Broadcasting Grads

Broadcasting grads are tuned in to CNN

By Melissa Gonnion
J Alumni News staff

Most journalism students would die for the chance to work for one of the largest news networks in the world, but few get that chance.

Tom Laabs,Jim Vojtech, Cindy Beckler and Dave Nuckolls, all graduates of the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at NU, are lucky enough to have that opportunity at CNN, the Cable News Network. Beckler got in on the ground floor. The others came to the network by other routes.

Beckler, who just celebrated her 18th anniversary at CNN, said it is a miracle she is where she is. When she was in school, CNN was a brand new network that had been in operation only since June 1, 1980. CNN was sending recruits around to journalism colleges throughout the country searching for young, inexperienced graduates.

“I interviewed with them and got a call in November telling me to get out of school as soon as possible, move to Atlanta and work for $3.50 an hour as a camera operator,” Beckler said.

And Beckler did just that. She graduated in December 1980 and moved to Atlanta with her husband and one other couple, Frank Hyland, an NU graduate who continues to work for CNN Headline News, and his wife.

“I hadn’t even been out of school a year, and I had no idea where the job was going to go, so it’s amazing I’ve been here for 18 years now,” Beckler said. Beckler currently works in the “parenting” unit of CNN producing shows that cover issues ranging from the most basic elements of parenting, to education, medicine and tragedy.

It took Laabs a bit longer to get to CNN. In fact, it took him a bit longer to get into the broadcast industry at all.

Laabs said it was difficult to find a job after he graduated in 1993. After a four-month search, he found his first job, which was at Conus Communications, a satellite newsgathering operation.

“The media are some of the most competitive jobs. I was in the top 30 percent of my class, and it still took me four months to find a job,” Laabs said.

At Conus Communications as senior producer, Laabs was able to cover stories like the John F. Kennedy Jr. plane crash, Super Bowls and the Timothy McVeigh trial. But when Laabs was offered a job on the front lines of CNN’s national affiliate desk, he jumped at the opportunity.

Laabs, along with several others, is in charge of working with all 665 of CNN’s affiliates nationwide to coordinate information for CNN headquarters, and, when necessary, send it back out via satellite or fiber optics to other affiliates. Laabs said everything that goes on at CNN is a joint effort between CNN and each of its affiliates.

“We all help each other out a lot,” Laabs said. “If a story breaks somewhere and we can’t physically be there, then we just call up one of our affiliates in the area and they help us get the story.”

Laabs said he enjoyed working for CNN simply because it was so specialized and had so many different departments.

“Moving around from department to department is highly promoted. If I see something else I’m interested in doing, my superiors will do their best to see that I can do it,” Laabs said.

Vojtech said he enjoyed working for CNN because of all the different things he could do.

“One day I’ll be covering a flood, the next a plane crash, the next I’ll be interviewing John Travolta. It’s something new everyday.”

Vojtech graduated from NU in 1988 with a degree in broadcasting. He also found it difficult to find a job related to his degree. He had even started looking at fields other than journalism for job opportunities.

“The day that I interviewed with Mutual of Omaha, I was driving home past the Civic Auditorium and saw CNN vans all over the place. They were covering the vice presidential debate between Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle. I decided to go in and introduce myself, and they hired me as a production assistant to help with the debate,” Vojtech said.

That was how he got his foot in the door, he said. From there, Vojtech gave CNN his resume and tape and waited five-and-a-half months to get an interview. He got his second interview two days later and was hired as a video journalist in Atlanta. Rick Alloway, a broadcasting professor at NU, said Vojtech and Laabs were some of his best students, and he knew they would both go far.

“Tom’s job is perfect for him because he developed a lot of good negotiating skills at Conus that he can now put to good use,” Alloway said. “And Jim was determined to work for CNN from day one … his determination obviously paid off.”

Vojtech is now working in Los Angeles as a field producer, which includes a lot of live producing, interviews and working with reporters to get stories put together.

Dave Nuckolls, a 1986 NU graduate, has worked for CNN for the past two years as an executive producer of special 90-second projects. Nuckolls is currently working on a project called CNN 20 that will take a look at popular stories from the 20 years CNN has been in existence.

“I love what this company stands for,” Nuckolls said. “Their mantra is to bring the news to the viewer from anywhere in the world.”