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Ellerbee Honored for Breaking the Mold

Linda Ellerbee’s career comprises much more than the 20 years she has spent as anchor of Nickelodeon’s Nick News, the Emmy- winning children’s news program created by her company, Lucky Duck Productions. And this year, the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) has honored Ellerbee with the Paul White Award, which recognizes her lifetime contribution to journalism. Ellerbee spoke with B&C Contributing Editor Lindsay Rubino about changes in the news business and the work Nick News has yet to do in following Ellerbee’s time-tested advice: “If you want to know, ask!” An edited transcript follows.

How do you think you have contributed to changes in the way we broadcast and receive news?

I’ve never thought of myself as a maverick; I always thought everyone else was a little weird. Perhaps I changed some of the ways we think about women in broadcasting. I was not blonde; I was not beautiful; I was not thin. I did not fit the mold. But I discovered that that was OK with me.

I also was not that ambitious. I was the sole support of two children; that was my ambition. Let me tell you something very important—you can run just as fast running away from something as you can running toward it. I was afraid of losing my children, and so I became a journalist. I like to think I got to stay because I was a good one…I insisted on writing everything I said. I wasn’t the only one to do this; there are many other women who deserve this award as much, if not more, than I do. Perhaps I made a few changes…regarding women, and perhaps I helped make a few changes regarding kids and news.

What has changed for you since you began your career?

The major change for me in the 40-some-odd years that I’ve been doing this is, without question, the technology. And with that has come, sadly, far too many changes in the ideology of my craft—of what our rules are, what honesty is; it has been affected and changed by technology. Getting it fast does not always mean getting it right, but that is the name of the game….The truth is, in the end, no matter what the technology, ours is still a storytelling business.

What do you think of the predicted demise of network evening news?

I have been asked this question now for close to 30 years, and it hasn’t gone anywhere yet. I think not only is it unlikely to go anywhere, I think the question itself is irrelevant. People get their news where they want their news. They get it live; they get it streaming; they get it all kinds of ways. Having said that, the numbers suggest they still have enormous ratings.

When you first started Nick News, what were your expectations for the show?

It was an accident that we started Nick News! The [then] president of Nickelodeon [Geraldine Laybourne] called me and asked my company to produce a show that would calm American kids’ fears and explain [the first Gulf War]. I knew nothing about kids’ news, but I am a journalist. I know how to find out things, so I called a bunch of people who did know about kids and news. The more I listened to them, the more some of what they said made sense; and the more I listened to kids, the more of what they said made sense. So my two teachers were kids and experts, but I learned more from kids.

Is there ever a story that you wouldn’t cover for children, either because they wouldn’t understand or they should not hear about it?

Not a single thing. There have been stories we have not covered for children. For example, we have never done a show about abortion. However, I tell you right now, if that became the single most important issue in the presidential campaign, we would be covering it. There are stories we haven’t covered; there are none we wouldn’t cover.

What’s the main difference between covering news for kids and adults?

The most surprising difference is how little difference there is. Kids are not dumber. They have less experience and they are shorter, but they are not dumber. It is our mistake that we think that. When you explain things to a kid, kids have reasonable thoughts.

Many news outlets have been criticized for sensationalizing stories. Do you think this is true?

We just don’t think about it because we have no need to do it….I’m much more interested in a story about the fact that there is not a country in this world [where] girls are yet to have equal educational rights, according to the United Nations. I am much more interested in a story about a school that is fighting to get corporal punishment returned to it. I am much more interested in a story about… the fact that we, as people, are moving into wildlife habitats…I am more interested in a story about organ donation. There are plenty of stories.

What subject have you wanted to explore, but have not been able to do so yet?

The only show I haven’t done that I really want to do one day…will be my last show and it will be the hardest one I ever do. That will be what I learned from the kids over the 20 years, what they taught me. That will be a tough one. I’m not ready to do that one yet!

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