It’s been eight months since Sheinelle Jones joined the weekend team at the "Today" show. The news anchor recently traveled back to her hometown of Wichita--on her first weekend off from the network-- to speak at the Alpha Kappa Alpha 80th anniversary banquet. KMUW’s Carla Eckels talks with Jones about her journalistic beginnings, which lead to her high-profile life at NBC in New York.
On working her way to the top:
"I think sometimes people underestimate. They see you on TV with Matt Lauer and they're like, 'Oh my gosh, she just got there!' And people haven’t seen me since I graduated from Heights (High School in Wichita) in 1996, but it has been a long road.
I interned here in Wichita in high school. My junior year I was at the USD259 building learning how to edit. My senior year in high school I was at Channel 12 (KWCH) interning in my little cheerleading skirt, ripping scripts and doing what they needed me to do, run teleprompter.
I went to Northwestern University and majored in journalism. My freshman year I came back and worked at KSN for free, and then my sophomore year in college I interned for the summer at BET News. The next year after that I went to Topeka, Kansas, and worked at the American Eagle at the mall to make money and rented this little apartment and interned at the CBS affiliate in Topeka. So every single summer when I was in college I made it a point to be in a newsroom somewhere and working for free.
On her humble beginnings in news:
"A lot of the kids just want to be a news anchor and want to get paid but it starts years before that. You have to be willing to work for free -- do the things others won’t do. I remember when I was in college interning at one of the stations I found myself in line at a gift shop at Wesley Hospital waiting for Beanie Babies 'cause one of the reporters couldn’t go get one and really wanted a Beanie Baby!
There would be lines of people and I was out in the rain like, 'How am I going to be Oprah in line getting Beanie Babies?' I was like, 'How is this going to help me?' But that’s what you do; you grind."
On the best piece of advice she ever received:
"It was like, I know I want to be a news anchor, I want to be a reporter, but how do I do it, you know? And I got the best advice: Someone said, 'Ask for what you want, take what you get, and use what you get to get what you want.' And that’s been my career."
On her early goals:
"There’s something about, I guess as a kid, the little peacock and the logo...I just grew up kind of watching NBC, and nothing against the other stations, but I think that was top of mind for me: NBC. It was almost surreal for me to get that job at the 'Today' show; it really was.
(In) Mrs. James' 5th grade class at Gammon Elementary, we had a career day and we had to draw pictures of what we wanted to do, and I remember it was a yellow sheet of construction paper and I drew myself as a little news anchor, a little helmet hair, hoop earrings and a little box by my head and that’s what I wanted to do.
Before there were vision boards, I had a vision room. I had Janet Jackson, Tevin Campbell pictures of all the stars I liked on one wall, cheerleading pictures on another, and my other wall I had the black-and-white head shots with the signatures of the local anchors. I could recite anchors of Wichita, Kansas, like people can recite NBA players. I mean, they were like my heroes!"
On what it's like to work for the 'Today' show:
It is absolutely intense. I think the people see the fun, and it is fun sometimes, but it is intensity like I’ve never known. (In) local news there are some people in the studio; at the 'Today' show there are a ton of people in the studio. In local news you can be pressured or you’re worried about the ratings and all of that. The 'Today' show you are competing against Good Morning America and CBS This Morning. I mean, you know, the stakes are so much higher and you are a cog in the wheel. You are one of so many players...and it’s pressure that comes from yourself to hold your own.
I anchored that very first weekend, and that music comes and that logo and that date scrolls across the screen and then the lights come on and there’s like eight billion looking at you in the crew, and I was like, 'This is HAPPENING.' I was, like, having a moment inside."
On the show bringing her mom, Sheila Kinnard, to sing on Broadway:
"It was great to give her that experience because, you know what, my mama sacrificed a lot. When I was in college, people who know my mom--she’s Ms. AKA, Ms. Link--she dropped ALL of those activities that had dues; she stopped all of that to help get me through school. Northwestern University is not cheap. I’m paying loans until this day. But she sacrificed that for me to get me through college.
So now as an adult, it was so gratifying. Fast forward to working for the 'Today' show and having them fly her to New York City and putting her up in a hotel for a night...(it) was priceless to me! Now I’m like, 'Mama, what do you need?' I want to be like an athlete buy my a house; I can't, but people, we love our mamas because our mamas have done so much for us over the years.
"My mom, you know, has a beautiful voice, so to be able to put her on that stage and let her be able to sing on Broadway--that’s the beauty of working with the 'Today' show 'cause you can do stuff like that. That’s when it hits me, when it’s like, 'Wow.' To be able to put my mom on a stage on Broadway, for them to be able to open up the doors before the show started, and to be able to let her sing with a star (Lisa Howard)."
On visiting Wichita:
"You take things for granted. Wichita is a wonderful community and we rally around our young people and we love them to pieces and we’re just good folks. I think sometimes we get bogged down in it because we think the grass is greener, but it is a beautiful city and this city made me. So many people have sewn seeds in me, and so this was a great weekend to come back and to say thank you and to smell the fresh air and to give my city a big old hug!"
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Follow Carla Eckels on Twitter @Eckels