Pioneering TV journalist Linda Ellerbee says she will retire at the end of the year, 44 years after her first job in journalism.
“I’m a lucky woman,” said Ellerbee, who spent half her career reporting the news to adults and the other half explaining the news to children. “I saw the world, met many of the world’s most interesting people and was well paid to do so. Now I choose to go, and I go smiling. I’ve had a great time. And thank you for asking, but, no, I don’t intend to mellow.”
Ellerbee is one of few women who found a way to continue her journalism career into her 70s (she’s 71). She is known for anchoring and writing the late-night news program — and cult favorite — NBC News Overnight in the early 80s, and the children’s news and documentary series Nick News With Linda Ellerbee, produced by Ellerbee’s company, Lucky Duck Productions, and airing on Nickelodeon for 25 years — TV’s longest running children’s news show ever. Her retirement will coincide with the final edition of Nick News With Linda Ellerbee “Hello, I Must Be Going!” an hour-long retrospective of the series, scheduled to air on Nickelodeon at 8 PM on December 15, 2015.
In addition to her work in broadcast as an award-winning producer, writer and anchor, Ellerbee, is also a best-selling author, speaker, cancer survivor, mom, grandmother, and, as she puts it, “one more proud, loud, storytelling Texan.”
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She began in print journalism. In 1972, Ellerbe was hired as a reporter by the Dallas bureau of the Associated Press, but was fired after writing a chatty personal letter on the AP’s word processors and then accidentally sending the letter out on the national newswire. “I was fired,” says Ellerbee, “only because the AP lawyers told my bosses they couldn’t shoot me, which they all thought was a better idea.” The letter brought her to the attention of the News Director of the Houston CBS television affiliate KHOU, who told her she “wrote funny,” and hired her in January 1973. Within a year, she was recruited by New York’s WCBS-TV as the “hard news” reporter for its 11 PM newscast.
In 1974, Ellerbee moved to NBC News, where she spent four years covering national politics before joining Lloyd Dobyns as co-anchor and writer of the weekly prime-time news magazine, Weekend. Dobyns and Ellerbee alternated closing the show, but both signed off with the phrase “And so it goes.” In 1982, Ellerbee was again teamed with Dobyns (and later Bill Schechner) on NBC News Overnight, and again, the anchors ended each broadcast with a short, usually wry commentary, signing off with “And so it goes,” (which later became the title of Ellerbee’s first book). The show’s working assumption that the audience was smart — and its trademark attention to good writing — led to Overnight being cited by the Alfred I. duPont–Columbia University Awards as “possibly the best written and most intelligent news program ever.”
By 1986, Overnight had been cancelled and Ellerbee had moved to rival network ABC, where (with Ray Gandolf) she wrote and anchored Our World, a weekly primetime historical series. She won an Emmy for her writing in 1987, the same year the show was cancelled. Following that, Ellerbee and producer/director Rolfe Tessem quit ABC to start Lucky Duck Productions, a New York-based company that produced news, documentaries, specials and series for broadcast and cable.
In 1991, Lucky Duck Productions began producing the series Nick News with Linda Ellerbee for Nickelodeon. Ellerbee also wrote and anchored the series, which earned honors traditionally associated with adult programming (in 2009, Nick News made history as the first children’s television program ever to win the prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Network News Documentary for the show, Coming Home: “When Parents Return from War.” Known for the respectful and direct way it spoke to children about important national and international issues, Nick News also collected three Peabody Awards (including one personal Peabody given to Ellerbee for her coverage of the Clinton impeachment), an Alfred I. duPont–Columbia University Award, and ten Emmys for Outstanding Children’s Program of the year. In 2011, Ellerbee received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Children’s Television at the annual Banff International Media Festival.
“My goal,” said Ellerbee, “was never a nation of kid news junkies. I am more subversive; I wanted to grow a nation of rowdy citizens.”
For 29 years, Ellerbee’s work has been seen all over the television universe as Lucky Duck Productions has produced specials for ABC, CBS, HBO, PBS, Lifetime TV Network, MTV, Logo, A&E, MSNBC, SOAPnet, Animal Planet and TV Land. In 2004, Ellerbee and Lucky Duck Productions were honored with another Emmy, this time for the series, When I Was a Girl, which aired on WE: Women’s Entertainment Network.
Ellerbee’s first book, And So It Goes (1986), a humorous look at television news, became an instant best seller. Her second, Move On (1991), stories about being a working single mother, a child of the ‘60s, and a woman trying to find some balance in her life, was also a best seller — as was her third book, Take Big Bites: Adventures Around the World and Across the Table, (2005) an account of her love of travel and food and, according to Ellerbee, “oh, just making trouble in general.” In her eight-part series of books for children, Get Real (2000), two middle school girls start a school newspaper and discover both journalism and life are more complicated than they imagined.
As part of the first group of women to work as TV journalists, Ellerbee, (who once said, “If men can run the world, why can’t they stop wearing neckties?”) had a front-row seat to gender discrimination: “Network executives would say to me, ‘If you take time off for family-related matters, we’ll know women aren’t serious about this work.’ What? You’ll fire all the women in journalism if I take my kid to the dentist this afternoon?”
In 2011, at the Gracie Awards, the Alliance for Women in Media recognized Ellerbee’s work with its Tribute Award, the organization’s highest honor. On presenting the award, former CNN anchor Aaron Brown said to a ballroom of a thousand women, “The two most important women in the history of television news are Barbara Walters and Linda Ellerbee. Barbara Walters made it possible for you to be on television news; Linda Ellerbee made it possible for you to be you on television news.”
Ellerbee says she never thought of herself a maverick. “I thought I was normal; other people were a little weird. But if not doing everything the way everybody else did makes me a maverick, what the hell? Only dead fish swim with the stream all the time.”
Ellerbee is often said to have been the inspiration for the TV sitcom, Murphy Brown. (In 1989, Ellerbee guest-starred on the series as herself, and would do so twice more. The storyline in the episode, “Summer of ’77,” is that Ellerbee has auditioned for the anchor job which eventually goes to Murphy. Also, Murphy accuses Ellerbee of stealing her sign off, “And so it goes,” from Murphy.) Regarding rumors that she was the real Murphy Brown, Ellerbee says, “I don’t know if Murphy is based on me, and don’t much care, but a series about a television news anchorwoman whose mouth constantly gets her into trouble? What’s not to like?”
Despite winning almost every honor TV has to give, Ellerbee says the richest rewards have come from Rolfe Tessem, her partner of 30 years in life and work; Joshua Veselka, her son, who owns Eagle Pass Productions, a London-based international media company; Vanessa Veselka, her daughter, a novelist whose book, Zazen, won the 2012 Pen Prize for Best First Novel of the year; and her four grandchildren, Violet, Ruben, Gabriel and Milo, who are noisy. Ellerbee and Tessem live in New York City and Massachusetts with their two Greek rescue dogs, Daisy and Dolly.
When asked what she planned to after she retired, Ellerbee said she was thinking of becoming a shepherd.
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