How a trio of Taft alums—Ryan Osborn '97, Braden Cleveland Bergan '92, & Jon Dann '70—stay ahead of the big story.
Ryan Osborn '97
The rain chased away most of the audience members, except for a few rapt diehards outside the window of Studio 1A.
Glancing back at them—from the perspective of Al Roker, Hollywood actors, and NBC cameramen—was Ryan Osborn '97.
The view from the Today show set never gets old for Osborn, whose technological foresight and no-task-beneath-him attitude has vaulted him up the ranks of the peacock network from humble beginnings in its page program.
"I'll forever feel like a kid over here in some ways," Osborn says. "I've grown up here. I've been here 16 years."
Osborn is vice president of newsroom product and transformation at NBC News and MSNBC. Like his previous two jobs, the position was created for him in 2014. The job, as they say, is what you make of it. And Osborn has more than made the most of the opportunity.
So much that NBC put him in charge of the development of NewsConnect, a collaborative dashboard used by the company's broadcast and digital journalists across NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, Telemundo, and NBC-owned TV stations to update stories and track breaking news through social media and reporters across the world.
"It's interesting to watch these stories take shape in real time," Osborn says, toggling through a "hot" list of the day's stories. "It's the process that happens before it hits the audience that needs to be tighter than ever."
Osborn was living 30 Rock before the show 30 Rock. The Litchfield, Connecticut, native applied to NBC's prestigious page program after graduating from Vanderbilt University in 2001. Pages typically spend a year learning the ins and outs of the NBC operation, from serving as studio audience ushers for Saturday Night Live to, in Osborn's case, boxing T-shirts for the "Where in the world is Matt Lauer?" segment.
"My second interview was supposed to be on September 11," Osborn recalled over coffee inside the NBC employee café at Rockefeller Plaza.
He got the job—and soon would find himself along with the rest of his NBC colleagues not just covering the news. After 9/11, multiple media outlets and politicians received letters containing anthrax, including NBC News. As a precaution, the network handed out packs of the powerful antibiotic Cipro.
They were unsettling times, but they were also full of promise for Osborn, who met his wife, Lauren, at NBC. She had also been a page and was Katie Couric's assistant. They now have three children.
"One of the best parts about the page program is you learn about all parts of the company," Osborn says. That was abundantly clear as Osborn greeted a cavalcade of producers, camera operators, and security guards at Rockefeller Plaza, navigating concourses, escalators, and the control room of the Today show.
"Where my career really took off was when I was willing to work the overnight at the Today show," he says.
On the set of Today, Osborn is at home. He ought to be. He helped come up with the concept of the Orange Room, the vivid set of NBC's morning flagship show that was christened in late 2013. Newsmakers and celebrity guests can post pictures on a wall of the set, which even has a space for the show's resident puppy.
Another breakthrough for Osborn came in 2007, when at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, he met a designer of an emerging social media platform. Its name? Twitter. Osborn went home and helped create and managed the Today show's account. But he was still finding his voice.
"At the time, it was do I say, I? Do I say, we?" says Osborn, who became social media director for NBC News in 2009 and helped write a best practices guide for the company. "The standards team doesn't necessarily want to hear from some kid."
When Capt. Sully Sullenberger safely landed US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River after a bird strike in 2009, it was Osborn who used his Twitter savvy to connect with an eyewitness. "I had direct-messaged him and said, 'Hey, can we use this photo? Is it real?'" Osborn says.
At a time when "fake news" is part of the national lexicon, Osborn says there are no shortcuts. "I think we have a lot of work to do as far as educating the audience about how all sources are not the same," Osborn says. "Not all information is created equal."
And no one knows better than Osborn that the sell-by date on news is fleeting. "News is a calling," he says. "If anything, it's tough to turn off."
Braden Cleveland Bergan '92
It was a story that needed to be told.
But the skills summoned by this narrative—one of shock, anguish, and emotional healing—aren't taught in journalism school.
A special kind of empathy, patience, and integrity was what it would take to tell the story of a student production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in Newtown, Connecticut, 18 months after the deadliest elementary school shooting in U.S. history.
And Braden Cleveland Bergan '92, a producer of the critically acclaimed documentary Midsummer in Newtown, wouldn't settle for anything less.
The New York City-based veteran storyteller relocated to Connecticut for an entire summer for the project, one in which she became deeply invested. She is a producer for The Documentary Group, the independent production company behind the project.
"The more time I spent in Newtown, the more I heard from everyone there, 'You have to talk to some of the families that are the center of this,'" Bergan says. "When I did, I learned more from them than I've learned from anybody else in my adult life of what courage really looks like."
For the 81-minute documentary, which was screened at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, Bergan extensively interviewed Nelba Márquez-Greene, a family therapist, and Jimmy Greene, a jazz saxophonist and music professor, who lost their daughter, Ana Grace Márquez-Greene, in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. She was 6.
"The idea behind the documentary was that the arts and performing arts can be a very powerful antidote to the worst of human behavior, and can bring people together in a way that is incredibly profound," she says. "But ultimately, even more than the power of the arts, it's about how people respond in the face of unimaginable pain. As Jimmy and Nelba told us in the film, 'You can't control what happens in life. But you can control how you respond. How can we, in some way, reflect love and beauty through all the horror that we've been through?'"
Bergan, who went to Yale University, learned from some of the best in the business. A summer internship with 60 Minutes had a monumental influence on her.
"I was so lucky. I got assigned to one of Mike Wallace's producing teams," she says.
An associate producer at CBS took her under his wing, teaching her how to make investigative calls, brainstorm, and pitch stories.
"I really hadn't thought about television journalism as a career possibility until that summer," she says.
But her path to becoming a storyteller was roundabout, with Bergan teaching English in Africa and working in public relations in San Francisco before applying to be a production associate with 60 Minutes.
"I did a phone interview with them and took a huge pay cut and moved back to New York," says Bergan, who has two children.
A year later, Bergan was promoted to associate producer on Lesley Stahl's team. "She was one of the best mentors I could have asked for," Bergan says. In the summer of 2012, Bergan left New York to join her husband in Vietnam, where he was doing research for a Ph.D. There, she served as an editorial consultant and script supervisor for The Tale of An Phuc House, an award-winning documentary about third-generation victims of Agent Orange. She also field produced a story for Stahl in Vietnam.
Bergan recently produced two episodes for the Discovery channel series The Age of Aerospace, one on jet fighter pioneer James McDonnell and the second on Frank Piasecki, the inventor of the tandem rotor helicopter. (Coincidentally, Piasecki's grandson, Otto Piasecki '19, is an upper mid at Taft.) The documentary series was funded by a grant from Boeing to celebrate its 100th anniversary.
"We were really investigating a lot of unreported stuff," she says. "There are no real biographies of either of these two men."
It's the untold stories that keeps Bergan dedicated to her craft.
Jon Dann '70
The forgotten have a voice—his name is Jon Dann '70.
From Vietnam to Iraq, they served their country valiantly, only to suffer the severe physical and emotional toll of war. Languishing in VA hospitals. Waiting for someone to tell their story. Waiting for someone like Dann, an award-winning broadcast news veteran turned documentary filmmaker.
Dann spent more than six months interviewing veterans at a mental hospital in Menlo Park, California, in 1982 when the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was then a relatively new diagnosis.
"If you want to learn the truth about combat, that's a good place to go. It ain't Hollywood," Dann says. "I keep wanting to go back. These stories take a certain level of emotional courage. It's pretty agonizing stuff."
Dann, who protested the Vietnam War as a Stanford University student, reprised his role.
He won his third duPont-Columbia Award for producing the PBS special War Stories from Ward #7D, which chronicled the plight of Iraq war veterans suffering from traumatic brain injuries. "These were some of the most physically damaged people I have ever seen," Dann says.
"One of the things we do is we get to report on these stories, but we also get to walk away from them," says Dann, who in 2013 started Jon Dann Communications, based in Mill Valley, California.
Those entrusting Dann with their stories are much more than sources. It's a give-and-take. It's a relationship, not a transaction.
"I always wished that there was a way to hand out a card at the beginning of meeting someone I interview that says, 'Trust me,'" Dann says. "In my experience there's no other way to succeed at it, other than being really authentic and truthful and spending a lot of time with them. I would rather we both went into the interview with our eyes open. Everybody feels vulnerable."
Dann's career has spanned more than 30 years and taken him from radio and television in the San Francisco Bay Area to producer for Dateline NBC and CNBC. He also has done freelance investigative reporting for the Los Angeles Times and Rolling Stone.
"When I got into it, Watergate was this great moment in American journalism," he says. "The opportunity to follow in Woodward and Bernstein's footsteps was what got me into the business."
For CNBC, Dann produced the Emmy-nominated documentary, Marijuana Inc.: Inside America's Pot Industry, which has aired more than 100 times and was the highest-rated documentary in the network's history.
"It wasn't just the acceptability of marijuana, it was the degree to which it had become integrated into our economy, most notably here in Northern California," Dann says. "Is this a good thing or a bad thing? We still don't know. It was a moment where it all got dragged out into the sunlight. Politicians and society in general had to contend with it really as a fait accompli. It kind of forced society to reckon with it."
Through all of the twists and turns of Dann's career and the evolution of the industry, there is one constant: the truth.
"It's really rare that you can make your living by being allowed to tell the truth," Dann says. "We're all seeing how fragile the truth can be, even in a democratic society. I'm so heartened by the courage of the news media right now. It's sort of turning into their finest hour."
Neil Vigdor '95 is the statewide political writer for Hearst Connecticut Media, which owns eight daily newspapers and 11 weeklies in the state and Connecticut Magazine.