinois and the world at large. And following the mission of WTTW, to leave you enriched, to leave you feeling like you’re more connected to your community. So we’re not out there to chase ambulances or cover every single crime or police chase that happens. But if we do cover crime, we want to talk about it in a way that will help people understand this as an issue, help people maybe empathize with what’s happening. And then talk about what stakeholders are talking about as solutions.

Charlie Meyerson 02:53

WTTW has gone through some big changes in the months leading up to your ascendance as co-anchors of Chicago Tonight. You lost a news director—forced out after just about a year on the job— and Phil Ponce and Carol Marin stepped down from their roles as two of the key faces of the station’s news coverage. How’s that affected the show? And WTTW News overall?

Paris Schutz 03:11

Well, we’re just the last ones standing, Charlie. No, I mean, it’s certainly affected, I would say workplace morale a little bit. But at the end of the day, we do the same show that we always have. And we have the same goals that we always have. And we’re out there distracted by the reporting, and by the journalism, and by all the news that we have to report on and put into context. So the mission never changed through all of that. And you mentioned Phil and Carol being gone. They’re part of the DNA of Chicago Tonight, just like John Callaway, who started the show. So they’re very influential on what we do now. And I always just try to think about what Phil would do in a certain situation, or what Carol would do, or even what John Callaway would do. So, it’s kind of like a family, you know, all these things are sort of passed down through the generations and the show really hasn’t changed much. I mean, it might look a little different, that tone might be a little different. But those North stars are still exactly the same as what John Callaway wanted, and what Phil did, and what Carol did, and even to an extent, Bob Sirrott. And some of the other folks that have been associated with the show, are Eddie Arruzza, Elizabeth Brackett. And, as Brandis said, the quality in-depth journalism, the context that we’re providing, and the goal to really inform the community and make them feel connected to the city.

Brandis Friedman 04:40

There have been some changes. But to the credit of our colleagues, everyone has really kept their heads down and focused on the work. And I don’t think any of us allowed ourselves to really be distracted by any of that other stuff that was going on. Obviously, everybody noticed it. We all recognize it, but that wasn’t really the focus. We kept our focus on the work. And with regard to Phil and Carol moving on to their next chapters, everything that Paris said is true. But Phil slowly started to step back little by little a couple of years ago, and Paris and I were given the opportunity to start stepping in and filling in at that point, I think probably with the intention that at some point if Phil was ready to move on from hosting every night with regularity that Paris and I would be prepared to try and fill his shoes. I don’t think that we can necessarily it takes two of us to do it. But I think we’ve been given ample time to prepare for this moment,

Paris Schutz 05:37

It feels like we’ve been in these roles for a long time. And it doesn’t, it doesn’t feel like it happened overnight or anything. It feels like we’ve been doing this for a while and getting our sea legs under us to take the baton, if you will.

Sheila Solomon 05:53

So how do you see Chicago Tonight changing on your watch?

Brandis Friedman 05:56

I feel like the show is not necessarily mine to change. Only that, you know, we are very collaborative here. I think all of us take a lot of ownership on this show. And so at the moment, I don’t predict any major changes. Obviously, I think all of us think there are ways we can work to be better or different or to improve or provide our audiences with something more, something different. Over the last year. It is obvious with the expansion to the other shows, “Chicago Tonight Latino Voices” on Saturday and “Chicago Tonight Black Voices” on Sundays, it is clear that we have included and diversified our coverage a little bit more— right? — covering those communities that as evidenced by what we saw last summer did not feel they had been covered and heard enough. And so I think we’ll definitely keep that going. Obviously.

Paris Schutz 06:45

I agree with Brandis there. And I’ll just add that, as a staff, I think we’ve started to talk a little bit about the big picture, long term. How can we meet our mission best in this day and age as things change as platforms change? I think it’s really good to every now and then to inventory here at Chicago Tonight and ask what is it we’re doing well, what it is we can improve on? Do we need to change some things? So I can tell you that we are having some of those discussions. There might be things that we want to change, we just don’t know what those are yet. The North stars don’t change, we want to remain balanced. We want to remain a place where everybody can trust the information. And in this day and age trust is so important when you have such a bifurcated media, landscape and social media where everybody’s just kind of turning to, whatever satisfies their preconceived bias. I’ll say personally, I feel an added responsibility that we need to be the vanguard of that traditional sense of y journalism and trustworthy journalism and balanced journalism that everybody no matter what your opinions are, or what your ideologies are can trust to get reliable information.

Charlie Meyerson 08:12

Paris, you started at WTTW as an intern in 2005. Back then, what was your dream job?

Paris Schutz 08:50

Well, I at some point, my internship is going to end and they’re going to hire me and pay me. No, I’m kidding, Charlie. At that point, I did not know what my dream job was. I actually intended to do documentaries, be a filmmaker. I’m also a musician and thought maybe I’d do that as a career. I really was kind of all over the place. But the internship with Chicago Tonight—and by the way, I applied to intern with Chicago Stories, which was a documentary unit that we had at the time. But they didn’t need an intern, so they sent me to Chicago Tonight which did need an intern, I was like, “OK, I guess I’ll do that.” And that’s where I caught the bug of local news on live television. And just as an intern being part of these stories that I remember as a kid that shaped the city of Chicago and the region and meeting some of these players, the political players, and the local newsmakers that again that I had read about and watched it that was pretty exciting. And, again, I did sign on as a production assistant. I still didn’t know what my long-term goal was. I started to inch my way on the air only because I’d had a forming background, you know, as a kid and as a teenager, you know, naively thinking I could do it. And I was terrible for a long time. And the more I did it, the more I realized this was exactly what I wanted to be doing the kind of journalism that we were doing, it’s pretty much the only kind of journalism I feel like I can do. Reporting was a thrill chasing down the story. And the performance aspect of it is really exciting, it’s performing nonfiction, basically. So when I was an actor and a performer as a kid, something wasn’t quite right. And that was that it was that, I didn’t want to be doing fiction. I wanted to be doing nonfiction. Because I just felt more connected to that. So this has been a dream job. But when I started off, I had no idea. I was just trying to figure out a way to get paid.

Sheila Solomon 10:50

Brandis, unlike Paris, you didn’t grow up in the Chicago area. So what brought you here about a decade ago? And what was your career goal at that time?

Brandis Friedman 11:01

It’s funny, you should mention that. But just because, you know, in college, I came to visit Chicago once and I don’t know why I hadn’t come before college, you know, I’ve got family here. I just hadn’t done it. So on a visit, it did not have a very good trip. I just didn’t I didn’t see the parts of Chicago that I know I love today. I got sick on that trip. It got 70-something degrees in July, and I’m from Mississippi, and I thought that was ridiculous and abnormal. And so the truth is, I never would have chosen Chicago for myself until I did. My husband is from the area. He grew up in Morton Grove. He’s a former TV news reporter. And both of us had done the market hop. I started in Wichita Falls, Texas, and then in Little Rock. And then I got out of the business briefly when I was in Kansas City and worked on Capitol Hill a little bit in Washington, DC. And then that’s where I got back into TV, after being out for about a year-and-a-half and started producing at the ABC affiliate there, because it was where I wanted to be— being out of it was not right for me. And so I came to Chicago because we knew we wanted to be closer to family and his family was here and I wasn’t moving back to Mississippi. That’s when I got hired at WBBM News Radio as a freelance reporter and anchor because I thought it was a really great opportunity to get into the market and learn my way around. And then I got lucky when the correspondent position opened at Chicago Tonight and just kind of applied. I was like, who knows, we’ll see what happens. The executive producer at the time, Mary Field, called for an interview while I was walking my dog. And that very day, I was very disappointed because I learned I hadn’t gotten some other job that I thought I wanted, and looking back would have been all wrong for. So it worked out the way it was supposed to. I feel like I’m lucky to have this job because I really love and respect and appreciate the kinds of news that we tell and the way we tell those stories. And no disrespect to our colleagues at commercial stations. It’s just that some of that is not for me. I’ve done it before and I don’t want to do that now. I wouldn’t be where I am. So I recognize my job is a bit of a unicorn. But I’m thankful to have it.

Charlie Meyerson 13:04

Brandis broke journalism’s fourth wall this month, interviewing someone with whom she and Sheila—as I’ve just learned—have a personal connection: A friend whose son was shot and killed last month, the day before his 19th birthday. So Brandis, how did the decision come down for you to conduct that interview instead of you know, as might be the case in many a more traditional newsroom, assigning it to someone else?

Brandis Friedman 13:31

Right. It’s funny, you should mention that. Sheila does know the same friend. I remember, I saw Sheila at the funeral. And I wasn’t able to make it over to say hi to you in time, because it was very it was a full room. So when this happened, part of me looked at it as a journalist, right. And I saw, there are going to be other stations that are going to cover this, and newspapers. And we all know this has been picked up by most of the outlets here in town. And actually, my husband put the bug in my ear. He’s like, What if you were to interview her? And I’m like, I don’t know. At the time. It was too early. I didn’t mention it to Sonia, I didn’t mention it to anyone at work. But then I did. And Sonia, I think as a professional and as a grieving mother and an angry citizen, was kind of looking for a way to express all of her thoughts and feelings because of all those hats that she wears. And I was advising her as a friend. And then I thought, the one station I didn’t mention is my own. And what do you think? And then I talked to my boss to see what he thought. And I wanted to be sure that if was going to do it that I’ve got a trusted producer looking over my shoulder to make sure that I was still practicing the journalism that I’m supposed to be practicing. In this instance, we decided to have me do it instead of someone else just because, sadly, we don’t interview a lot of grieving mothers at Chicago Tonight. As Paris said, we cover the issue of violence but not each and every instance of violence, which happens far more than it should. And if I were to interview this particular grieving mother— it was her stepson, Miles Thompson, who was killed — we’d have a different conversation because she and I know each other, we have a lot in common. We’re both former Mississippians, Ivy League grads now living in Chicago, we both have sons. And so that conversation is much more intimate than one that I would have gotten had I interviewed a grieving mother with whom I’m not friends, or had we allowed someone else in the station to do it. And I think that was our intention, our intent was to make it different, to make it a little bit more intimate than it might have been otherwise.

Charlie Meyerson 15:37

That segment was produced for WTTW’s relatively new show Chicago Tonight Black Voices. What is different, if anything about your approach to that work in that show, compared to your role at Chicago Tonight?

Brandis Friedman 15:49

The standards are the same. We still want to make sure that we’re providing viewers with news that has impact. And of course, we have to be fair and balanced and accurate. And all of that is the same. But we get to experiment with that show just a little bit more. It’s a younger show, it hasn’t been on the air a year just yet. And so we play around a little bit more with like this kind of segment or that kind of segment. There are days we’ll run a segment on black voices that can re-air on Chicago Tonight the following week for a slightly different audience. And vice versa. But not every segment that runs on Chicago Tonight Black Voices would also run on Chicago Tonight. And so I guess it’s kind of hard to describe what the differences are, I can’t quite put my finger on it. But we certainly examine what it is like to be a Black Chicago when on that particular show, the issues that affect black Chicagoans. But that does not mean that all the guests are only Black people, right? Because we also want anyone who is watching the show, not just a Black audience, but anyone who’s watching the show, comes away with an idea of what it is like to live a Black Chicagoan experience.

Sheila Solomon 17:02

Chicago Tonight Latino Voices is another relatively new show on WTTW. And it’s focusing on a different ethnic group. So what are the pros and cons of having new shows devoted to specific demographics? I

Paris Schutz 17:20

The pros are obviously, as Brandis said, giving, these communities a chance to share their stories and to elevate their stories and their experience to a broader audience, which by the way, these shows are meant for everybody. It’s, not it’s not simply Latino Voices for Latino audiences or Black Voices for a Black audience. From my own experience last year reporting in the pandemic, going from neighborhood to neighborhood, —we were in a different neighborhood each night for about five months— but a lot of those were the Black and Hispanic neighborhoods of Chicago. And one of the things that was evidently clear in doing that was, I didn’t understand my own city as well as I should have. And I think most Chicagoans don’t. And there were just a lot of things I learned about neighborhoods on the South Side or the West Side that you would never hear in local news coverage. Because a newsworthy event in a lot of those communities tends to be a negative event— a crime, or a shooting. And w that skews the audience’s perception of what really characterizes life in those neighborhoods. So obviously, this weekend, you had the tragic shooting and killing of police officer Ella French in Englewood. And it is tragic. And it’s a huge newsworthy event. But what happens is, when we only cover the negative stuff viewers can think that that’s the only thing that defines life in Englewood — crime and murder, or in Austin, or in Pilsen, or in Belmont Cragin. And doing the kind of reporting that’s done on Black Voices and Latino Voices, or that we did last year with his neighborhood stuff is you get a different picture. Like it’s complicated, there are really bad things. The crime is really a part of daily life here. But there are also really amazing things. There’s so many people that work in organizations that try to help people, whether it be mental health, or whether it be crime prevention, There are people, you know, Black and Latino, middle-class Chicagoans that live in these neighborhoods that that swear by them, that won’t leave even though the problems are bad. So the true story is a much more mixed picture. There are some wonderful parts of Englewood, there’s some wonderful parts of Auburn Gresham. And maybe this is a way to help change this skewed perception in the audience, that that the only thing that characterizes life in parts of Chicago is crime. It’s not true. It’s a big part of life. But there are also other really wonderful things that characterize life in these neighborhoods. And I’ll just say, cons, because you asked: We’ve gotten some letters saying, well, it’s you know, it’s too narrowly focused. And, what about other groups? You know, what about Asian Americans? What about LGBTQ? I mean, I think all those things are fair. But Chicago Tonight tries to incorporate, all these points of view and all these communities. So that we all understand each other better. I have gotten some tweets—not a lot, I haven’t gotten a lot of emails necessarily— but some folks who have something to say about it being you know, Black Voices. I’ve got a tweet that says “racist propaganda hour.” The show’s a half-hour; it means that person doesn’t even watch. And I really ignore those tweets The only value to those tweets is a reminder that there are folks out there who think that way. And I’m not signing up to change their minds. If they do, great, but I’m signing up to do the job that I’m doing. And I don’t really pay a whole lot of attention to those tweets, unless someone has something that they actually want to discuss. But that’s not what’s happening in those tweets.

Sheila Solomon 21:13

Paris, how is WTTW expanding its team of reporters and producers and videographers?

Paris Schutz 21:19

I think most of the expansion lies on the online side of things. We’ve really beefed up that operation in recent years to where we have dedicated beat reporters that are exclusively online. We look at people like Heather Cherone, who covers City Hall, and she’s pumping out three stories a day. She’s going toe to toe with some of the newspaper reporters there. And we’ll have her on the Chicago Tonight program every now and then debriefing her reports, and we have folks like Patty Wetli, who does the environmental beat; we have Matt Masterson, who’s doing criminal courts and education.

Brandis Friedman 21:59

Kristin Tomasz

Paris Schutz 22:01

Yeah, so we’ve really tried to make this a 24/7 news operation, especially online, where we have people covering beats, and it’s not just at seven o’clock at night, which is when Chicago Tonight comes on where you’re gonna get Chicago Tonight journalism, you can get it 24/7 when you refresh, the website, and it’s designed for you to check it at all hours of the day. So that we have our reporters keeping up to speed on what’s happening in the city. We recognize that at some point — we’ve been talking about this for years — the singularity is going to happen, where the platform really doesn’t matter, whether it’s TV or streaming or online or social media, it’s just the content that matters. And we will have to master all of those platforms.

Brandis Friedman 22:50

I would add to that, you know, we’ve recently added an on-air reporter in Joanna Hernandez, who is coming home to Chicago. She’s been in New York for about five years. And now she’s here. And we’re hiring a “Chicago Tonight Black Voices” producer, one who is dedicated to black voices.

Sheila Solomon 23:07

Closing thoughts, Charlie?

Charlie Meyerson 23:10

As you know, I spend a good chunk of my day cruising Chicago’s many, many news websites. We’re lucky to have so many in this town. And I haven’t been shy about saying that most of the city’s commercial TV and radio websites suck. Can I say that on this podcast? I think so. They’re ugly. They’re riddled with typos, editing failures, factual errors. Channel 11’s.Is a cut above. And I wish other broadcasters would take note. Your closing thoughts Sheila?

Sheila Solomon 23:42

The other day, a friend texted that I should look for her in an interview on Sunday’s Black Voices and Monday’s Chicago Tonight. And her text reminded me how important it is to have a broadcast outlet that centers its storytelling on the diverse voices that make up Chicago. Closing thoughts Paris?

Paris Schutz 24:05

We’re in a moment with news media where there’s a significant reduction in traditional news; you see what’s happened with the Chicago Tribune. And the whole industry is trying to figure out what the winning model is going to be. And like I said earlier, the fact that so many people get their news and information from social media, I think is troubling. Because as we know, they’re not reliable. And those algorithms just prioritize stuff that’s going to, send people down a rabbit hole and confirm their biases. And so Chicago Tonight, we’re gonna stick to the script that we’ve been doing for 30 years, in that we’re going to offer you in-depth, thoughtful coverage. It’s going to be hard-hitting some of it will be softer or feature-oriented. But it’s our best effort to get at the objective truth. Knowing that we can never 100% get there but we’re gonna do our best. And, again, it’s a place that everybody — no matter what their background — can trust. That’s what we hope. We hope that they continue to trust us because we really need good traditional journalism and news sources. And we really need people to turn to those kinds of traditional media to get their information. You see what’s happening with vaccine misinformation. Misinformation and disinformation are just way too, prevalent and way too dangerous. And so we’re going to continue to try and fight the good fight in terms of being that traditional objective source for everybody. We’ll do our best, and we hope that more people understand the value of that.

Charlie Meyerson 25:47

Brandis your closing thoughts?

Brandis Friedman 25:50

As journalists we are lucky to be in the position that we’re in, What’s important to me is to be able to uplift the voices that you get to hear on Black Voices and the folks that we hear from, and I see that as an opportunity not just to provide for the viewers who are watching, but also for the people who are on the show,.We’re hoping to provide them an opportunity to share their perspective and their point of view with other people. So I’m thankful to be in this position where I can make those connections happen.

Sheila Solomon 26:26

Paris, you’re also an accomplished musician. Where can people see you perform these days?

Paris Schutz 26:32

I don’t know about “accomplished.” I don’t perform out much these days, I hope to change that. I’ve played at some piano bars in the past. I’ll play with some bands every now and then just for fun. I certainly have a lot of empathy for the working musicians who do rely on this for a living and hopefully, they get out and get all the gigs that they can. And when I am out there, I will be sure to try and let everybody know, through the proper channels.

Charlie Meyerson 27:03

I’m pretty sure a lot of viewers of Channel 11 don’t realize that Paris co-composed the Chicago Tonight theme music. How did that happen?

Paris Schutz 27:14

Well, our former executive producer Mary Field said we need a new theme song, but we don’t have any money to pay for it. So we’re going to just use some stock songs in the music library. You know all these TV stations and production companies pay for these stock music libraries where people create these stock melodies. I said, “Oh my God, we can’t do that we need to have something original that says ‘Chicago Tonight.’” So I went down to the piano that we used to have in our old studio and just started looking around at the set and try to have something sink into my brain through osmosis. And I came up with just a really simple little melody, that you could basically sing “Chicago Tonight, Chicago Tonight, Chicago Tonight,” just that easy, and fleshed it out a bit. Sought the services of the brilliant trumpet player at the CSO, John Hagstrom, and he really helped flesh it out. He plays all the brass instruments you hear on that theme. Took us to a recording studio and we put it down on tape and it’s been going, I don’t know, it’s gonna be going on 10 years now that that’s been the theme song. And none of us have seen a penny in royalties from it but that doesn’t matter because we did it out of love. But maybe for the next one. Oh, I won’t give away my services for free.

Charlie Meyerson 28:42

And as Paris Schutz’s Chicago Tonight theme music escorts us out of this edition of Chicago Media Talks, recorded Aug. 9, 2021. We remind you our guests have been Paris Schutz and Brandis Friedman. You can reach Brandis at bfriedman@wttw.com, and Paris at pschutz@wttw.com. You can find Sheila Solomon at Sheila@Rivet360.com. I’m Charlie Meyerson. Join me for a roundup of the news at 10 weekday mornings at ChicagoPublicSquare.com. For Sheila Solomon, producer Jesse Betend and everyone at Rivet 360, thanks for listening.

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