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Q&A: Heart of Illinois ABC anchor Jenise Rebholz on reporting in her hometown, and growing more local journalists

Heart of Illinois ABC

The days of hometown born-and-raised journalists in markets the size of Peoria are fast becoming a memory.

Heart of Illinois ABC's Jenise Rebholz is a Metamora native. She talks with Tim Shelley about what it's like reporting where she grew up, and what the industry can do to retain more local talent.

JENISE REBHOLZ: I always tell everybody that I am a townie to my core. And if you need to know anything about the Peoria area, I'm your girl. But I'm born and raised in Metamora.

I originally went to Western Illinois University for broadcast journalism. I quickly learned that Western just wasn't the place for me. And then I transferred to Bradley, where my original major was actually Sports Communication. I really thought I wanted to be in play by play, I thought I wanted to be a sports broadcaster. And it was a great experience learning all these things. I think I was the first class to graduate with the Charley Steiner School. And I quickly learned that as much as I love sports, it just wasn't my niche.

And when I was interning, I was actually interning at WMBD with the sports department. Kurt Pegler was great. But I was quickly noticing myself gravitating towards the reporters, and what the news team was doing. And I was kind of like, listening into them and seeing what they were up to. And I was like, you know what, maybe you want to make the switch. So then I did an internship over at HOI and 25 News. And then I was like, yep, I think news is where I want to be.

TIM SHELLEY: Right. And it's funny. You mentioned Charley Steiner. I want to say I actually graduated like right before that opened. So yeah, gosh, what kind of background did you get there? I mean, obviously, it's very built up, and some of that is transferable to the news side?

Absolutely. It's hard to say. So I think he officially took over the school of sports communication when I was a junior or a senior. But what was really cool was some of the people that he brought in, of course. I got to meet Larry King, which is amazing. But they also got to bring other people and just kind of talk about their stories of where they started and work their way up. Because I feel like that's super intimidating.

When you're a college student. You're like, I want to do this, but how the heck do I get there. And it was reassuring. And they just said, sometimes you have to take a job you don't necessarily want to get your foot in the door. And that's kind of what I had to do. I originally took a position as a special programs producer at HOI. And while I really enjoyed that job, it's not something I wanted to do long term. And it worked out in my favor that I was able to climb up the ladder very quickly. And it was a great first step.

But if it wasn't for some of those big dogs coming to Bradley saying, hey, sometimes you got to take a job, you don't want just to get a foot in the door. I don't know if I would have taken that leap. I actually almost took a job in St. Louis in marketing. And I'm so glad I didn't.

So what's it like actually working at home? Not a lot of anchors on TV can say I work in my hometown, basically.

Yeah, there's very few of us. Even in the reporter side these days. I have a slight advantage of I kind of know what's going on. Because I hear from my friends, my family, almost all of my family is here. So that's great. They send me story ideas and things like that, you know, walking around the grocery store, whether I'm at the gym, people hand me important topics that they trust me to tell stories to tell. And it's great because I feel like I have a very personal connection to the stories that I tell and the people that hear them. And I get feedback constantly, which is good for the station. It's good for my personal growth, and moving forward with stories that are important.

So yeah, being local has a tremendous impact on local news, but there's not a lot of us left. And I hope that in the future, that we do retain some local people because they truly just have a connection that you can't build unless you've grown up here. I've seen people at the store and like, they're like, oh, you know, 'I don't know if you remember me, but I was your fifth grade teacher' and I was like, 'Of course I remember you' and then they give me a story idea. And I'm like, 'that's absolutely right. Let's let's cover this. That's important information.'

It's a connection really that you can't... Well, I guess if you're in a community long enough, you can cultivate connections like that, but you kind of have the advantage of, I just know where I am. I know people and I know places.

Absolutely. Even when I was on maternity leave, I would see stories, and I would know exactly who to call. And I would just make sure to give that information to the people I needed to because it was readily available to me. And even doing stories about my high school, Metamora High School. I knew who to call, they're like, oh, who do we call? I'm like, well, here is your principal, here's your superintendent. These are the people that we need to call on. It's one of those things. They'll see my personal number. And, yeah, it's one of those things that you can't necessarily build. Over time. I have connections from when I was in preschool. So it was just one of the advantages of being local.

And now you're on the anchor desk on HOI. I think just to step back for a second, that's an experience, most people will never have, to go on TV and have thousands of people watch you every night. How do you do that?

How do I do that? That's a tough question. I will say, it's very special to be on a station that I grew up watching. And it's very special to be working alongside a few of the people that I grew up watching. It's sometimes surreal, like Chuck Collins, you know, working in the same building, as Chuck, I grew up listening to him talk when Gina Morss was on television, not only did I watch her on television, I took a class at Bradley under her. And then one day, I was anchoring the noon broadcast with her, which was incredible.

So it's not something I guess I expected years ago, because I thought I always wanted to be in sports. But it's awesome. It's so fun. I really enjoy my career, there's days that it's very challenging, especially with a family dynamic these days, but it's so cool. And I appreciate that people tune in and want to hear what I have to say about what's going on, that people trust me enough to share that information.

So going back to something we were talking about a little bit earlier, how do we cultivate the next generation of journalists, you know, especially if they're here from Peoria, or even if there just attending Bradley? What advice do you have for them?

Put yourself into the community as much as you can. And if we want local journalists to stay local, I think we have to explain the importance of journalism, and really explain why we need it. I feel like sometimes the purpose of journalism gets a little mixed up in the times between politics and COVID-19 and all those crazy things, reminding people, especially people who like to write people who like to tell stories, people who like to talk, the importance of journalism, and why we do it.

And I think we can keep talented people here if we explain the advantages of being local. I feel like growing up, there's this pressure to go somewhere. There's this pressure to move across the country. And people should definitely do that. But there are some people that would greatly benefit from staying around where they grew up, I still travel, I still go places I've you know, I've been to Canada, Mexico, New York, I've been all kinds of places. But this is my home, and it's very comfortable. But I'm still learning new things all the time about the area. It's not a consistent for me. So I think telling people the advantages of being here.

And I think there is in this industry, there is incentive to go to bigger cities, a lot of that, for money. You know, you can make better money in bigger cities, but you can grow here as well. And I hope people can see that. I just think it needs to be talked about more. I think talking about money is such a taboo thing. But let's talk about money. I think it has to be done. And yeah, I think that's just a few ways that we can keep talented people here locally.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.