From Journalist to Entrepreneur: A conversation with Lu Ann Reeb
Updated: Dec 3, 2019
After 12 years at her job as an executive producer at WBZ news in Boston, Lu Ann Reeb quit her job in frustration.
Reeb got her start in the business through a non-news position at a local television station in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. She had always wanted to be a writer, pursuing her interest with an English major and history minor in college. But she also had another passion: storytelling. Reeb soon began to work unofficially in the newsroom on weekends, until she was informed by the General Manager that she wasn’t allowed to.
What happened next she describes as “one of these things in life, things that fall from the sky as opportunities.” The Manager informed her that their sister station in Green Bay, Wisconsin was looking for a reporter, and invited her to apply. She got the job.
Quickly she fell in love with the work, immersing herself in the larger production of news, due to a natural curiosity in the narrative of the story. “I went from reporter, to Producer, to Assistant News Director in Cincinnati, to News Director in Birmingham, to Executive Producer here at WBZ in Boston.”
Reeb recalls long-form video features she worked on: a documentary about the effects of a drought on an Ohio family and their farm; pieces on domestic violence and the fishing industry; a feature on a symphony conductor entitled “Behind the Baton,” and her work on a multi-year story that resulted in the acquittal of a wrongly-convicted man.
“It was kind of like having a front seat on life, whether it was a happy story or short story, I got to interview all kinds of people: presidents, former presidents, Henry Kissinger, Yul Brynner, Nelson Mandela, who gets that opportunity?” That was Reeb’s life, and even as she moved up the career ladder, it never changed, “And all along the way I never lost my love for creating stories, so even though I was in what some might call News Management, I still always did projects did in the field and I loved doing those.”
But, in 1999, something else changed. “When the internet became a viable communications platform, the traditional journalism media did not embrace it. They did not embrace it as an additional channel to distribute the wonderful content we are creating every day; they thought of it as competition,” said Reeb. “Even though we had a website they didn’t really want us to put our stories on the website.”
Reeb and other members in the newsroom began to ask questions. “A few of us said to ourselves, over time, ‘Hmm, is the way that we do broadcast journalism, is this going to be a dying form of media?’ We were actually talking about that in the newsroom. If they won’t let us use this,” she said gesturing to her computer, “what’s going to happen?”
“And so some of us said, ‘Ya know, we think that this train is not heading in a direction that we want to travel.’ To experience those cutbacks, to experience ‘Oh you can’t spend two days on a story, you need to pump it out right away.’”
In the end, she described it as “the hardest decision that I ever made.”
“A bunch of people were either laid-off or left on their own because they saw the handwriting on the wall. I left before all of that happened, I was really really lucky to have seen that coming. I have colleagues who were laid off, but there were those who stayed, some of them were unhappy because of the restraints on their creativity, their journalistic ability, and they just kinda sucked it up. I also know a lot of colleagues that moved into a lot of other different business; some went to marketing, some went to PR, some went to companies that were doing creative production.”
Reeb was correct with her predictions about the industry. In 1996, the Pew Research Center released a report detailing a decline in the viewership for TV news, with 42% of people reporting that they regularly watched TV news, down from 60% in 1993. Not only that, but the online service Craigslist cannibalized the classified ads business that newspapers relied on, costing the industry $5 Billion in the early 2000s. Not only that, as Journalist’s Resource writes, “At the very end of the twentieth century, in December 1999, the value of a share of stock in Time Warner, Inc., one of the mightiest of the Big Five media conglomerates, hit its all-time high: $254 a share. Ten years later it was trading at about $25 a share. In a decade, 90 percent of the value of the company had vaporized. It was not an isolated case.”
But this was not the end of Reeb’s story, “Me and my partner who I worked with in the newsroom, we decided ‘Let’s start our own company, and you know what we do? We’re really good at telling stories, that’s the core of our skill-set. How can we use that in another way?’ And so we decided to start our own company, this was in 1999, we decided that we could tell stories, and we also realized that companies were building websites. It was all text at that point, but we had this idea that ‘Ya know what? Wouldn’t it be great if they had a video telling their story? And at some point, maybe some of the news organizations might have video.’”
The biggest obstacle for her business, back in the early 2000s, was the lack of broadband for online video. “We were a little early with our idea.”
Lu Ann said that she knew “less than nothing” when it came to running a business, but nevertheless made a successful career in marketing and entrepreneurship. Along the way she that lead to her founding two media companies; Legal Talk Network which was acquired in 2012 and the Boston Media Group which she is President of today.
All of her business success got her attention from Emerson College, where she is now a faculty member and the Director of Entrepreneurial and Business Studies, which hosts the annual Emerson Entrepreneurship Expo.
But with all of her post-TV success, there was sadness too, “At first when I left journalism, when I left television, I missed it terribly. I missed the camaraderie, I missed the adrenaline rush like on an Election Night, but then after time I became so excited about the businesses I was running; that became my adrenaline.”
Despite her departure, Reeb still thinks fondly of the industry, and has thought about teaching in Emerson’s Journalism department. As she described, with delight, “I would love to do that actually! It’s a bandwidth question, but Janet Kolodzy who’s the chair, she and I are best friends. So I would love to teach a course, and I’ve often thought ‘Well why don’t I create a Topics course about the journey through journalism and opportunities?’ Just to open people’s eyes about all of the things I can do.”
As Reeb sees it, the two aren’t that far apart, “You don’t have to be an entrepreneur with a business to be an entrepreneur; it’s kind of a way of thinking. I think my news background helped me with that because when you go and figure a lot of things out on your own, don’t you? That’s what an entrepreneur does.”