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Thaxton rises from family camcorder to career in broadcast journalism

Fri, Jan 4, 2013

One on One

There was never a doubt that Zach Thaxton would enter the field of broadcast journalism.

The KOAA News 5 general assignment reporter and fill-in anchor, now 34, remembers watching the news as a tot every day after Sesame Street and being fascinated by the “Muppet” (actually a weatherman) who was pointing to a big U.S. map behind him.

Thaxton, who grew up in Evergreen, was only 5 when he started following family members around with a camcorder, documenting their every move.

He landed his first news gig in Medford, Ore., where he was a producer and anchor of the morning newscast. He came back to Colorado in 2004 and worked as co-anchor for the morning and midday newscasts at KRDO, where he won an Emmy for Best Morning Newscast.

In 2010, he moved to KOAA, the local NBC affiliate, where he is a general assignment reporter and anchors the weekend evening newscasts. His favorite broadcast journalist was longtime ABC anchor Peter Jennings, but Thaxton doesn’t consider himself a “shake-’em-upside-down-for-everything-they-know” reporter, he said. He is more interested in the stories of real people.

What got you interested in broadcast journalism?

I became interested in broadcast journalism as soon as I could formulate conscious thought. I was no more than 5-years-old when I decided, KNEW, that broadcasting would be my calling. From re-enactments of “Wheel of Fortune” segments to play-by-play commentary for “Tecmo Super Bowl” to videography of the truly mundane everyday events of life with the family camcorder, there was no doubt ever that my future would revolve around broadcasting, whether that involved journalism or something more performance-oriented.

Who is your favorite broadcast journalist and why?

My favorite broadcast journalist is the late Peter Jennings. A Canadian high school dropout, he was hired in his early 20s to anchor ABC’s evening national news broadcast. A huge honor for such a young man, but he knew it was an honor undeserved, so he relinquished the national anchor position to explore and learn the entire nation as a field reporter, then doing the same in the Middle East as a bureau chief in Beirut. Only then did he feel he had earned the honor of being anchor for “World News Tonight.” Even so, he always regretted never finishing high school, which kept him humble at his core despite being one of the most recognized people in the world at the height of his career. I admire his humility, tenacity, and commitment to always learn even though he abandoned a formal education.

What is your favorite kind of story to cover, and why?

I’m not a shake-’em-upside-down-for-everything-they-know type of reporter. There are places and situations for those types of hard-nosed investigative reporters and there are some very good ones out there. I’m just not one of them. I prefer the stories of real, everyday people — stories that convey raw realism, genuine emotion ranging from elation to devastation, and no pretense or agenda. The story of an elderly couple who lost their summer home in the Hayman Fire who just can’t shake the images of that fateful day and weep in sympathy with those who lost homes in Mountain Shadows. The story of a 6-year-old girl nearly killed in a dog attack, only to make a complete recovery and show as much strength and compassion for her father dying of rare illness as he did for her during the ambulance ride to the hospital and subsequent surgeries and recovery. There is no politics or policy or public “officials” in those stories — just real people with something to say that might mean something profound to someone else watching at home. Those are the stories I prefer.

What do you think was the biggest story in Colorado Springs in 2012?

There can be no doubt that the Waldo Canyon fire was the biggest story in Colorado Springs in 2012. Other stories resonated — the no-solicitation ordinance to curb panhandling downtown, the Pro Cycle Challenge coming through downtown, the fracking debate, the Memorial Hospital transfer, Fort Carson deployments and homecomings, and so on. But when the Waldo Canyon fire blew up and made its fateful run into Mountain Shadows on the all-time hottest afternoon in recorded history in the city as tens of thousands of people (or more — there was no way to measure) watched live on uninterrupted television broadcasts, everyone knew they were a witness to history unfolding before their very eyes. It changed lives, it altered the landscape permanently, and it will affect planning and policy for agencies of all types for generations to come. Other stories had impact in 2012, but nothing comes within shouting distance of the Waldo Canyon fire.

City officials have placed a big emphasis and a stated goal of retaining and attracting young professionals to the Springs. What advice would you give them to reach their goal?

It would seem the Springs might have a huge advantage in attracting and retaining young professionals to the city. We boast breathtaking scenery, second-to-none outdoor recreation, convenient access to Denver, ski resorts, and whitewater rafting, and a vibrant downtown nightlife. However, the Springs struggles mightily to retain young professionals. In the local media industry, for example, many (if not most) of the 20- and 30-something media professionals here view Colorado Springs as a stepping stone to the “next market,” i.e. the big city — often, Denver. Why? Denver has a reputation as one of the best cities for young professionals in the country. A thriving arts and music culture, state-of-the-art shopping and entertainment venues, a lively year-round professional sports environment and expansive parks system, high-income opportunity in innovative industries and the reward of being able to afford residence in one of the high-rise downtown towers catering specifically to the under-40 professionals crowd. In that regard, Colorado Springs has a lot of work to do to compete. Colorado Springs does a good job of portraying itself as a family-oriented city — and it is. However, many of today’s young professionals are waiting longer to get married and start a family so they can fully establish their careers and earning potential before establishing hearth and home. These young, unmarried, single-income professionals are not only seeking the well-paying jobs that can help them set their financial footing, but also the after-work and weekend diversions locally that make the hard work worth sticking around for during time off, rather than escaping and, inevitably, finding somewhere else they’d rather reside. The local running clubs, like Jack Quinn’s, Colorado Springs Young Professionals monthly gatherings, holiday toy drives and fund-raisers, and even Sky Sox games bring young professionals in the Springs out in droves, but it seems the City is not recognizing, embracing, and/or promoting these events and organizations as ways or reasons to attract and retain young professionals. Attracting the businesses and industries that will hire 20- and 30-somethings is part of the process. Convincing those people to stay is equally as important.

The community often has a love/hate relationship with reporters — broadcast, web and print. How do you deal with that?

Many view media as “The Man,” like law enforcement, elected officials, lawyers, and business executives. Nobody likes “The Man” to keep them down, and sometimes viewers, listeners, and readers think our job description must be to lie, pander, steer, and exploit. It’s simply not the case. Our job is to keep tabs on those in positions of authority to ensure that they are not lying, pandering, steering, and exploiting. When we discover they are, it’s our job to notify our audience and follow the accountability process. It’s important to recognize, though, that the local television and radio stations and publications are parts of private, for-profit companies. The local media are not an elected, representative body of the people, by the people, for the people. We are hired by private employers to fulfill the terms and conditions of a specific job description. As journalists, fundamentally, our job is to be advocates for our viewers/readers/listeners and serve them in their best interests so that, ultimately, we earn and retain their trust and loyalty, i.e. ratings and subscriptions. It’s up to our sales, promotions, and marketing teams to attract investors in the product. It’s easy to understand the “hate” aspect of the love/hate relationship between the public and the media. As for the “love” aspect — everyone appreciates recognition and kudos for their hard work and effort. I’m blessed to be in an industry where people are often eager to reach out and say, “Hey, I watch you all the time! I like what you do, man! Thanks!” It is very gratifying to hear that. But next time you see someone in the grocery store wearing surgical scrubs, a mail delivery uniform, camouflage fatigues, overalls with paint stains and pipe-fitting tools, a greasy polo from the nearby auto fix-it shop, and the apron-wearing workers at the store themselves, thank them, too. Their work is not in the public eye like ours and they’re not “celebrities,” but they are just as deserving of recognition and appreciation for their work as we are. It still makes us smile, and we’re quite used to it. I guarantee it’ll make them smile wider!

In addition to reporting, you are a fill-in anchor at KOAA. What are your career aspirations?

I have anchored from the news set throughout my career much more than I’ve reported in the field. I anchored and produced the morning newscast at the NBC affiliate in Medford, Ore. in 2002-2003 and anchored the morning and midday newscasts at KRDO Channel 13 here in Colorado Springs from 2004-2010. Now, I’m anchoring the weekend evenings and filling in for evening anchor Rob Quirk and morning anchor Adam Atchison at KOAA Channel 5 when the situation calls for it and I’m enjoying it very much. I can honestly say that I have already fulfilled my television career aspirations. Some people in this industry aim for New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or the big cable networks. The brighter the lights, the bigger the audience, the better, right? That’s not me. I’m a Coloradan. I bleed the red, white, blue, and gold of our state flag. My only ambition from childhood through high school and college was to be a full-time news anchor in my home state at some point in my life, and I fulfilled that ambition and then some. Eventually, I’ll probably leave the TV news biz, but I’ll stay here in Colorado and enjoy a paradigm shift into a new and unfamiliar industry or line of work. But when you ask about my career aspirations, I’ve already achieved them. Well before age 40. How lucky am I!?

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