How I Did It: WGN News Anchor Micah Materre
Words: Taylor Shaw
Visuals: Troy Gueno
After almost 30 years of entering people’s homes as a radio and TV reporter, Chicago’s Micah Materre shows no signs of slowing down.
Emmy-winning news anchor and Chicago native Micah Materre has the kind of career to which many broadcast journalists aspire. She worked her way up the ladder rather swiftly, starting right out of college as a radio producer for a National Public Radio affiliate station, and is now the main anchor of Chicago’s WGN-TV.
Being a camera-ready public figure may seem glamorous, but Micah Materre has spent years building the chops necessary to hold that coveted position. Her work in one of television’s top news markets and news stations has earned her accolades from the New York Times Magazine, Glamour, and Ebony, and recently landed her a promotion: a spot on the 4 p.m. news. (Chicagoans—and anyone with WGN on their dial—can now see Materre three times a day: 4, 5, and 9 p.m.)
But for all her accomplishments—including being a wife to WGN videographer Kelvin Jackson and mother of Louis and McKenzie Jackson (14 and 11 respectively)—Micah Materre is nothing but humble when describing her career path. “I was good to people and people considered me a good person,” she explains. “A good, charitable, honest, hard-working person who wasn’t afraid to take risks.” Materre explains how some of those risks helped make her one of Chicago’s most well-known journalists.
If you have that hunger in your belly, you will stick to it through thick and thin no matter what.
Tell us how you got your start in journalism.
I started at [Chicago’s] WBEZ radio station right after college. I worked there as an intern and eventually started working as a producer for a couple of shows. I did that for a good five or six years, then I went to Northwestern University, took a [journalism] grad class and was able to get an internship at WBBM Channel 2 in Chicago.
When I walked in there I said, “Oh my God, this is what I want to do.” So I put a tape together, sent it out to 50 billion different places, and [kept] getting rejections, rejections, rejections. I would send my tape out every day. The FedEx guy knew my name. He would say “‘Oh, where are you sending this off to today?’”
I sent my tape to Frank Magid & Associates, which is in Marion, Iowa [and] had an opportunity at KCRG Columbus, Ohio. I got a job there as a reporter. Initially I was editing and working weekends, but I was there for maybe two years as an on-air reporter and fill-in anchor. I was offered a job [there] but [Fox 2 News] Detroit called me because they had seen my tape. At the time, Detroit was the sixth market, so I went to Detroit. I was first a reporter and then I eventually started anchoring. I did that for eight or nine years. Then I got a job at WGN-TV in Chicago as a morning anchor. I’ve been there for 17 years now.
If you had to describe yourself in one word what would it be, and how has that characteristic separated you from the pack?
Perseverance. In order to persevere you have to keep going and going throughout obstacles, and when you hit a brick wall, you’ve gotta knock it down and keep moving. I think when you’re in a business—not necessarily journalism but any kind of business—if you have that hunger in your belly and you really want something badly enough, you will stick to it through thick and thin no matter what. It wasn’t always wonderful. Hopping around is not fun. My whole goal when I started out in this business was to get back to Chicago. Chicago is the top three market and I knew I wanted to come back home. But it’s hard to start off in the top three market. I’m lucky because some people go to four, five, six places before they get back to where they want to be. I only did Cedar Rapids, Detroit, and then I came to Chicago.
What is the greatest accomplishment of your career?
The fact that I am the main anchor in a top three market is the biggest accomplishment of my career. I’m able to meet such interesting people. I went to the first Obama inauguration, [and] for me to get to the point where I could do that because [I’m] one of the main anchors was the highlight of my career.
What type of advice would you give to aspiring reporters who want to work in big markets like Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles?
You’ve got to go to the smaller markets and hone your craft. As you get up higher, there’s someone who does this or a producer who does that—in the smaller markets you kind of do a little bit of everything. I think the more you know everybody’s job and what everybody does, the better you are at your job once you get to the higher level.
[Also] you get a wealth of experience being out on the street. I tell kids to stay in school because you’re gonna get a great education, but your real education, especially as a reporter, is on the streets. That’s where you learn your craft.
If I had started right out of college in Chicago, I would not have been a good reporter. I had to go to those different markets and learn a different way to report and deal with different situations: [how to] talk to different people [and] learn about the farmers [and] the big city stories. It makes you not just a better reporter, but a better person overall. It makes you more knowledgeable. It makes you more worldly. I would never change the experiences I had in Iowa; I learned a whole lot in that small city and met a lot of people who are still some of my friends.
I’m not just in this box of television. I’m reaching out to people and touching their hearts and their minds.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
The most challenging part is the hours probably, and trying to be the parent that you want to be. I’m trying to juggle my schedule around their schedules. [I] want to be there because I don’t want them to have an absentee mother or father.
What’s the most gratifying part of your job?
The most gratifying part of my job is actually delivering the news and doing the best job I can for people out there watching—getting the best out of somebody I’m interviewing, getting the best story, getting the best information that someone else may not have gotten, [and] putting on the best program. Or [when] we get the story out first and somebody says, “We watched you and you did better than anybody else.” That’s gratification—I’ve worked hard to get it and it paid off. I’m not just in this box of television. I’m reaching out to people and touching their hearts and their minds.
Anchors talk a lot about the sacrifices they’ve had to make, especially when it comes to their families. When did you start your family?
Well, I didn’t start my family until I got to Chicago. [I didn’t] get married until I knew I was at a place where I was going to be for a while [and] I was in a position I was happy with. I didn’t want to cart around a family; I didn’t think it would be fair to them.
But there’s never really a good time in this business to say [when] you can have kids. I think you have to just know it within your mind and in your heart. Because still, with my job and my hours, I’ve gotta have a support system. I have my family here. I tell my babysitter, “Keep in mind that I can call you at any time in the night.” I ask them if they’re fine with that and if they are then I hire them. You come to work at three [and] you may stay at work until one if there’s a breaking story. It’s just the nature of the business.
What’s your advice to working moms?
You can’t compare yourself to somebody else and feel badly that you’re not doing what they’re doing—you’ll drive yourself crazy. So what you have to do is block all that out and just make your own normal: what works for you and what works for your family.
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