Polly Van Doren of WKBW-TV started as news director at Channel 7 about two months ago. She brings 31 years of experience to the ABC affiliate.
As news director, Van Doren will set the tone of coverage at Channel 7, deciding what news to cover and how it will be presented. Van Doren comes to Buffalo determined to raise Eyewitness News from the ratings bottom.
She has shown her on-the-job resiliency elsewhere. First she rallied a newsroom in Springfield, Mo., after the unexpected loss of its director. And then Van Doren bounced back after suffering from depression that she attributed to job stress.
“I came to the [Buffalo] market knowing the challenges,” Van Doren said. “I don’t go around waiting for the Blessed Mother to appear on a potato chip, but this job called to me. At this point in my career, what good am I if I can’t help advance a cause?”
One in five women who experience high stress develop depression, said Kristi P. Smith, a clinical social worker in Williamsville. Smith described the body’s reaction to stress.
“When your body is in ‘fight or flight,’ you get an increase in cortisone levels and in adrenalin,” said Smith. “You experience rapid heart rate, tightening of muscles. Your breath quickens, senses become sharper. It keeps you focused, energetic, alert, but when there’s too much, it reaches a point that you start getting negative effects – damage to your health, your relationships. If it stays like that for an extended period of time, it depletes your endorphins.”
Under the best of conditions the job of news director can be grueling, according to Jill Geisler, a former news director who is now on the faculty of journalism’s Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“First, you’re in a constant state of high alert. Every newscast is a deadline,” said Geisler during a phone interview. “Second, you have instant metrics to measure your success or failure, the ability for third parties to look at the popularity of your performance. Because quality doesn’t always equal ratings, an anchor could set her hair on fire and that could get you ratings.”
Van Doren was a seasoned television journalist by the time she got to Springfield’s KOLR-TV, skilled in many newsroom positions. On Mother’s Day weekend in 1998, the death of KOLR news director Steve Snyder in a highway accident put Van Doren in charge.
“What was important to me about the whole process is learning to lead people when they are at their lowest after they lost their news director,” Van Doren recalled. “It certainly is not how you would want to begin your first gig as a news director.”
Van Doren went on to thrive at KOLR. Yet the skill set that defined her career may have worked against her.
“People like to do what they are good at,” is how Geisler explained it. “Every news director used to do something else. They used to be a producer, reporter, photographer and they have a really hard time taking their paws off.”
Van Doren recalled entering her seventh year as news director at KOLR believing she was the mother ship.
“I thought I had to do it all,” she said. “I felt I had to ensure the happiness of every single person in the newsroom. I took everything so deeply personally that it became impossible to contend with. No one can function that way. You have to learn to delegate, how to switch it off.”
In August 2005, Van Doren was hospitalized for depression. The timing, she said, was the ultimate irony.
“Hospitalized for nine days right in the middle of [Hurricane] Katrina, and they restricted how much I could watch television,” Van Doren recalled. “Are you kidding me? It’s not like I was locked away in a padded cell. I was in a lovely place. I’d get updates from my family, my newsroom.”
Van Doren’s frankness can be disarming.
“One of the reasons I needed help is because I was like a pharmacological experiment,” said Van Doren. “I had a doctor who was [prescription] happy. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to talk about my struggle. There are so many people out there who have been pushed on pills. ‘You’re having a bad day? You’re crying? Well, take this.’ It’s rampant.”
Geisler wrote about Van Doren for Poynter in 2006, in “Taking a Time Out: Lessons from News Directors’ Medical Leaves.” Today, she speaks highly of Van Doren’s professional tenacity.
“If you’re responsible for the quality of the product, the integrity of the product, the popularity of the product, and then you’re responsible for having people do their best work? You really have a recipe for nonstop stress,” Geisler said. “Many news directors don’t deal with stress well, and that’s a shame. Set priorities. You need to be doing that which only you can do. Delegate.”
Debriefing is also important, according to Smith, the social worker.
“That’s where counseling comes in,” said Smith. “Have a safe place to share what is going on. Exercise is also key. Having hobbies and utilizing your support network. Plus the basics like adequate sleep and nutrition.
Van Doren returned to the newsroom in Springfield after one month off. The unwavering support she received from colleagues was the elixir she needed.
“Once I found the room could function fine with a good leader, I have had no recurrence of those issues,” she said. “I’m strong, resilient and I’m a survivor, and that serves me well in my role as a news director.”
What did she learn from the experience?
“Put things in perspective,” she said. “Recognize when you are living, breathing and sleeping your job. You cannot let your job consume you or enslave you.”
At WKBW, Van Doren said her initial priority is to improve the graphic look of the news, tighten the on-air presentation and increase production quality.
“I want people to be able to turn on Channel 7 and see that we are accurately reflecting the lives of people who live in the community,” Van Doren said. “You’ll see crime coverage, but you won’t see it titillating. You can cover police blotter all day long, but you have to give it context. I don’t like slash and trash and tabloid journalism.”
Van Doren, a Missouri native, has an apartment on Buffalo’s waterfront; her husband is remaining in Springfield until they find a home in Western New York. She relishes Buffalo’s architecture, misses her pets, and keeps in close contact with daughter Kathryn, a registered nurse in Springfield who plans to be a nurse practitioner.
“At no point in my life would I have dreamed I would move to Buffalo, New York,” Van Doren said. “The opportunity came out of nowhere.”
At the station, Van Doren has worked all shifts to get a picture of the way its newsroom operates. She wants to restore the legacy of Channel 7 – one person at a time.
“I know the needs of the newsroom and the hard-working nature of the people who work here,” said Van Doren. “They’re scrappy. They’re spirited. They have the legacy. Channel 7 still has a proud name in the community. It needs to restore its luster.”