Q&A: Local TV news legend Knox rewinds career

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Debby Knox, the city’s longest-running news anchorwoman, will retire from WISH-TV Channel 8 on Nov. 26 after 33 years at the CBS affiliate.

The 59-year-old newswoman and mother of two is a local institution. She spent years co-hosting WISH’s evening newscast with Mike Ahern, who retired in 2004. She has remained the station’s lead anchor. 

Debby Know mugDebby Knox

Knox has interviewed world leaders from Barack Obama to Mikhail Gorbachev. She credits her curiosity about the world for her longevity in a ratings-driven, pressure-cooker business. 

IBJ asked Knox to reflect on her career and the news business. The following transcript has been edited for space:

IBJ: How did you wind up in television news?

Knox: I actually started in radio, at WAAM (AM 1600) in Ann Arbor, Mich. I worked in traffic and then got into news and then transferred to WNDU-TV, in South Bend. Then to WSJV-TV [Elkhart]. It was about a 2-½ to 3-year period. Then, in 1980, I came down here.

It really sort of goes back to the fact I’ve always, always, always been a very curious person. I came from a small [Michigan] town and I just wanted to know more how things work.

I thought that I would be a newspaper reporter, [but] once I got into the radio side it was sort of a natural progression to go into TV. It wasn’t so much that I was driven to TV.

IBJ: What news events really stand out?

Knox: One of the big breaking events was when that military jet flew into the [Ramada] hotel out by the airport in 1987. That was an incredible day, an incredible story just in terms of the event itself.
You know, all the political conventions [were interesting]. It was really cool to be part of that. There was September 2001, of course, from a distance in Indianapolis and how it affected us. Covering medical stories, and meeting Dr. Lawrence Einhorn, who cured Lance Armstrong, was another.

IBJ: Was one thing you worked on particularly rewarding?

Knox: I did a story about 10 years ago on a young man who lived on the south side of Indianapolis whose name was Rick Mader. As an adult he came down with form of leukemia that required that he have a bone marrow transplant. The company that he worked for had not bought a policy that would include a bone marrow transplant. I watched this young man who did everything right. He was healthy, he educated himself at IUPUI, had gotten a degree, helped his parents. One morning he couldn’t shovel the snow off their steps because he was so weak.

The physicians were throwing their hands up in the air because they couldn’t give him the treatment he needed. So the family begins the whole story you hear about—fighting the insurance company. It was a tough thing to cover but it was really an important story for me to cover to understand how health care works and how it doesn’t work for some people.

IBJ: Do any on-camera gaffes come to mind?

Knox: One story I was reading on camera was about a homicide, about someone who was shot and killed. It was a very sad situation. But in the middle of reading this on camera my earring fell off. It was during the time when we were wearing big clunky earrings. I felt terrible about it because it was a very sad story. It was the last thing I’d have wanted to happen at that point.

Well, the next day or that evening, the family of the victim called me and they thanked me for adding a little levity to their distraught time. They saw the earring fly off and they didn’t think that I’d meant it but they laughed.

The other funny story, we had sent a reporter to St. Louis to cover the Pope’s visit. The Pope had a friend who was a sausage maker. So, [the reporter], trying to find the local angle to the Pope visiting St. Louis, fed back video of sausage being made. And it was our cold open to the newscast that night. Everything is fast-fast-fast, and we really hadn’t had time to preview it.

Well, up pops video of sausage being made, and we’re talking about the Pope’s visit to St. Louis. It was one of those moments when you’re trying to be serious. Mike [Ahern] is laughing. I’m laughing. The director is shouting, “What are we looking at?!”

IBJ: Are there some things that have changed for the better over the years in television news?

Knox: I’ll tell you what would encourage me more is less reliance on consultants that come in and give you advice. What I think they’ve done, and we’ve understood now, is they can homogenize news. They can make us all look the same. If you do research and you find out what viewers think, they’ll sometimes have difficulty distinguishing between news channels. I really kind of blame these companies that come in and give the same advice.

I know I sound like a “homer” now for WISH-TV, but we’ve made some really good hires in the last year and a half. So I’m encouraged by the staff that we have, which makes it easier to say goodbye.

IBJ: With the rise of the Internet, we’ve seen media focus on celebrity news to boost Web hits and cater to younger news consumers. At many media outlets, those aged 45 and older are out the door. How have you persevered in this crazy business?

Knox: I think part of it is just being lucky, But I think at my core I have some standards. I grew up with the idea that our role is to help people better understand the world so we can run our country, so we can run our businesses, we can run our lives. So that’s sort of how I always saw my role. I can’t stand too many celebrity interviews and that sort of thing.

You need to know what makes our city click. You have to know the players. I have such an appreciation for people who work really hard and don’t get recognized.

IBJ: Do you have some advice for someone considering a career in TV news?

Knox: If you’re not curious about the world. And if you’re not curious about politics and if you’re not curious about science and the world around you, then you probably ought not be in journalism.

You have to get skilled in every part of the newsroom. Make yourself invaluable. That’s always the best way of going about keeping your relevance.

IBJ: It’s hard to believe you don’t have another gig in the works.

Knox: I’ve had people who have made some inquiries. Everything is just talk, talk, talk at this point. I’m formulating ideas and talking to people and devising what the next chapter will be. I’m certainly not ready to say I’m moving to Florida to sit in the sunshine.

This is home and there’s going to be a time of reflection and talking with people and formulating new ideas. Whether I want to work until midnight every night, which is what I’ve been doing for 30 years, I’m kind of ready to let that go.



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