SPJ 2020 Journalism Conference • Sept. 12-13, 2020



‘Retirement’ isn’t in his vocabulary

By Billy O'Keefe

By Michael Malik
Indiana University
A deadly tornado in Topeka, Kan., and a simple warning — “for God’s sake, take cover” — propelled Bill Kurtis into a career in journalism. The Washburn University School of Law grad was studying to pass the bar when a friend asked Kurtis to fill in at a local TV station that day.

Veteran broadcaster Bill Kurtis, whose 40-year career in journalism is marked by achievements on both the business and editorial sides, gave the keynote speech at Friday morning’s opening session at the Hyatt Regency Chicago. (Photo by Rachael Strecher, Columbia College)

Veteran broadcaster Bill Kurtis, whose 40-year career in journalism is marked by achievements on both the business and editorial sides, gave the keynote speech at Friday morning’s opening session at the Hyatt Regency Chicago. (Photo by Rachael Strecher, Columbia College)

After staying on air for 24 hours, Kurtis knew it was a defining moment in his life. His career since, “is history,” the 65-year-old said.
Kurtis put his journalism degree from the University of Kansas to good use and has been in the business for 40 years. He moved to Chicago in 1966 to work as a reporter and later as an anchorman for the CBS affiliate, WBBM-TV. He then spent three years in New York hosting “The CBS Morning News,” but “I didn’t enjoy getting up early,” Kurtis said. “I enjoy being hands on.”
Kurtis decided to leave the network, which he called another defining moment, and came back to Chicago in 1985. He began to produce documentaries and returned to work as an anchorman for the station he left until 1996.
However, in 1990 he started Kurtis Productions to make documentaries and teamed up with A&E a year later. In the past 15 years, he produced thousands of documentaries and narrated more than 500 shows, he said.
But Kurtis doesn’t see it as work. “That’s not only good volume, that’s a good contribution,” he said.

Keynote Highlights
Why, then, don’t we feel better informed? One of the reasons is the newscast itself, the kind of news being presented and the style.
In my old age I’ve become an entrepreneur, not just through my own production company with documentaries, but raising natural beef cattle … an alternative (food choice for many) ordinary people. (Most consume) food that is short on nutrition, loaded with sugars, salts and fats and packaged very attractively and easy to mindlessly consume. And when you’ve finished it you want more and more … The more you are fed the more you want. The more your palate dances to the high fat, sugars and salts (the more it) rejects the leaner, time consuming, slow-to-chew product. Only … sugar coated, fatty, salty images are now appealing to you, so they are sought after. So the marketplace thinks that’s all the public wants. Why? Because it has shelf life and you can keep it on that shelf as long as you want to sell it.
Let’s apply that model to the news business. We have lots of information presented by highly talented reporters, producers, and editors. But when we examine a newscast it often looks like our over-processed food supply. Sugars are celebrity gossip stories. Salts are crime stories producing a lot of heat. The fats are tabloidesque stories, packaged very attractively — mindless and easy to consume.

Kurtis is not all work and no play. He was the narrator for the film “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” and enjoys returning to his native Kansas where he has invested a great amount of his time, money and sweat into restoring a town in the southeastern corner of the state.
Sedan is about 37 miles from where he grew up in Independence, Kan. Despite spending years traveling around the world, he ended up where he started. Kurtis said small towns are dying and he has taken it upon himself to try to find a solution.
“As people have moved 60 or 70 years ago, two percent lived in the big cities with 98 percent living in a rural setting,” Kurtis said. “Now that number has switched.”
Kurtis, who owns 10,000 acres of land and a ranch that markets organic grass-fed beef, said he hopes to bring tourism to the town.
If it seems like Kurtis is thinking and acting like a 25-year-old, he is the first to admit it.
“It can be trouble in some cases,” he says. “I’ve got 20 more years. You can’t play golf for 20 years.”
Kurtis has eliminated the word “retirement” from his vocabulary, saying instead that he is entering the third phase of his life. He said the first two were education and a career. Now he has to put those to use to make a contribution to the world.
“You get up in the morning saying ‘what big story you can cover?’” Kurtis said. “Maybe the really big one is around the corner? That’s the way a reporter wakes up.”




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