A Shifting Media Landscape

When Betsy Wagner ’85 graduated from college, she spent the first year of her professional career teaching algebra and trigonometry at Taft and developed a love of communicating difficult subjects in easy-to-digest pieces. And as she looked ahead at her professional future, she realized that journalism is essentially that: communicating sometimes difficult subjects to an audience. So she pivoted and began reporting for U.S. News & World Report in 1991, covering such varied topics as education, science, and culture.

Later, as a producer, she wrote news and documentary specials for cable clients including Discovery Channel, A&E, and VH-1. Her role as producer meant she worked closely with ABC and NBC network anchors in the creation of stories and specials. One favorite story was breaking the news of Dolly, the first cloned sheep.

“I produced the first U.S. interview with the scientist who cloned Dolly and got to visit Dolly in her barn in Scotland,” she says. “It was so exciting. In fact, the story led the broadcast of World News Tonight. I watched the broadcast from the ABC News offices in London. When Peter Jennings said, ‘We begin tonight in Scotland,’ I burst into tears. I grew up watching him, and to hear him introduce a story that I produced was a thrill I will remember forever.”

Wagner in 2014 while an executive producer on Discovery Channel’s “Skyscraper Live With Nik Wallenda,” when Wallenda, from the famed Wallenda family of wirewalkers, walked tightropes between three Chicago skyscrapers, and was blindfolded for his walk between the second and third buildings. Wagner was on the roof for the final moments when Wallenda stepped safely onto the roof of the third building.

Wagner spent 16 years at NBC, writing and producing a wide variety of cable and broadcast stories. She was the first to interview George W. Bush’s twin daughters and had not one but two absolutely delightful interviews with Elmo, the Sesame Street puppet.

“I felt like if nothing else happens in my life, now I can die happy! Elmo was a guest of Hoda Kotb [to promote] a new initiative for healthy eating. Puppeteer Kevin Clash laid down behind the chairs and as soon as Elmo popped up you forgot the puppeteer was there,” Wagner says.

Producing a new or feature segment for television is tough, Wagner says. Every minute, every second, of content takes hours to prepare. Still, there are plenty of perks.

“My favorite thing about the field is the fact that I get to dip into other people’s lives, and I get access to things I wouldn’t otherwise,” she says. She met “scientists studying tropical frogs for diseases. I went behind the scenes at the Baltimore Aquarium, then behind the scenes at the Harvard Brain Bank, which is a repository of human brains. There was a guy carrying around a pager to be notified of a donation. I went to the lab and he was receiving this brain, and I watched him dissect it.”

In recent years, Wagner has been producing for Yahoo Finance, launching a social justice program centering on the intersection of diversity and inclusion and finance. Abruptly in March, Wagner’s program was eliminated after Yahoo Finance was bought out, and she found herself out of a job. She’s philosophical about the turmoil in the media industry.

“I think there was such mission drift in the field for so long. I got into TV with the Discovery Channel. We were very earnest and focused on information and science, and then fast forward 10 years and I’m doing reunion shows for reality shows,” she says. “It’s gone full circle, and documentaries are having a heyday.”

Wagner has an understandably nuanced view of the whole world of documentary journalism.

“I talk to a lot of college students and recent graduates who want to go into television or documentary filmmaking. The older I get, the more I talk to them about the importance of being adaptable. This business is always shifting and changing, and you have to be nimble. And, as with so many industries, you just can’t expect a lot of job security. That’s a big change compared to when I first started,” she says.

“On the upside, there’s a lot of work out there—and a lot of high-quality work—so that’s exciting. And I think some of the barriers to entry have fallen now that everyone has a camera and editing software right on their phones. I love that more people can come into the tent now.”

—Bonnie Blackburn-Penhollow ’84