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Jerry Gallagher: Staying Classy

after a dozen years of telling the Chippewa Valley’s stories, Jerry Gallagher has left the News 18 anchor desk

Tom Giffey, photos by Andrea Paulseth

After a dozen years of telling the Chippewa Valley’s stories, Jerry Gallagher has left the News 18 anchor desk. Before hitting the road, he gave V1 the scoop about what’s true (and not true) about the ‘Anchorman’ stereotype, how Act 10 changed everything, and what’s wrong (and right) with
Eau Claire’s attitude.

Like the fictional Ron Burgundy of ”Anchorman” fame, Jerry Gallagher is kind of a big deal – a well-recognized, well-groomed, and well-poised presence delivering the news in thousands of western Wisconsin living rooms each night. Unlike Will Ferrell’s inane and rowdy cinematic anchor, however, Gallagher is thoughtful, intelligent, and humble. After coming to WQOW-TV in 2002, Gallagher made himself one of the most trusted men in the Chippewa Valley as he co-anchored the station’s 6 and 10pm newscasts. He also made a mark by pursuing big, in-depth stories that went far beyond the stereotypical surface-skimming of local TV news. After making the decision to take a job at a station in his home state of Iowa, Gallagher signed off from News 18 for the last time on June 20. Before he left, he opened up about his experiences here and why he’ll always love the Chippewa Valley. “You are able to have your hands on everything,” he said of working in a small TV market, “and (are) able to do the kinds of stories you want to do without worrying about a whole lot of interference.” But, for good and ill, Eau Claire isn’t like other small cities: “There is not that element of risk-taking that you see in other communities this size,” he says. “And I think that can be both a positive and a drawback.”

Volume One: What were your first impressions of the Chippewa Valley?

Jerry Gallagher: Trees. When you grow up in Iowa, it’s so flat. … You just don’t have the picturesque quality you get when you come to a place like Eau Claire. Eau Claire is a town encompassed by a forest, and that was so appealing to me, so different for my wife and I to move into. What a pretty town!

Have you impressions of the people changed over time?

The people are very friendly. There’s a Midwestern quality that translates wherever you go, and that did not surprise me and really helped us to make the transition here. I think one of the qualities that I noticed right away … is people don’t change much around here. If people leave, many of them come back, and there’s a sense of comfort in that. … There aren’t a lot of surprises living here. … You know what you’re going to get from day to day from the people who live here. In raising a family, that’s a very attractive quality. When most people want to settle down and have kids, they want to find a place that they know can be predictable.

What has changed culturally, politically, or physically over the past 12 years?

I would say in the broad view of it, there has been a real push to change the dynamics of the arts scene in this community and the cultural scene in making Eau Claire more vibrant and attractive to young people. And whereas there may be a segment of the population that doesn’t see the results yet, the results are there. It may be an iceberg moving right now, but if you look back over the course of the 12 years since I’ve been here and the development of Phoenix Park, for instance, and what that place looks like on Thursday nights in the summertime as opposed to what it was before then. … That’s a real shift, and people talk about that and people are attracted to that.

How would you describe the character of the people here? You mentioned the Midwestern friendliness and the comfort in staying the same. That’s a certain kind of conservatism.

I would say “warm and guarded” – guarded in a sense of very protective of their community and the history of their community, and very passionate about their community, which is an attractive quality for a journalist. … I think people are very protective of what they have here, and they don’t want to lose it. There is not that element of risk-taking that you see in other communities this size. And I think that can be both a positive and a drawback.

What are the negative sides of the attitudes here or the culture here? Is it that guardedness?

Absolutely. I think in Eau Claire it’s difficult to rally around a central concept, figure, or individual that is new. And that is in part because people here are very conscientious and protective of their community and want to vet every possible avenue before they buy into something new.

Local TV news can sometimes be the butt of jokes. There’s the whole ‘Anchorman’ stereotype – that people on TV are just vain and surface-level. If the public peeled back the curtain, what would surprise them about what you do?

I think they would be surprised (by) … the kind of behind-the-scenes work and journalism and decision-making that all of the news anchors have. And that goes back to that “Anchorman” comparison, because as funny and as tongue-in-cheek as that movie series has been, there is some truth to it as well, and I think people – whether you are in journalism or not – realize that. Even in some markets today there are anchors that (only) read the news, and that’s what they do for the living. You will never find that in Eau Claire. To be successful in a market this size, you have got to be a writer, you have got to be an editor, sometimes you have to be a shooter, you have to be a videographer, you have to be a decision-maker, you have to know the community like the back of your hand, you have to have contacts. I think if you peeled back the curtain, some people might be surprised to see how hands-on news anchors are in this market, and hopefully they’d be pleased by that. I know I am.

During your career, has it become harder or easier to cover important, complicated stories as opposed to the shorter, bread-and-butter stories broadcast media often focus on?

I’m very proud of our work here at the station, because four or five years ago we committed ourselves even further to handling the big stories and devoting more time, more resources (to them). … When journalism becomes a 24-7 operation as it has, it can sometimes be (easy) to get swept up in that and not take the time and understand that, “Wait a second, this story is not a microwave TV dinner story. It needs time to breathe, it needs time to be researched, and we cannot turn this thing around in a day.”

Was there a particular issue that led you to do that decision?

Act 10. (Editor’s note: This was Gov. Scott Walker’s controversial 2011 budget repair bill.) I think in a lot of newsrooms it probably was. That was such an important issue on so many different platforms. … I was very proud that we had four different reporters from our station that were at the Capitol that week … before our competition had one. And that was a collaborative discussion, that we are going to try to talk to lawmakers of all sides, we want to talk to citizens, that we want to talk to lawyers about the impact that this legislation could have. There was a real commitment there to be comprehensive about what Act 10 means, and I think our coverage was validated in a sense that you saw how much it meant to people, the momentum and movement down in Madison on both sides. … We looked at it and said, “Let’s attack these new, emerging issues and new stories in our community with the same kind of fervor every time.”

In the announcement that you were leaving, you highlighted three stories – the Confluence Project, frac sand mining, and Common Core – that are weighty and complex but not necessarily sexy or made for television. Why did you think covering those stories was so important?

These are the kinds of stories that people continue to talk about. It generates a conversation at the dinner table, and questions are raised about the impact it will have day after day after day. And what really interested us about all of these is that we knew there was a learning process with the public and frankly with journalists. So not only as a journalist but as a member of the community, it was invigorating to look at some of these topics and say, “I can’t wait to research this because I’m going to learn and present to the public as they learn, and they will have questions.” … When you’re presenting a new topic like the Confluence Project, you know that you can’t tell the whole story in one night – impossible. And you know that because the very next day, you come in and you have emails or phone calls from viewers saying, “Well did you think about this?” or “What about this question?”

Do you think the controversy around the Confluence Project and the ultimate outcome of the referendums says anything about changing local attitudes?

Even with the vote, to me it doesn’t change the fact that I believe Eau Claire is very measured in its approach to new issues and to big projects. That hasn’t changed. We did a story before the (Confluence) vote where we went back and re-examined the Fairfax pool referendums and … talked to people who were involved in that process and (learned) it took 17 years for Eau Claire to build a pool after it was first introduced in the ’70s. One of the comments from a person that we interviewed is that you should not be surprised that this (Confluence) process is unfolding the way it because Eau Claire just takes its time. You learn from history.

So you don’t think the outcome of those referendums indicates there’s been a sea change in the community and that the next big project is just going to sail through?

Absolutely not. … I think the next big project that comes along, Eau Claire will also take a very measured vetting approach to it. There’s nothing haphazard about the way Eau Claire does business. You can see how that frustrates some in the community but at the same time is also an incredible security blanket for others. And what’s been interesting journalism is to watch the tug of war go on between those two sides.

On a more personal level, what are the things that you’re going to miss?

You miss the people. You miss the relationships that you have forged with friends and with viewers. I’ve become very attached to this community, my wife has become very attached to this community. … I’m very proud – very proud – that all four of my children will forever call themselves Eau Claire natives.

Are there things you won’t miss about their area – serious or not so serious?

It’s cliché, but it’s true, I’m not going to miss the amount of snow. The last two years – while it makes for news, and it makes my job easier because it’s more news to cover – the last two years have been very hard winters. (When) you grow up in the Midwest, you’re used to snow. I don’t dislike winter; I just think that it’s a little bit harder up here. I won’t miss that.

Any closing thoughts?

In a way I feel like I grew up as a journalist here. And one thing that I’ve learned from some terrific people who I’ve worked under and learned from – like (former station manager/news director) Lisa Patrow and many others past and present here at News 18 – is to make an impact with your journalism. Do something that will impact the community in some way, shape, or form. We’re given this platform and we can do many things with it, and at the end of the day if you look back and you say you made a difference with that story, you feel good about it. … You can say as journalists that we’re here to report the facts, but we’re also community members, and I don’t wish anything bad on anybody. I don’t ever celebrate bad news. … We understand that it is a part of the job that you have to cover it, but what moves us and drives us is when we see change for the better, in a story that leads to a community rising up to help other people.