Thursday, June 29, 2017

CBS Sunday Morning Producer Amy Wall (GSAS ’94) on Her Passion for Telling Stories

Amy Wall
Amy Wall (GSAS ’94) is a producer for CBS Sunday Morning.  She has done stories on a wide range of subjects such as the Carnegie Hero Awards, The Women’s March, government funding for art organizations, and profiles on every day people, such as the story about a man who takes care of the horse Waco Hanover, a retired harness racer.  She recently shared with us how NYU helped to shape her journalistic career, and how Czech puppet-maker and filmmaker Jiri Trnka inspired her to go into journalism.

Do you have a favorite memory from your time at NYU?

I studied English and American literature at NYU.  I was a part-time graduate student so I didn’t spend a huge amount of time on campus.  I was working at CBS News full-time so it’s always been about work for me.  I had an early morning shift at CBS back then working in the affiliate video newsgathering and distribution department called Newspath. When I ended my work day, I started my student day.  Night classes were brutal.  I still feel bad for my linguistics professor.  That was my latest class and I had a very hard time keeping my eyes open.  The class was great – it wasn’t his fault!  But I will say…I absolutely loved the NYU library.  I spent a lot of time there.  I remember riding home on the subway with books piled high on my lap.  I must have been quite a sight, but I also remember feeling so proud to finally be an NYU student.
Amy Wall: her story continues

What made you decide to pursue a master’s degree?

It seemed the natural course of action coming from a home of academicians.  Attending NYU was actually a childhood dream.  When I was a kid I either wanted to be an author or an actress and my dream was to go to NYU or UCLA.  I was one of five kids and there was no way my parents would be able to afford to send us all to college.  My father was a history professor and later a university administrator and my mother was a literature and women’s studies professor.  I always knew that to afford college, I would have to attend an institution where at least one of them worked because I’d be able to get free tuition.  My parents did not work at NYU or UCLA.  My father worked at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Rutherford, New Jersey (FDU), so I went there.  I was lucky that they had wonderful liberal arts professors, but I found myself leaning toward communications.  So I switched to the Teaneck campus and studied communications and theater as an undergrad.  But I never stopped feeling that I missed out on NYU and/or UCLA.  When I found out that CBS offered tuition reimbursement for graduate studies, I applied to NYU since I was living in New York City.  CBS paid 75% of my NYU tuition.  It was really about fulfilling one part of a dream.

How has your educational experience at NYU shaped what you do now?

My education has profoundly shaped what I do now.  My love of story-telling comes from my love of literature, history and theater.  What I loved about my studies at NYU was the way the professors brought literature to life by telling stories I didn’t know.  They took us outside the works of fiction and poetry and taught us about who the authors were and what influenced them. They talked about relationships that the authors had, the places they lived, the politics of the time, their struggles and triumphs.  It connected me to their work in a way I didn’t experience from my undergraduate coursework.  And that’s what I do now, I try to find stories that people don’t know or want to know more about. 

Amy Wall with her eight-month-old son at the 2008 Democratic Convention
Amy with eight-month-old son at the 2008 Democratic Convention
What do you do as a producer for CBS Sunday Morning?

I am a “piece producer” for CBS Sunday Morning.  That means I come up with story ideas, research them, find people who will talk to me on camera, get a camera crew, and go shoot the stories.  Once I have all the material I need, I either write the story, or work with the reporter on the writing of the story, before the story goes to an editor.  It’s a very collaborative process.  Once the story is approved, it’s up to the producer in conjunction with the assigned reporter to figure out the best way to tell the story.  There’s a lot of conversation in advance about what experts to get, what characters to highlight (people who have experienced what you’re talking about – your subjects), and what video you need to tell the story.  When all your video and your script go to the (video) editor, that’s when the magic happens.  Everyone at Sunday Morning is smart and creative and the editors never cease to amaze me.  They do brilliant work.

What drew you to work in journalism, and specifically in television? 

Jiri Trnka, a Czech puppet-maker and filmmaker.  Yes, that does sound crazy.  He made a film called “The Hand” which I was shown in an anthropology class at FDU.  I was a very intense young person so this film hit me hard.  And not the film as much as the message it conveyed. Trnka was a very popular filmmaker/animator in his day.  He was referred to as the Walt Disney of Eastern Europe.  Children and adults loved his work.  Shortly before he died, he released a film called “The Hand.” The film’s anti-totalitarian message was missed by the Czech government at the time, but after he died, they realized that it was an anti-government film and banned the film.  Imagine banning Disney movies in America?  If Trnka lived now, maybe he’d be a journalist or documentarian.  Who knows? 

I’m no Trnka though.  I’m not a very subtle person; I tend to be more “in your face,” so it was never appealing to me to hide a message, especially since I live in a society where I don’t have to.  My preference has always been to tell the truth.  To unveil the hidden and unknown, or the misunderstood, or the unexamined and tell stories in a way that make sense to people in a very matter of fact way.  That’s why I chose journalism.  I wanted to tell stories that have an immediate reach. That’s why I chose television.  I am a visual thinker so television seemed the best medium for me – and there were jobs – not many - but there were jobs - and I needed a job.

How did you get your start at CBS Sunday Morning?

I’m relatively new to Sunday Morning.  I’ve been here for two years.  My background is actually breaking news.  I spent 25 years working in a department for CBS that deals with breaking news stories.  We brought in video via satellite fiber lines and distributed it to all our stations and clients.  Not unlike a wire service – but with video.  I dealt mostly with international broadcasters and with CBS affiliate stations that needed footage from overseas.  I worked my way up to a managerial position so I helped manage the department and staff for about 10 years.  Eventually I started to feel the need for more creative outlets.

I was told by many that getting a job at Sunday Morning was a) a long shot b) not going to happen c) impossible.  I knew I didn’t want to be in breaking news anymore and that I really wanted to tell more in-depth stories.  The only stories I wanted to tell were the kinds of stories Sunday Morning produced.  So without long-format program experience, I boldly presented myself to the Executive Producer of Sunday Morning, Rand Morrison.  For some reason it felt easier to sell myself when the odds were not in my favor.  I already had a steady job so I felt I had nothing to lose.  After rehearsing from a notebook for two days, I went into [his] office and told him about myself – mostly about my love of writing and my story ideas. I lucked out.  It turns out that Sunday Morning needed to hire someone temporarily to produce a version of the show for the Smithsonian Channel.  When I say produce a version, I mean make sure that all the video is clear for another broadcaster and make sure the show is timely – meaning it can air any day of the week.  My old department was willing to lend me to Sunday Morning for the duration of the Smithsonian contract (six months) and two days before I was supposed to go back to my old job, Rand Morrison told me I was hired.  Full-time.  My jaw hit the floor.  I think I heard a lot of jaws hit the floor that day.  I walked around grinning for the next six months.  I’m still grinning, but the reality of how hard this is has definitely sunk in!  I’m in awe of my colleagues, and of the integrity of this program, which is driven by a very talented team.

What is a typical day like for you at your job?

What I love about working in news is there is no typical day.  I’m not good with typical days.  Routine is my enemy.  When I’m not actively working on a story – meaning travelling, writing, editing etc… I am looking for stories or working on getting people on the show (also known as planning or booking).  I’ve been working on getting a few big names and it’s a lot harder than I thought it would be – but it’s fun.  I love a challenge.  There is more flexibility in this position than in my old job, but there are times when I’m juggling several stories at once and that can be a lot of pressure. 

What I love about my job is meeting people and traveling in the USA.  Most of my travelling over the years, beyond political conventions, primaries, and caucuses, has been overseas.  It’s quite an amazing opportunity to be able to travel within the US.  I went to Texas and Arkansas last year.  Beautiful states.  I went to Kentucky this year for the first time.  These are places I just never thought about going and I’m so glad this job lets me do that. There are so many amazing people and places in this country.  And so many stories to tell.  I really enjoy meeting and talking to people from all different backgrounds. 

Do you have any stories you have done that have been memorable in some way for you? 

I have a couple of favorites and a couple that didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped.  It can be quite a roller coaster. My favorite one, though, is probably the “Carnegie Hero Awards.”  It was a story that was assigned to me when I first started at Sunday Morning.  I began the research and making the phone calls my second week here.  I was surprised at that time to find that the Carnegie staff didn’t seem all that interested in having Sunday Morning tell their story.  In fact, they sounded really surprised that I would want to.  About a year later I got a call from their new director who was very interested in having us do a story on the [Carnegie Hero Fund] and that got me going.

The Carnegie Hero Fund was started by steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie at the beginning of the 20th century.  He was so moved by the heroism shown by many during a fatal mine disaster just outside of Pittsburgh, that he wanted to start a fund that would reward people for saving, or attempting to save, the life of another human being.  Four times a year, approximately 25 people are awarded a medal, and a small amount of money – about $5000 – by the foundation.  I went to southern Illinois where I met with two such heroes and their families.  One of the things I learned about the Carnegie Hero Fund is that they never wanted publicity because they are heroes themselves.  No real hero wants to be acknowledged as such, so they’ve quietly done this for almost 140 years without much recognition at all.  They are a wonderful group of people who love the work they do, [and are] heroes working with heroes.  The correspondent on the story was Scott Simon from NPR.  What a treat it was to work with such a professional. He was perfect for this story.

Do you have any advice for alumni or current students who are looking to pursue a career in journalism? 

There are three things I usually tell people. 

1)  Don’t go into journalism for the money – you will be sorely disappointed.  Go into journalism because you love to tell stories and you love the truth.  Go into it because you have a detective in your heart that loves to research and be connected to the world outside your own.  Let the idealist in you take over and go for it.  This is not a glamorous business so be prepared for long, hard hours/days/weeks.  Sometimes it’s dirty, sometimes it’s mean, but it’s worth it if you love it.  You need a thick skin.  I’m still working on that and I’ve been doing this for 30 years.

2) Perfect your writing skills.  I’ve been a writer all my life but this is a different style of writing and I work every day to get tuned to this style. I’ve always been a rambler and as I said to my boss, “it’s easy to write a book, it’s a lot harder to write a short story.” There is no rambling in TV no matter how long you’re given for a story.  [You need] “precision of language” (I stole that from Lois Lowry) and “economy of words.”  Know your story arc before you sit at the keyboard.  Write to it.  Be willing to let go of entire chunks of your hard work that just don’t fit.  The important thing is not your ego…but that your audience understands what you’re trying to convey.  When in doubt, ask for help.  It’s a team effort.

3) Do an internship or two.  Getting a job has more to do with who you know (or better yet, who knows you).  You can have the best grades [and] the best personality, but what you can do on the job speaks louder.  Mentors are fantastic and experience is everything.

Lastly, do you have any activities or hobbies you like to do outside of work?

Outside of work, I’m a mom.  I have a 9 year old son who is my world beyond work.  Pretty much everything I do outside of work has to do with him, my husband, and my goofy mutt of a dog.  I’m a news junkie…obviously, but I’m also a real estate junkie.  That’s kind of weird, I know.  But one of my hobbies is to go through the real estate sites and look at properties and property values.  This might be paying off because my husband just started a house flipping business. 

I have written a few books – two “Idiot’s Guides” and two “Everything Books.”  I was a writer for hire in all cases, but the with the Idiot’s Guides I knew my subject matter pretty well.  The Everything Books, on the other hand, required A LOT of research.  [It was] good practice for Sunday Morning.  I’ve also written poetry that has been published in an online literary journal.  I have an idea for a novel and a screenplay…maybe I’ll get to those in my next life.  Otherwise, I’m a marathon Netflix and HBO watcher which I don’t feel so guilty about now that I have a treadmill in front of my TV.  I also like to cross-stitch, crochet and, of course, travel.  
Amy Wall and her family in Colorado
Amy and her family in Colorado in 2008

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