When the news broke this past Monday that Colts coach Chuck Pagano’s leukemia went into remission, WTHR’s Nicole Pence got an exclusive interview with Pagano’s doctors.
It was a coup for the 29-year-old Columbus native, who joined the WTHR team in Indianapolis this spring as a field reporter and co-anchor of the “Weekend Sunrise” program, which airs Saturdays and Sundays.
Within hours after posting the story to WTHR’s website, Pence saw that other news outlets had grabbed the story, and it quickly spread throughout the Internet.
So the competitive Pence went back to work, identifying another local cancer patient who was encouraged by the news. She updated her original story with the heartfelt interview.
“You aren’t going to be able to get that on Google,” she said. “I am all about bringing people ‘news you can use.’”
Providing up-to-the-minute content to the audience through traditional channels or modern social media is a guiding principle behind this young anchor’s efforts.
To an outsider, Pence’s career trajectory appears smooth.
After graduating with honors from DePauw University in 2006 with majors in communications and Spanish, Pence joined the staff at Indiana’s News Center in Fort Wayne, where she worked as a reporter and fill-in anchor.
In 2008, Pence was hired at WLEX in Lexington, Ky., as a reporter, and was promoted to a coveted position of morning anchor within her first year. And then, 3½ years later, she grabbed the opportunity at WTHR, a larger market and closer to her tight-knit family in Columbus.
Pence calls it her “dream job.”
“People say, ‘It’s so great that this job happened for you,’” Pence said. “Well, it didn’t just happen.”
To achieve her steady rise in the television news ranks, she spent a fair amount of time in the trenches.
As an early-morning reporter in both Fort Wayne and Lexington, Pence arose at 2:15 a.m. five days a week and did four to five live reports each morning, all without notes to refer to and very little prep time. Her interviews took her from posh Kentucky horse tracks to the poverty-stricken foothills of Appalachia and to Washington, D.C., to cover Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration in 2009.
While Pence said she loved her adopted Southern home, as the oldest of 20 Pence cousins she felt a pull to return home to the Hoosier state.
So in 2011, Pence contacted WTHR.
Although the station didn’t have any open positions at the time, news director Keith Connors brought Pence in for a courtesy interview and knew immediately that he wanted her on the team.
“She can do light and fluffy news but can then turn around and do hard news and breaking news as well,” Connors said.
When an opening occurred as a “Weekend Sunrise” anchor, Connors picked up the phone.
“She was the first person I called,” he said.
Pence became the first new WTHR anchor hire in several years and is the youngest on-air talent at the station.
But what you see onscreen is just a small part of Pence’s day.
“Most viewers don’t see the news-gathering process,” said Pence, who is at the studio hours before her show’s 6 a.m. start time, reading scripts that have been prepared by the overnight team and asking the segment producer question upon question until she is confident she can deliver the content without referring to her notes.
“I am not going to try to talk to viewers about something I don’t know anything about,” she said.
Besides the weekend anchor duties, she serves as a WTHR field reporter three days a week, pounding the pavement to find stories. She also maintains a presence on social media, sending dozens of tweets a day to her nearly 3,000 Twitter followers. She even updates her Facebook page during breaks in the newscast.
And in what little spare time is left, Pence hosts local events to increase her local contacts and raise her public persona. She also is pursuing a master’s degree in public affairs, hoping to become even better informed about government and public policy.
One place she won’t be putting her knowledge of government to use — at least for the next four years — is in coverage of the Indiana Statehouse. Nicole is the niece of Indiana Gov.-elect Mike Pence. To avoid a potential conflict of interest, she will not cover any stories related to her uncle.
Still relatively new to her job, Pence realizes there are plenty of challenges ahead.
Although she says she is thrilled to be back in Indiana, she does not yet know Indianapolis like she does her hometown of Columbus. Working alongside veteran newscasters in the state capitol, some of whom have been with the station for 30 years, Pence realizes she still has a lot to learn.
“You have to gain trust and credibility,” she said. “And the only way to do that is through hard work and time. There is no shortcut.”