The Hectic and Gratifying Life of a CNN Producer
March 17, 2021
Matthew Kendrick’s passion for shooting and editing video led to a position as an associate producer with CNN political commentator Fareed Zakaria. Today, he reflects on his experiences and offers advice to students who have hopes of working in the broadcast journalism industry.
The job of a major network host can appear effortless. That’s because behind each segment there’s a lot going on—deadlines, research, pre-interviews, fact-checking, finding appropriate visual material. The long hours and constant grind isn't for everyone. Kendrick ’14 saw it as an amazing opportunity.
“I always wanted a career that would challenge me intellectually, that required creativity, and a bit of style. [Something] that took me out into the wider world in a way academics or think-tanks wouldn’t. I got extremely lucky to find such a good fit at the right time in my life,” says Kendrick of his position at CNN, even though the road to the broadcast journalism industry wasn’t exactly a straight path.
Kendrick, a history and East Asian studies major, went to South Korea on a Fulbright scholarship to teach English in several rural elementary schools after graduating from Oberlin. He intended to pursue an academic career, but his attention turned to video after meeting British documentarians working in Seoul. After enrolling in a master’s program in history and documentary film at Syracuse University, Kendrick fell in love with shooting and editing video. He applied for documentary and news production internships in New York City, and landed a position as an intern at CNN and worked his way up to production assistant to booker to associate producer of the Fareed Zakaria GPS, a weekly foreign affairs program.
“Three extremely talented and experienced producers at CNN—Dana Sherne, Jessica Gutteridge, and Nida Najar—took me under their wings early on,” says Kendrick about his on- the-job education. “They taught me everything I know about organizing and executing edits that are informative, compelling, and beautiful all at once. Having a keen eye for the right visuals and the patience and perseverance to find that perfect shot or make that graphic just a little bit better can be the difference between a segment viewer’s flip away from [the program] and one that they seek out online to retweet.
“In the same vein, I learned so much from my mentors about writing clearly and concisely, how to fastidiously fact-check oneself and one’s colleagues, and how a cooperative can-do attitude elevates any piece beyond what could be produced on one’s own. Which gets to a more fundamental lesson for every journalist about listening more than one speaks and seeking to understand before seeking to be understood.”
A typical week for Kendrick involved spending hours widely reading to generate pitches for guests and segment topics for the upcoming show. He liked to focus on East Asia, since his language skills gave him an advantage in scouring Chinese and Korean outlets for good stories. Kendrick, who was raised in Chile, had developed an interest in foreign affairs journalism when he was younger. He honed his Mandarin and Spanish language skills at Oberlin and gained Korean language skills after graduation.
Once a rough outline for the week’s program was generated, writing and production tasks were divided. For interviews he produced, Kendrick would call potential guests and conduct a pre-interview—a longer, more detailed conversation that he can draw on to help the host craft the most germane interview possible on air.
For segments that were delivered by the host straight to camera, Kendrick worked with CNN’s reporters in the field and topic experts for facts, working through several drafts of each piece. All of the pieces at GPS went through a peer-led fact-checking system, where his work was reviewed and critiqued by other producers and production assistants and vice versa, Kendrick explains. The final stop was CNN’s “row,” a group of senior network editors who signed off on all copy before it went on air.
During the process, Kendrick also worked with a production assistant to locate and license the visual material necessary to tell each story, which he considered the most challenging and time-consuming aspect of the job. Taping usually began Thursday morning, when Kendrick was responsible for managing the recording system and guiding the host through interviews or reads he produced. Afterward, each segment was rushed into editing, where he “worked like mad” through the end of the next day to stitch everything together and get it down to time. But even then, breaking news often required producers to come into the office Sunday morning for a live segment or two, says Kendrick. The grueling scheduling made rare moments of social impact all the sweeter.
“It didn’t happen every day or every month, or even every year, but when you got that story you’ve been fired up about through the gatekeeping hurdles—through a rigorous fact-check, a crazy edit, and just over the finish line to air—and you generated some discussion and got people’s minds moving, and maybe, just maybe, contributed to some concrete action that could actually make a difference in the lives of your subjects or audience, I was tempted to feel like what I did for a living might actually matter in the high-brow, philosophical sense that Obies tend to care about, and that’s pretty great.”
After four years with CNN, Kendrick decided to step back late last year to support his partner, Nina Axiotakis ’14, during her medical residency at Georgetown University. In the future he would like to continue working in foreign affairs, “but with a more granular focus on human rights. My work on North Korea, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong over the last few years was particularly impactful, and I hope to elevate and center the stories and voices of victims of state violence and genocide in my future work.”
Kendrick says he is grateful to each of his Oberlin mentors for their patience and guidance, some of whom are reflected in his career: Associate Professor of History Ellen Wurtzel, who mentored him throughout his time at Oberlin; Professor of East Asian Studies Sheila Miyoshi Jager, who changed the way he viewed American foreign policy in East Asia and set him on the path to live in South Korea; Professor of History Renee Romano, who pushed students to improve their communication skills; and Senior Lecturers in Chinese Kai Li and Fang Liu, who provided “a world-class Mandarin education,” and introduced him to Chinese calligraphy and classical literature that continue to enrich his life.
For students who are seeking a career in on-screen journalism, he offers this advice:
“The thing I wish I had brought more of to the table is simple production experience. Brush up on your skills in Premiere or Pro Tools and use winter term to report and record a short documentary or podcast about something that means a lot to you,” he says. “Prove that you’re an enterprising and creative journalist and you see through what you start. Apply for internships at publications and productions that you admire, and work as hard as you can to learn what gives them that special touch. Make mentorship connections. I don’t like the term networking because I feel it implies a shallowness and transaction-oriented nature to the relationship. What I have found works best in the industry are relationships based on mutual trust and appreciation.
“For foreign affairs in particular, I can’t recommend learning another language enough. Oberlin’s Mandarin classes are particularly good. And find a way to spend a year or more in a country that speaks your target language by hook or by crook. If you can do some reporting in-country, all the better. And practice, practice, practice. Hone your writing, production, and language skills to be the best they can be.”
Kendrick's history thesis on Papal-Mongol diplomacy was awarded high honors, and is one of the models Wurtzel continues to use with current honors students. He also served as cochair of the Student Honor Committee and president of the men’s rugby club—“Go Gruffs.”
LIFE LESSON: “When I was 18, I worked as a whitewater raft guide in Colorado during the summer. The key to rafting safely is being able to read the water from far upstream and make a plan for getting through. But sometimes a plan is just a guess in a fancy dress, and a level head and some creativity are all that can really save you if things go wrong.”
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