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Natalie Morales: Fast Riser

On any given morning, NBC Today show anchor Natalie Morales might deliver the day’s top news, report from a disaster site or cook up dinner with celebrity chefs. As the self-proclaimed “utility player” on the top-rated morning news show, Morales takes on any assignment that is thrown her way. Such versatility is making the 35-year-old Morales, the youngest anchor at Today, one of NBC News’ fastest-rising stars.

Morales—the co-anchor of the show’s second two hours as well as its national correspondent—works alongside Today mainstays Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira and Ann Curry. She is often called in to sub for them; for example, she covered the news desk during Curry’s recent two-week trip to Antarctica. This fall, when NBC expanded the show to a fourth hour at 10 a.m., Morales was tapped to co-star with Curry and Dateline veteran Hoda Kotb.

As national correspondent, Morales is dispatched to cover major breaking stories, including the recent Southern California wildfires and last summer’s Minneapolis bridge collapse.

In an industry where TV journalists work for decades for a shot at the network level, Morales’ rise to a plum spot on Today has been meteoric. Apart from a stint as a local anchor in Hartford, Conn., she sidestepped the march from market to market that many anchors endure, instead spending the majority of her career in the New York City area.

But while Morales has centered her career in the Northeast, her childhood was spent hopscotching the globe. A self-described “Air Force brat,” Morales was born in Taiwan and lived most of her childhood abroad in Panama, Brazil and Spain, with a few years stateside. The daughter of a Puerto Rican father and Brazilian mother, Morales speaks Spanish, English and Portuguese. At Rutgers University in New Jersey, she majored in Latin American studies and journalism.

Morales says her military and international upbringing prepared her well for a career in journalism. “Journalists are a lot like the military,” she says. “You are always picking up and moving and adjusting to new situations. You have to adapt.”

It took Morales a few years to make her way to TV news. After college, she accepted a two-year position in Chemical Bank’s management training program and then moved to Court TV as a marketing and public relations assistant. While she says she enjoyed the behind-the-scenes work, she yearned to be in front of the camera. At the urging of the network’s then-programming chief Erik Sorenson (who would later be her boss at MSNBC), Morales produced a demo tape to pitch to local stations, and Cablevision’s startup local news channel News 12 Bronx took notice. In a diverse area like the Bronx, Morales’ Spanish and Portuguese were vital skills for newsgathering. Working as a “one-man band,” Morales learned all aspects of TV news, shooting, writing and producing all of her own material.

The most exciting aspect of News 12, she says, was the opportunity to work alongside veteran journalists in the country’s top TV market. “I was working in the number-one market but in a grassroots situation where I was very local in my reporting,” she says.

From there, Morales landed in Hartford at NBC-owned WVIT to anchor the morning show. NBC News executives took notice, and in 2002 she was hired at MSNBC.

At that network, Morales gained experience on the anchor desk hosting routine days and breaking news, including a six-hour run when trapped workers were pulled out of a Pennsylvania mine alive. She also reported stories that made it onto the network, such as a trip to the West Virginia hometown of a military member accused in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

By the end of 2002, NBC News turned to Morales again. At first, she subbed on the weekend Today news desk and then on the show’s weekday news desk. When she went on assignment for MSNBC, she would often contribute to Today as well, including reports from the 2004 Summer Olympics and 2006 Winter Olympics. Such assignments raised her profile at the network. When Today executive producer Jim Bell joined the show in April 2005, he recalls, “I’d see Natalie on MSNBC and Weekend Today and think, 'Does she ever not work?’”

Covering the Torino Winter Games, he said, was a breakout moment for Morales. “You saw her natural ability to cover news and also have fun and be out in the field,” he recalls. With those abilities, he says, “She found a home at Today.”

In February 2006, Morales was named a national correspondent for Today. She also expanded her in-studio duties, regularly appearing in the 9 a.m. hour. When Katie Couric left the show for CBS News, Morales was among the hosts considered as possible replacements. Although the role ultimately went to Vieira, the transition period that summer helped cement Morales’ place as an integral part of the Today cast.

Now, along with subbing for Curry and Vieira, Morales has her own turf on the show. She co-hosts 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. and reports major news stories. Morales admits it is challenging to juggle the hard news with the show’s lighter segments. But she says it is also what sets Today apart. “We all thrive on the variety,” she says. “You have to switch off and on so much.”

Looking ahead, Morales says she wants to spend more time reporting in the field. She is angling to cover the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Bell, her boss, says the upcoming presidential election will give Morales opportunities to travel the country reporting politics for Today.

Morales says she is ready for any—and every—assignment. “You can’t be a great anchor until you are an incredible reporter,” she says. “Everyone shines in the field, and that is why I’m always pushing to get out there.” 

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