Nearing 25 years together, WPXI anchors Johnson, Finnegan defy odds
No one ever said television news wasn't a crazy business, David Johnson says.
“You can be good, and they'll get rid of you. You can be bad, and they'll get rid of you,” the veteran WPXI anchor says.
What makes an anchor or reporter popular can sometimes be so subjective and arbitrary, says Peggy Finnegan, Johnson's co-anchor for the 5 and 5:30 p.m. weekday news. “They may not like your hair or how you speak or that you smile too often or don't smile enough.”
And when it comes to achieving longevity as an anchor team, there are more potential obstacles working against that happening, from ratings to research, than there are in your favor, Finnegan says.
But despite the odds, Johnson and Finnegan — who are closing in on 25 years together in January — are already the longest-running local news-anchor team in Pittsburgh television history and one of the longest in the nation.
Twenty-five years for a single anchor is extraordinary, says Robert Thompson, professor of media and culture at Syracuse University.
“For a team to stay together for 25 years is almost unheard of,” Thompson says. “You're talking about two different people who have to be incredibly stable in a field that is unstable. Those in TV news tend to move around all over the place, to bigger markets or for personal reasons, or new management shakes things up and they're fired.”
After an anchor team reaches 10 years together, they have the advantage of nostalgia working, he says. “When you have that kind of continuity of 25 years together, a lot of people living in Pittsburgh may never have known a world without these two people together. A lot of these viewers' parents may have broken up, but these anchors are still together.”
Their achievement, begun in 1990, surprises even Johnson, who has been in television journalism for 35 years, and Finnegan, who got her start in radio in 1982 before moving to TV in 1983. Johnson has been through 11 news directors and two general managers since coming to the station in 1985.
When he arrived in Pittsburgh, Johnson decided to give it three years and then re-evaluate. “You just never know when you get hired some place if you'll catch on, if they'll like you and you'll like them, or if you'll connect with your co-anchor,” he says. “We loved it.”
Finnegan's original intent was to work for a few years in Pittsburgh — “a great TV market,” she says — and then move on to a larger city. “Nothing like marrying a Pittsburgh boy and starting a family to make you realize you're exactly where you're supposed to be,” she says.
Pittsburgh residents' loyalty to what they like is legendary, Finnegan says.
“I remember all the cards and letters from viewers when I had my first baby, and the support I received when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1994 was unbelievable,” Finnegan says.
“It meant the world to me and carried me through a tough time. I may be from Chicago originally, but I am definitely a Pittsburgher now.”
Johnson, a Jacksonville, Fla., native, concurs.
Viewers feel comfortable enough to approach the anchors to offer praise and even ask about their families “like they've known us forever,” Finnegan says.
“They are so comfortable with each other that they make the viewer feel comfortable,” says Ray Carter, station vice president and general manager. “I've had people tell me they wished they had a neighbor like David, and I've heard from women who wished Peggy was their daughter-in-law. You have to work pretty hard to merit a place like that in viewers' hearts.
“Peggy has a mother's heart, and she connects on a unique level with the people we cover and the problems they encounter,” he says. “David is whip smart and has a very quick wit. If he weren't doing local news, he'd be doing stand-up comedy somewhere. If you ever get to hear his Tom Brokaw impression, it's worth a listen.”
They are real people, news director Mike Oliveira says.
“I think viewers love and respect David and Peggy because their personalities come though on the air,” he says. “You have two smart, kind and caring people, providing context and comfort when they have to deliver sad news. They respect the viewers and work hard for them. ”
A long tradition
Pittsburgh has a long tradition of anchor teams staying together for years, Carter says. “I don't know if we Pittsburghers always appreciate the fact that we do have familiar faces who choose to spend their careers here. It's certainly not that way in many other television markets.”
Finnegan and Johnson say they clicked from the beginning.
And for the record, they are not married to each other. If there still are some viewers who think they are, both anchors say they take that as a compliment.
“I'm flattered that anyone thought that, because it means we have a nice chemistry together,” Finnegan says. “But Nancy Polinsky is David's perfect match. They really have a wonderful marriage. And so do I with my husband, Mike Donnelly. Maybe that's another reason for our longevity. We have happy, stable lives with no drama to distract us from our work.”
In some ways, Thompson says, an anchor team is a “metaphoric marriage.”
“It's like long-term partners on a police force who go out every day on the job. They have a relationship like no other, he says.
“It's just like partners in a business, executives and executive assistants, who are sometimes together an entire career. News anchors are like that,” Thompson says.
“David is super friendly and very easy to get along with. Everyone who works at Channel 11 loves him. I'm probably his biggest fan,” Finnegan says. “Part of what David and I have together is mutual respect and admiration for the abilities and talents of the other. When you add that we also truly like each other, you've got the foundation for a good team.”
Johnson offers this assessment: “I think we're both good journalists. I'm not bad at being a ‘hard news' reader. She is so wonderful at delivering emotion and compassion. I don't possess that like she does. Together, it seems to work.
“She is a good reporter who, as such a good person and mother, can translate that in a way the viewer can relate to, better than I can. She's Catholic, I'm Jewish. She lives in the suburbs, I live in the city. We have some contrasts, but we love each other and love working together.”
They've developed an on-air communication, whether it is a glance, a pause or a nudge under the desk, that keeps newscasts flowing smoothly.
What Finnegan calls “the toughest day of my career” proved to be one of their most memorable on air together.
She was home sick with a fever the morning of 9/11. After the second tower fell, she and Johnson were on the set from morning until night.
“Both of us were functioning in full news mode, gathering and dispensing information and conducting interviews, while at the same time, we were parents and citizens frightened and grieving like everyone else,” she says.
“Peggy is the reason we've had success,” Johnson insists. “When I arrived, they called WPXI ‘the revolving door' because so many anchors came and went. Our pairing somehow worked and it changed how people viewed Channel 11.”
Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or firstname.lastname@example.org