Eric Ludgood’s ’78 journalistic integrity has guided him through his career as a writer and producer at local stations—and now as head of Newsy
Eric Ludgood’s news career has spanned reporting and producing at local TV stations to his rise as vice president of editorial at CNN. Now head of Newsy, a free Scripps-owned, 24/7 news channel available through streaming platforms and over the air, Ludgood oversees the network’s programming and editorial identity.
In the following conversation, Ludgood talks about his career, including his experience as a Black journalist and executive in mostly white newsrooms, the importance of local news and why he is optimistic about Newsy’s chances for success.
Auburn Magazine: What brought you to Auburn?
Eric Ludgood: In high school I decided I wanted to do television, and at the time, Auburn was the only school in the state that had a television station on campus—an educational television station where students got to work and take classes. So, I chose Auburn.
What or who inspired you to go into TV?
There was Norman Lumpkin in Montgomery and Mel Showers in Mobile, and I was fascinated with the work Ed Bradley [the first Black White House reporter and longtime correspondent for “60 Minutes”] was doing at the time as well. These were all Black men who were doing something I wanted to do. And Mr. Lumpkin, who I didn’t meet until many, many years later, didn’t even know how much he was influencing me.
Questions came from my [high school] counselors because it was different for somebody being a Black male from the South who wanted to be in TV and on TV; they understood the pressure and the controversies that might bring. Seeing Norman Lumpkin on television every day let me know that it could be done. And because it could be done, I stayed the course.
How did your studies at Auburn prepare you for your career in TV journalism?
I found my way into journalism classes that were dominated by folks from the Plainsman, and I was taking classes from Jack Simms and David Housel. Those men were also instrumental because they talked about the integrity of the work, and they pushed us to be as good as we could be. And for that, I am eternally grateful.
WTVM taught me to focus on the work, and not on where you get the work. The most important thing is to be a journalist, and you can do good journalism anywhere. ~ Eric Ludgood '78
What were your first couple of jobs out of school?
I did my internship at WTVM in Columbus, and that was at the end of 1977. Before I left to go back to school for my final quarter—we were on the quarter system back then—they offered me a job. I took the job and finished school. I spent three years at WTVM before I left to take a job in Chicago—actually, the village of Downers Grove, Ill. in 1981.
Downers Grove was one of the first cities in the country to have their own cable television station, and I put that TV station on the air for them. It was a fun job, and I got a chance to do a lot of things that really helped my management career, but I wasn’t doing news every day. I missed that. My former boss at WTVM, Dave Richardson, called me and said I could come back, and I did. That was 1986, and I was there until 1989, and then came to Atlanta.
It sounds like WTVM was a good home for you.
It was. And the people I worked with, we all kind of grew up together in the business, so to speak, and we learned from each other. We challenged each other, and a lot of us went on to do different things but we held that little TV station dear. We were working and trying to do the very best we could, learning as much as we could about the business. And that little TV station turned out a lot of people who are now working all over the country doing a lot of different things.
Give us a general sense of your experiences as a Black journalist and TV producer.
What I’ve done in my career is to always focus on the work and focus on the people who do the work. I’ve run newsrooms in a lot of different places, and that focus has always been the most important thing, and whatever success I’ve had–with the grace of God–has been because of that.
I’m not going to tell you that this has been easy. The harder times were early on when I was out on the streets, and people said things and called me things and areas I went into that people didn’t want me in. And then I stepped up to management, and people wondered if I was the affirmative action hire; there were times when people would come right out and say, “How did you get this job?” That kind of thing.
I would just smile. I was a little conceited in my younger years, and I would say to myself, “I got this job because I’m better than you,” but I didn’t respond to them and just did the work. And I have been blessed that the work has proven out over the years, and that’s all I can stand on. I stand on my work, and I stand on the way I treat people.
It’s also the people you have in your life; you don’t do this alone. Everyone needs an advocate. And not all my advocates have been Black; a lot of my advocates supported me as a person because of what they saw in me or what they perceived I could do.
Much of your career has been spent at smaller, local TV news stations, and you’ve said that you’ve really come to value their role in the news. Why is that?
WTVM taught me to focus on the work, and not on where you get the work. And that’s the thing that’s carried me. If you get hung up on, ‘I’m in a big market or I’m in a small market, I’m at a network or whatever it is,’ then you lose focus. The most important thing is to be a journalist, and you can do good journalism anywhere. That’s how you maintain a sense of integrity about what you do—it’s about the work and not because I have “CNN” or “news director” on my business card.
How did you move from local Atlanta news to CNN?
A mentor of mine, Donna Mastrangelo, who was assistant news director at WXIA when I was a producer there, went to CNN first. I called her one day to say “hi”—this was 1993—and she mentioned that CNN was hiring and encouraged me to apply. I went to CNN as a producer, writer and copy editor and by the time I was laid off 13 years later, I was the vice president of editorial.
You were at CNN during some pivotal world events–the Indian Ocean tsunami, 9/11, the beginning of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. What was it like to be in the CNN newsroom for those big stories?
My job initially was a writer and producer, but within a year or so, I had been promoted to supervising producer and so on. Our job was to present the stories that were happening, and we were on a network then based in Atlanta, with newsrooms in Berlin, Hong Kong and London. So the days for us were filled talking to those correspondents around the world, presenting the stories they were telling, bringing in people who were pivotal to those stories, to help the world understand what was going on. All the things you can think of that happened, from 1993 to 2005 when I left, we were part of that story in one way or another. My first week at CNN, there was the first bombing of the Twin Towers, which nobody ever seems to remember, in 1993.
In my last years there, my primary focus was on-air quality and getting folks to where they needed to be, building out our coverage–so our coverage plans, hiring and training writers, producers and copy editors. Unfortunately, I wasn’t producing TV anymore, but I was involved with everyone who did.
You were vice president of editorial when you left CNN. Were you missing the journalistic part of the work?
I missed the physical part of being in the control room, but I never missed the journalism, because every time there was a writing question, a journalistic decision to be made, I was part of those. My role had changed, but it was still all part of journalism for the network.
What was it like being one of the few people of color in a top-level newsroom position at that time?
I had been around the network for a good while, so there were a lot of people who knew me, when I walked into those executive meetings. What you do experience at that level is if you want to stand up for something that’s right, you ask yourself, “Well, what are they going to think of me?” Do they think I’m going to support this simply because it is an issue that pertains to African Americans? One of the things we talked about at CNN was our coverage of Africa, and whether we were giving it appropriate coverage, and how that coverage was perceived. And those were things I stood up for at CNN.
Part of it is being comfortable with who I am, and this wasn’t anything I learned quickly, mind you. But you can be in situations where folks want to ask questions or push a little bit and wonder, “Well, why do you care about this?” And I care about this because everyone should care about it; I’m bringing it to your attention because I am aware of it. And because I am Black, I am aware of it.
These days, everybody’s talking about diversity and inclusion, and CNN was so far ahead of the curve that we were talking about this years and years ago. Our president at the time, Jim Walton, was adamant that the pool of applicants needed to reflect the country. He was serious about that, and we recruited at conventions like the Asian American Journalist Association, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the National Association of Black Journalists, because we wanted to make sure our pool was correct, that it reflected the country and then we picked the best people. And in terms of equity, I made sure we were paying the men and women the same salary for the same work.
Can you give us your elevator speech for what Newsy is?
I don’t believe in elevator speeches, but here’s what we—Newsy—are. It’s very simple. We’re going to do the news, and it will be fact based, not opinion based. We’re going to tell these stories in an authentic way. We will give you context, and hopefully, we will put it in a very, very appealing package.
We’re trying to touch on subjects that everyone cares about and tell these stories in a way that people will feel much closer to—go beyond the minute-long sound bites and tell the whole story. ~ Eric Ludgood '78
Why do you think a network like this is necessary in today’s mainstream news market?
We believe people want straight news. They just want the news. And we think there’s an appetite for that, just like there’s an appetite for what the other networks do. We believe that people want to watch the news, be informed, and find great stories that they can engage with. And we’re trying to tell stories from real America, if you will, not just from New York or LA. We have bureaus all over the country, including some places you might not expect there to be a news bureau for a 24-hour news network.
We’re trying to touch on subjects that everyone cares about and tell these stories in a way that people will feel much closer to—go beyond the minute-long sound bites and tell the whole story. And because of our partnership with other Scripps and local TV stations, there’s not a subject that we can’t cover from four or five different angles from different parts of the country.
Last week, we sent out one reporter who is based in Arizona, another based in DC, and one to West Virginia to help people understand who Senators Machin and Sinema are. Why do you keep hearing about them? How much power do they have? What are they doing and why? We didn’t do that in Washington; we went to those places to do those stories.
It’s critical for us that we are just telling good stories, reporting the news and clean out any negative tone – any tone at all, other than factual. Our goal every day is to give you something that you haven’t seen before, you haven’t thought about before. And we’re doing it. I personally believe the world is thirsty for this, and hopefully they will find us.
What gives you such optimism about Newsy’s possible impact, especially given that people on both sides of the political spectrum are committed to their niche sources of news and hold on to facts that are really opinions?
Here’s where all my worlds collide. The reason I believe in this is because despite the world painting all journalists with whatever three letters they’ve attached to the national networks, local television goes out and simply tries to do the news—and some of those stations are doing it very, very well. And they have an audience. And that’s why I have optimism. I have optimism because those local stations inform what we do every day, because they’re covering things right where they are, and that’s what people care about.
It’s the stories. That’s what people want. It’s why “60 Minutes” is still one of the highest-rated shows on TV. All they do is interview and tell good stories, and that’s what people want–without regard to age, affiliation or anything like that.
I think what Newsy brings right now is a ray of hope; I want us to be a real hope for all of journalism that this can be done and done well. I’m not comparing us to anyone else. I am not competing with anyone else. I just want us to do great news every day. And no, we’re not perfect. We’re not going to get it right every day. But this is what we want to do, and I believe it is doable. No—I know it’s doable.