The control room is dark and chilly as two producers seated in swivel chairs wearing headsets cordially greet me. I nestle my way onto a chair in a nook behind the producers attempting to become inconspicuous. One of the producers looks up at the behemoth wall clad in multiple television sets of varying sizes and states “Try to stay to your right.” And there she is, anchorwoman Asha McKenzie seated next to her co-anchor Gianna Gelosi, both wearing blood red floral patterned dresses, apparently “clashing” on camera. “Cory Booker announced for president” gasps Asha, as she scans her phone for information. The paradoxical quality in the anchorwoman obtaining headlines from her cell phone while seated in a news studio humorously crosses my mind. The producer chimes in again “Go to your left, thank you.” before playfully bantering with Asha, “Why did they pick you?” referring to my presence at the news station. The jovial camaraderie permeates into the studio and workstations as staffers plan the day’s lunch order. The order of the day? Cheese, in particular, half and quarter pounds of cheese fresh from Arthur Avenue.
“Doubles” calls out the producer, as Asha laughs alongside weatherman Mike Rizzo who walks on set to prep for his rundown of the weekend deep freeze overtaking the Bronx. The crew prepares to go live coming off a commercial break as one producer counts down “10, 9, 8, 7…” and another producer repositions a camera in the studio using an analog stick. Asha places her cell phone down on the thick glass table in front of her and brushes her hair to one side of her face. “4, 3, 2, 1…” the countdown concludes as Asha brings viewers news of Puppy Bowl 15 on Animal Planet, a Super Bowl pregame show alternative. It’s Super Bowl weekend.
As the early morning segments wrap up, Asha calls me into the studio where I expect to find teams of cameramen and staff running around with gaffs and booms, clear indicators of my newsroom ignorance. But there’s none of that and no one’s there, except for Asha, seated in her anchor chair prepping for the next hour of news. “You can sit over there” Asha instructs me “just watch out for camera six.” Asha’s voice is commanding, full of ethos and she expertly controls her voice’s cadence and pitch as she reads through assorted news items, it’s the sort of voice that’s meant for anchoring. I settle into a directoresque chair and observe the anchorwoman in her natural habitat. All the high tech cameras, monitors and ceiling lights shift and focus on Asha, the center of attention, as she prepares for her next hour of news coverage. Asha scrolls through her cell phone again, reviews the segment scripts on the tablet in front of her, and interfaces with her co-workers “Who’s the producer? Oh, never mind” and “This script is so weird.” Asha has been filming all morning and it’s only 8 am. Asha yawns “Oh my goodness! I need a nap.” Another countdown commences as Asha’s gameface materializes and she looks up at the camera, and live from Soundview in the Bronx, News 12 is transmitted to you.
The news is constantly in flux, ever-changing, ceaseless, and journalists have the responsibility to cover the symbiotic relationships between subjects and consumers as the news balloons into bigger stories or diminishes into mere fillers for a daily news reel. It’s the sort of neverending pace that Asha’s mother, Fay, kept up as a psychiatric nurse and a single mom to six children. Asha, the youngest of the six children, always admired her mother’s work ethic and kindness. “None of us ever became a statistic. She really did her best.” says Asha “She always told me that I had to work even harder to get what I wanted in life.” Asha’s family is a close one, some of them live in the Bronx, and others are based in New Jersey and Philadelphia, but their tight-knit bonds are a testament to Fay’s commitment to her children’s values and growth, no matter the physical distance separating them.
Asha’s resilience and work ethic, molded during her upbringing, carried over into her professional life and helped guide her as she graduated from Montclair University and later became a desk assistant for ABC. Under the mentorship of Michelle Charlesworth and Phil Lipof, Asha learned the ropes by shadowing the reporters two days per week. Asha’s hard work eventually paid off when she accepted a reporting position at WENY News in Elmira, New York, a station where Asha was only one of two minority staff members in the newsroom. This employment situation is not unique as only 22.6% of newsroom staff jobs are held by minority persons, according to the American Society of News Editors. As a black journalist, Asha falls into an even slimmer statistical category as only 12.6% of local TV station jobs are held by women of color. Suffice to say, journalism has a long way to go in diversifying newsrooms.
Opportunity knocked even louder when Asha was offered a position as a multimedia journalist with News 12 The Bronx. The AP award winning journalist has developed deep connections to her stories and sources in the borough as she fuses her passion for journalism and her commitment to the Bronx. Asha says “I will respond, I don’t ignore work. The borough needs it.”
Asha’s almost finished anchoring as the remote operated camera to my left slightly shifts to the right an inch or so. The minimalist design and phantom operated cameras in the studio have taken the place of newsroom staff that are now only specters here, memories of careers that were once essential, perhaps unimaginable, to run a newsroom without. The future of journalism has seemingly arrived as multimedia journalist positions have become more common at news stations. Multimedia journalists operate their own video cameras and serve as their own photographers, wielding their iPhones for Instagram flash briefs and scrolling through the web for new leads and information. Information, the concept at the crux of journalism, is what Asha is responsible for bringing to Bronxites everyday. And, in the era of fake news and the genesis of Google’s search engine serving as our primary source for information, it is of the utmost importance that our journalists maintain integrity and understand the great responsibility their work bears. “You have to be mindful. Everything I say can be looked up.” says Asha.
“It’s generational, my mom still watches the 5 o’clock news.” Asha smiles, referring to the different ways that people consume news. I tell Asha that I use my landlord’s Optimum subscription to watch News 12’s app on my Apple TV (I know, it sounds difficult, but it’s actually very easy!) Asha laughs and responds “Ahh, so you cheat!” I prepare to ask Asha more questions about automation, social media, and algorithms, and the effects they might have on journalism in the next five years when a congenial producer tiptoes into the studio. “I hate to interrupt but I have a REALLY important question.” whispers the producer “Does anyone want to split a bagel?”
The internet has sped up everything: business, information, journalism, everything. But there are certain interpersonal experiences and fraternity that impossible-looking algorithms and steel equipment can’t produce or convey, like ordering cheese with co-workers, joking in the control room, or simply offering someone a bagel. It’s reassuring to know that our borough’s news is being brought to us by people like Asha, people who care about getting the facts right.