FEATURE STORY Jan./Feb. 2007
Each morning, thousands of Chicagoans wake up to CLTV news anchor Tonya Francisco, one of the brightest in the business
By Rachel Parker
Photography by Lloyd DeGrane
At 3:12 a.m., news anchor Tonya Francisco '92 LAS is in her usual spot at CLTV: a quiet corner, marked only by a sleepy fax machine, stacks of copy paper and a large mirror framed by rows of illuminated light bulbs. Facing her reflection, she methodically removes bottles and compacts from a cosmetic purse-her bag of tricks, she calls it-neatly placing them on a waist-high table. She takes a sponge and, after moistening it with mocha-tinted foundation, dabs her nose and cheeks rapidly, her gold teardrop earrings swinging gently from side to side. Clad in a pale yellow sweater set, crisp white capris and wedge sandals, she has another 30 minutes to finish her look, grab a cup of coffee and settle before the camera. At 3:45 a.m., she'll begin anchoring the morning news.
"I'm actually one of those people who hates makeup," she confesses in between dabs. "I didn't even wear it until I started working in television." She opens a tube of gloss and swipes her lips efficiently. "I'm always surprised when people recognize me on the street because I don't usually wear it."
"There are a lot of people in this business who couldn't take it anymore"
Like getting dolled up, Francisco avoids getting recognized as a CLTV anchor when she is in public and off-duty. It embarrasses her, she explains, almost apologetically. She's never been a person who likes the spotlight. "So why go into television?" she asks. "I do it because I like to tell stories and I want to be out there for the greater good." She pauses, holding the sponge in mid-air. "I know it sounds like, 'Oh, I'm a crusader,'" she continues, "but the news really has an impact on people's lives."
Francisco's tendency to shy away from the spotlight hasn't stunted her growth as a news anchor-if anything, it has enhanced it. Undis-tracted by her quasi-celebrity status, she focuses intently on the needs of her audience. That steers both the questions Francisco asks during interviews ("I think, what would I want to know if I were sitting at home on my couch?" she explains) and the types of stories she covers. If someone like her mother or next-door neighbor, for example, wouldn't be interested in a story, then she is not interested either.
Keeping the public's interest at heart has also made this self-described perfectionist an obsessive fact-checker ("I have a responsibility to get it right," she says frequently) and someone who insists that, if you haven't told a story lucidly, you haven't done your job. In addition, spending too much time behind the anchor desk leaves Francisco feeling disconnected from her audience; as a result, she is proactive about getting out in the field to cover stories.
In fact, though Francisco has covered major national news stories such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, it's the smaller stories she has completed in the field that have fulfilled her most-and earned her the most accolades. During her tenure as general assignment reporter and weekend anchor at WJRT-TV in Flint, Mich., from 1996 to 2002, Francisco spent six weeks on the picket line with laid-off General Motors workers. "How are you feeding your family without a paycheck?" she asked them. "How are things going at home?" Similarly, when six-year-old Kayla Rolland was shot and killed by another six-year-old at Buell Ele-mentary School in Mount Morris Township, Mich., in 2000, Francisco was on the scene within minutes. Consequently, she was one of the first news anchors to question the shaken students from Rolland's class and the only anchor whose cameraman captured the little girl being wheeled away on a stretcher. While working on "Idlewild," a documentary about the Northern Michigan town, Francisco spent countless hours in the area, reporting on its history as a summer vacation spot for prominent African Americans such as W.E.B. DuBois and Madame C.J. Walker. Her efforts helped earn the documentary a Michigan Association of Broadcasters News Special Merit Award and a second place award from the National Association of Black Journalists in 2002.
But as much as Francisco enjoys street-level reporting, she is careful to maintain a certain distance. To survive as a reporter, she explains, requires telling a story without becoming emotionally involved. Otherwise, "you'd be a basket case," she notes. "There are a lot of people in this business who couldn't take it anymore–going to murder victims' houses, interviewing their families. They couldn't take the nastiness of life. You have to stay distant to save yourself."
Practicing her d's, t's and s's
On the set at 3:40 a.m., Francisco sits at the anchor desk, her brow furrowing in concentration as she clicks away at a laptop computer. In between sips of coffee, she scours news Web sites, searching for breaking stories and fact-checking her script. Francisco isn't distracted by the blinding lights looming overhead; cameras surrounding her like a firing squad; or the fact that she is on display among several televisions in the control room.
Though the cameras start rolling at 3:45 a.m., Francisco won't appear on the air until 5 a.m. That's because CLTV operates on a digital format, meaning that its newscasts, for the most part, are prerecorded. Each story reported by Francisco is like a puzzle piece: It's individually taped and then inserted into a specific time slot in the newscast. All this happens in the control room, which means that Francisco works alone on the set.
"Bystanding," Francisco says, shifting her shoulders back and gazing confidently into the camera. A few seconds pass. "Good morning, this is Tonya Fran-cis-co!" she says in a smooth, upbeat voice, her lips spread into a relaxed smile. "Coming up on CLTV this morning..."
In some ways, Francisco's style as a reporter is a culmination of what she's learned over the years from observing other Chicago-area news anchors. You'll rarely hear her use the words "well" or "now," ever since anchor Diann Burns explained that those were "crutch" words. Following the style of Cheryl Burton, Francisco is careful to always ask open-ended questions during an interview. And after studying Ron Magers' "sma-hooth as silk" voice, Francisco's tone has an almost velvety quality to it.
But perhaps the person who made the biggest impact on Francisco is Linda Yu. Shortly after graduating from UIC, Francisco mailed application tapes to dozens of television stations in the hopes of securing a reporter position. Not a single station contacted her for an interview, and Yu was the only person to explain why. "She told me, 'Your diction is poor,'" recalls Francisco. "'You don't pronounce your d's, t's and s's. You say "ol"; it's "old." You say "dis"; it's "this." When I was a little Chinese girl growing up, I spoke really lightly and didn't want to pronounce all my words. Someone finally told me, you have to get with it.'"
So Francisco got with it: Following Yu's instructions, she picked up a newspaper, underlined all the words ending in d, t and s, and practiced speaking those words out loud until she was hoarse. Then Francisco made another tape and sent it to television stations. Months later, she was hired as a reporter and associate producer for WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids, Mich.
The other side of the camera
At 5:30 a.m., Francisco takes a break from taping and heads into the kitchen, where she replenishes her coffee cup and microwaves a packet of cinnamon-flavored oatmeal. At UIC, she remembers fondly, her and her friends' diets often consisted of fried chicken, tacos and burgers. "We would run up that food court in Inner Circle," she says. "When you got out of class, that was where you hung out. It was great."
But as good as UIC was for Francisco's social life, it was even better for her career. As a junior, without a declared major or sense of direction, Francisco was encouraged by a career counselor to take a Myers & Briggs personality test. The test revealed that she would do well as a teacher or in communications. "I'm like, I don't want to deal with a bunch of rug rats," Francisco jokes. "So, okay, I'll do communications." Uncertain of what type of communications to pursue, she began interning, first for the City of Chicago's Public Information Officer and then for WMAQ-TV's short-lived entertainment show "Chicago Live." The latter proved a perfect fit. "I was hooked," she says. "Here I am, this college kid, working at Channel 5 in Chicago, coming up with segment ideas and booking guests. It was absolutely fabulous." WMAQ-TV executives felt the same way, extending Francisco's internship from three months to six months-which she completed while taking a full load of classes, working part-time as a Jewel cashier and commuting from her parents' house on Chicago's West Side.
Fresh out of UIC, Francisco wanted to work in television exclusively behind-the-scenes. But after taking a desk assistant job at WLS-TV Chicago in 1992, she started thinking about being on the other side of the camera. In the midst of writing and editing scripts for reporters, "I thought, 'I'm making a 16th of what [the reporters] are making,'" she recalls. "I can do that!" Francisco then left WLS-TV and relocated to Michigan to try her hand at reporting for smaller markets. She honed her skills for seven years before returning to Chicago in 2002, polished and ready for CLTV.
The door to Dunkin' Donuts chimes as Francisco passes through it at 8:45 a.m., some 15 minutes after she's finished taping for the day. Technically, Francisco is on-duty at CLTV until 10:30 a.m.-just in case there's breaking news to report-but with today being a slow news day, she has time to stop at her favorite coffee shop.
Francisco approaches the register. "Medium coffee, please," she says. Out of the corner of her eye, she notices a burly, big-bellied man staring at her through thick glasses.
"You know, you look like the lady on CLTV," he says.
"Do I?" she responds, innocently.
"Yeah, she's on in the mornings," he replies.
"Yeah. But what threw me off was when you started talking."
"That's not me? You don't think so?"
"No," he says, pausing for a moment. "Is it?"
"Ha ha!" she exclaims. The man forces an uncertain chuckle.
"Wait-you are?" he asks. Francisco nods and gives a little smile as she pays for her coffee. "Okay!" he responds enthusiasti-cally. "Good seeing you!"
"Thank you," she says, picking up her coffee and heading for the door.
Such encounters are common for Francisco-and they speak to the impact she has made as a CLTV anchor. Chicagoans know her and look upon her fondly. In only four years, she has become a respected broadcast journalist in this major metropolitan market.
But Francisco takes little credit for her success. Humble by nature, she insists that she's ascended the career ladder because, on a number of occasions, she was in the right place at the right time. "I was lucky that I dropped off my resume at a time when Channel 7 had an opening and was willing to hire me," she says. "Would the same thing have happened if I had dropped it off a week later? Maybe not.
"I don't slight Lady Fortune, because she has played a huge role in my career"
Francisco does admit that she's tried to make the most of every job she has had, even in instances where her circumstances were less than ideal. Living in Flint, she says, was miserable on a social and personal level; there was little nightlife or dating scene for a twenty-something like herself, which left her feeling lonely and out of place. But realizing the professional opportunities at WJRT-TV, she stuck with her job and focused on building rapport with co-anchors, spending grueling hours in the field and tackling difficult assignments, such as interviewing family members of a car-crash victim. "You take lemons and you make lemonade," she says. "That's just how I see it. You get out of it what you put into it." Francisco also says that you should never reach a point in your career where you stop learning or improving your skills. She practices what she preaches at CLTV by working on her time-management skills and pitching feature stories to her producer, something that goes above-and-beyond her required duties.
However dedicated Francisco is to her career, she asserts that having a work-life balance and good quality of life are important to her. She makes time to pick up her nephew from school, gather family members for impromptu fish fries or indulge in her guilty pleasure, "E! True Hollywood Story." Francisco says that some of the big-shots of broadcast journalism-Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer, for instance-have sacrificed their personal lives for their careers, but that's where she draws the line. "At a certain point, you have to start thinking about what's important in your life," she says. "I like doing what I'm doing. But more importantly, I want to [eventually] be married and have kids and a nice, stable home. Because I truly believe home is where your joy is."
Today, after she leaves CLTV, Francisco will be working on her home. She just finished painting her bathroom "earthy brown" and wants to find a soap dish and toothpaste holder to match. So far, she has checked out the selection at Sears, Bed Bath & Beyond, Linens 'n Things, Macy's, Carson Pirie Scott and Target, but hasn't found exactly what she's looking for. If that seems like a little much, then you don't know Tonya Francisco. Because she always has to get it right.