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Making headlines

A U of M alumnus joined cable TV maverick Ted Turner on a gamble in 1980. Thirty years later, those leaps of faith are still making headline news.

By Greg Russell


Will King is not the least bit offended that an Internet search of the phrase “Will King and CNN” brings up information on talkshow host Larry King.

“Few who pursue journalism as a career are seeking ‘celebrity’ fame and fortune,” he says. “Most, like me, choose a career in news because they have passion for capturing moments of history in words and pictures. The job can take you to places you’ve never been to and put you in front of extraordinary people while making a good living. So you don’t have to be recognized on the street and asked for an autograph to have a rewarding career.”

King, who graduated from the University of Memphis with a degree in journalism in 1974, has labored in several not-as-sexy but equally as important behind-the-scenes jobs at CNN and CNN International since the network first began broadcasting from Atlanta on June 1, 1980. He is one of 15 original employees still with the company, helping launch a network that changed the way news is delivered around the world.

King (seated at left) and other 1973-74 staff members of the Memphis Statesman, which was the University's weekly laboratory newspaper.    At upper right is current Commercial Appeal writer Michael Donahue.
King (seated at left) and other 1973-74 staff members of the Memphis Statesman, which was the University's weekly laboratory newspaper. At upper right is current Commercial Appeal writer Michael Donahue.

“TV stations used to sign-off at midnight or at 1 in the morning,” King says. “What Ted Turner wanted to launch was the first 24-hour news network. A newscast without an end? How do you make it work? What do you do if you run out of news? We were going to do what had never been done before.”

CNN prepared with a 17-hour trial run that came off without any major glitches. Whether it could be done 24/7 was still anybody’s guess.

“It was daunting to imagine that day after day, 24-hour news casting was going to be the norm. To do something as intense and as technically involved was setting out for the unknown and uncharted. We were making our way as each day unfolded.”

He likens the start-up of CNN to the beginning of Facebook and its effect on information sharing the past three years.

“I was in Atlanta with a lot of other pioneers,” King says. “I was truly fortunate to be a part of something that was so revolutionary.”

King characterizes those first days as similar to working in Thomas Edison’s workshop. “We were tinkering and inventing a new innovation.”

CNN wasn’t widely known, even in its hometown.

“You could draw blank stares in Atlanta when you said you worked for Cable News Network,” he says. That would soon change, though.

King says coverage of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986 and the Gulf War in 1991 established CNN as a household name, one that is now internationally known. “Shuttle launches had become so common that CNN was the only network showing it live — we broke the news as it tragically unfolded over the skies of Cape Canaveral. The event underscored having the availability of a live 24-hour news channel.

“In January of 1991, we were the only network in place in Baghdad for Desert Storm. Peter Arnett, Bernard Shaw and John Holliman were there as the attack began and vividly described what was transpiring in front of them. This put CNN on the map globally.”

King started at CNN as video producer, “having to wear many hats.” He has risen to the lofty position of Senior Director of CNN International Newsgathering Operations after serving as International Newsgathering Managing Editor and Vice President of International Newsgathering. He also launched CNN International’s first bureau in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1985, building it “from the ground up” and serving as its first bureau chief.

CNN and CNN International are now seen in more than 200 countries and reach an estimated 260 million households.

 King even has had an effect on the on-air personalities who are more often associated with CNN, such as international anchor Jim Clancy.

“I’ve cussed and discussed the news of the day with Will in the back of taxicabs, in edit bays, in the office, at home and abroad,” says Clancy, who hosts The Brief on CNN each weekday morning. “It is never dull; it is always a conversation that lifts my own journalism.

King has been with CNN since its inception in 1980. Much of his work has been with CNN International. He launched the network's first bureau in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1985, and is one of just 15 original employees still with CNN.
King has been with CNN since its inception in 1980. Much of his work has been with CNN International. He launched the network's first bureau in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1985, and is one of just 15 original employees still with CNN.

“He was one of the people who led by example, coached and served as a mentor to a whole generation of CNN journalists. At every turn in CNN’s history, King has been there, not only a gatekeeper demanding balance in points of view and fairness to public figures and the common man, but a source of inspiration for those around him.”

Clancy says he wasn’t surprised CNN chose King for the Frankfurt assignment.

“I spent nearly two years covering the civil war in Lebanon when repeated kidnappings forced CNN to temporarily close the Beirut bureau,” Clancy says. “Suddenly, Will and I came together again to open the Frankfurt operation. There is little doubt Will was chosen for this strategically important position because we needed not only someone who was completely dedicated to the vision of CNN, but someone capable of steering his own ship so far from home.”

Clancy says King had to do the business, diplomatic and technical sides of the operation in Frankfurt, “not always an easy thing to do.”

“When Western hostages were suddenly released back into Beirut, I could afford to wax poetic about my memories of them from Lebanon,” Clancy recalls. Will, on the other hand, had to get approval for trucks and wrangle microwave signals and paths to make it not just journalism, but ‘CNN journalism.’ That meant live feeds from the Frankfurt airport as the hostages arrived, live signals from the hospital in Wiesbaden when they stepped out on the balcony and spoke as the whole world was watching it live.”

King’s CNN International assignments have sent him all over the world. But it was a story closer to home that left an indelible mark on him.

“After Katrina, I was called on to be a part of the initial coverage and to find a facility for CNN to operate out of. It was one of the more profound things I have ever witnessed. New Orleans was a city that was laid completely on its side — it was like one of those apocalypse movies. Refugees were leaving; helicopters were flying overhead; there were soldiers with guns patrolling the streets. That was a striking image that has stayed with me since.”

King describes his early days in journalism in Mary Tyler Moore terms.

“As far back as junior high, I wanted a career in broadcasting. As a young boy, I would take a bus down to The Peabody Hotel to Channel 3, which was in the building’s basement. I’d always be able to wrangle a visit to the studios. I was hooked then on making television my career.”

Years later he was working at WHBQ-TV in Memphis when he saw a news wire report about a new cable news network that Ted Turner was creating in Atlanta. Turner would hire a number of people from across the country with various backgrounds to help start the venture — King was one of them.

He says he can tie much of his success back to the U of M. King’s first job at WHBQ-TV resulted from his television production course at the University. But serving as his inspiration for a career in journalism was professor L. Dupre Long.

“Long, he ran the campus newspaper the Statesman as if it were sold on the newsstand and his students were his staff. He had high journalistic standards. He suffered no fools. He had high journalistic standards and we learned if we expected to be a success real world, we better start proving then and there by getting facts and words right.”

Says Long, who taught at then-Memphis State from 1963 to 1971 and again from 1972 to 1982, “As a professor it was my view that the field of journalism was so vast and dynamic, that it did not lend itself to teaching the way law or medicine might be taught. It was a profession, in my opinion, that required good judgment, a command of the English language and a devotion to the highest standards of news gathering and writing and editing.

“I do remember Will very well because of his insatiable desire to learn about everything that crossed his path. He was sincere, affable and dedicated when he was my student. I am not surprised he has distinguished himself professionally.” Long was also a staff member at The Commercial Appeal and later taught at the University of Texas before retiring in Austin.

King feels fortunate to have been part of something as big as CNN from day one.

“To be a part of it and to see it grow as it has, what more can one ask for in a career?”

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