Broadcast Journalist Phil Ponce on Breaking in

Phil Ponce is host of Chicago Tonight, a nightly news program on Chicago’s WTTW channel 11 and earned an undergraduate degree in English from Indiana University and a law degree from the University of Michigan. In 1997, Ponce joined the Washington, D.C.-based NewsHour with Jim Lehrer as an anchor. Two years later, Ponce returned to Chicago to host Chicago Tonight; he also teaches at Loyola University Chicago.

Ebyline chatted with Ponce about breaking into broadcast journalist and using digital technology. Excerpts follow.

I see you practiced law for a number of years before getting into journalism – when and how did that switch happen?

I practiced law for six years and then decided that really I was not particularly good at confrontation. It struck me that broadcast journalism would allow me to tap in to some of the analytic skills that being a lawyer enables you to have and helps you hone, and the presentation skills from law I thought would also be effective. I made that segue when I was 30, and I became a weekend reporter for a station in Indianapolis, and then they hired me full-time and I eventually came to Chicago.

How do you view all the technological innovations in your field?

I think the technological developments have been an overwhelming plus, because first and foremost, you’re called upon to prepare for whatever encounter you’re having. My gosh, the ability to prepare now – it’s a different world. The first step to be a good journalist or technical writer is to be prepared.

Does growing up with the internet and its shortcuts decrease the discipline of younger journalists?

The upsides outweigh the downsides. For a journalist who was completely weaned on the internet era – I think he or she just basically has to be aware. The old cliché about Wikipedia:  it’s a great way to start your research and a terrible way to end it. Caveat emptor – you have to beware of the information that you’re consuming. As long as you bring the instinct of double-checking and a healthy skepticism as to your source material – as long as you’re bringing that to bear as you do your research, then I think you should be OK.

Do you have any  advice for people like your students who are just starting to get their feet wet? What tech skills would help them the most?

I would say that the expectation for any employer is that any person is completely web savvy and is completely familiar with the internet and is completely flexible in learning different web-based presentation tools that we have in television – that’s just a given. We assume you have it, and if you don’t you’re in trouble, because you’re not going to be competitive!

Was that instinct of cutting through all that noise and knowing when you have enough something that you had to develop after the internet “happened”? Did you initially find yourself overwhelmed and stressed?

That’s a good question and I would say usually the clock took care of that for me! You run out of time! One of the reasons why, for example, if I’m preparing for an interview and there is a blogger out there and a New York Times profile, and I’ve got 15 minutes? I’m going to go to The New York Times profile because they have a track record and credibility. I’m not saying that that blogger might not be brilliant and better than the Times, but I would say that in terms of going after a brand that defines reliable content, all things being equal, maybe this is an old school notion, I’m going to The New York Times.

Do you recall any time you made a serious blunder in using the internet?

I would say there probably have been a couple of instances where for whatever reason I didn’t find the most recent article, and the question I asked was premised on outdated material. That has happened. And the person has said, Well you know that’s different now, and I say Oh, my mistake, and we go on. As long as you acknowledge it. No one expects perfection out of an interviewer. If you mess up, if you make a mistake on one interview, it’s not a big deal. I think people judge a person’s work over a span of time. All of us are human, and we make the occasional mistake.

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