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Stand and Deliver... The News

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Courtesy of Maggie Gram — '05, Columbia College Today

When Alexandra Wallace Creed ’88 graduated from the College, she expected to take a year off and then go to law school. To fill that year off, she applied for internships at the three major broadcast news networks. Two of them said yes, so she took a day shift at one and a night shift at the other.

To be sure, it wasn’t long before Wallace had to choose between the two networks. In the eyes of Brian Williams, the man who anchors NBC Nightly News — for which Wallace is now executive producer — it’s the story that best represents just who Alex Wallace is. “Alex just said, ‘You know what? I’ll do both,’” Williams marvels. “That’s how you know she’s a hustler. And in my lexicon, that’s absolutely a positive quality.”

In Williams’ and Wallace’s business, it’s not just a positive quality — it’s a necessary one. In March, Wallace took the reins of one of America’s three major national news broadcasts. The New York Times called her charge “the equivalent of a battlefield commission:” maintain what was at that point Nightly News’ tenuous hold on the top slot in the evening news ratings, and thwart a run for the top by NBC Nightly News’ principal rival, ABC’s World News with Charles Gibson.

Since taking the job, Wallace has spent each day competing with her aggressive and well-equipped rivals to identify and orchestrate the coverage of the top nine or 10 news items that will keep Americans watching during the most watched half-hour of broadcast television news in America. So far she’s kept Nightly News at the top of the rankings: After a year of neck-and-neck competition with ABC’s show, NBC came in with the greatest number of total viewers during the September 2006–September 2007 season. But Gibson’s newscast was the No. 1 evening newscast among adults ages 25–54 — in industry terms, the “seasonal demo” winner — so Wallace has her work cut out for her in the coming year.

Her days, Wallace says, are “pretty crazy.” She goes to bed reading the newspapers and wire stories and then wakes up to Today and another review of the newspapers and wires. She checks her BlackBerry and performs the necessary e-mail maintenance, feeds breakfast to her 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son, makes sure they’ve brushed their teeth and lands in NBC’s Rockefeller Center offices with plenty of time before the station’s 9:30 a.m. meeting. That’s when the NBC news bureaus from around the world present what’s going on in their regions, and then she begins to “lay out the day” — to decide how the station will use its resources during the eight hours between that meeting and the 6:30 p.m. broadcast.

What it is that will occupy the day is determined in part by the contents of a now-famous and ever-changing list of lists, written with thin felt-tipped marker on tiny white pieces of paper. Williams calls them “Alex’s Sanskrit cuneiform notes,” and Wallace refers to the complete set as her “crazy person list.” She seeks to explain the list by pointing out individual sections: “my little list of who I love and would love to get on Nightly,” “things I want to do with my kids this weekend” (“I’m really protective of my time with my kids,” she explains”). Then there are single, stand-alone entries: “Make sure so-and-so is happy at the desk where he’s sitting,” or “Viewer e-mail” (“Because I want to do more of it, I want more of it read on air, I want listeners to know that we do care about what they’re saying and that Brian is listening”).

Wallace meets with senior producers, reads scripts, runs staff meetings and rushes through business lunches that often begin just as soon as she can run downstairs, grab a salad and run upstairs. She handles management and personnel issues, focusing on giving positive feedback to her 55 employees and “making sure people are excited to come to work.” She brings the newsroom together for a rundown at 2:30 each afternoon. Then comes 6:30, when the Nightly News goes on air — and Wallace and her colleagues can begin thinking about the next day’s broadcast.

“I literally feel,” Wallace says, “like I walk in the door and five minutes later the day is done.”

Four years at Columbia and nearly two full decades in the news business were, Wallace says, the best possible preparation for this demanding job.

To read the complete article from Maggie Gram, please check out the online version of the Columbia College Today.

- A.S.