ThreeSixty Focus on… Jana Shortal: The KARE 11 anchor talks standing out, the state of journalism and more

It took me a really long time, literally 36 years, to come out into my own and I don't think it's going to take other people that long. I'm a late bloomer.

On a chilly Saturday afternoon in March, Jana Shortal pulls up in her Honda Civic and walks into SpyHouse Coffee in Minneapolis.

The KARE 11 anchor and reporter enters SpyHouse wearing black joggers that she says she slept in the night before and a plaid vest. We’ve never met before. I attempt to shake her hand, and she stretches out her arm and leans closer.

“No, I am a hugger,” she says, as she goes in for the embrace.

Shortal was simply being herself. She is quirky, confident, casual, personable and happy.

For Shortal, this didn’t come easily. Earlier in life the southern Illinois native struggled, fighting depression, an eating disorder and identity issues, she said. But over the years, she has become comfortable with herself, and now she stands out like no other broadcaster in the Twin Cities.

Since joining KARE in 2003, Shortal has become a reporter and co-anchor of KARE’s “Breaking the News,” a show that strives to look at news in a deeper and different way. Shortal has shared her personal life experiences on the air—including that she’s gay—as well as her opinion. She doesn’t wear the typical attire a female news anchor would wear. Rather, she dresses in more casual and trendy clothing, such as jeans and a blazer.

Shortal joined KARE 11 in 2003 at age 26. Throughout her time at KARE, she has found her own voice and style. (Photo courtesy of KARE 11)

She has received criticism for her unique sense of style. In September, C.J., a columnist at the Star Tribune, criticized Shortal in a column for the skinny jeans she was wearing while reporting about the death of Jacob Wetterling, whose remains had been found after he went missing in 1989. Shortal responded with a Facebook post, which received more than 6,800 shares and 2,200 comments. The story proceeded to go viral and brought national attention to Shortal. (The Star Tribune removed the column and issued an apology.)

I interviewed Shortal about what she was like as a teenager, how she has come to find herself, what she thinks about the state of journalism and much more.

What was it like for you as a teenager in Illinois?
Shortal: Growing up in a really, really small town (in Illinois) with absolutely zero diversity—there are literally more Asians and people of color in this room right now than I ever saw for my first 25 years of life. ... It was very small. I didn’t even know you were supposed to lock your door until college. … While it was a very safe childhood, nothing bad ever happened there, it was also one where I didn’t know a whole lot about anything else.

I bring that up because obviously I was different, and I knew that, but I didn’t know how to express it. And I wasn’t repressing myself in any way. I did not know I was queer. I didn’t know really that I was a feminist. I didn’t know any of those things. I just knew I wasn’t fitting in in some ways, but in other ways, I fit in great. ...

I just figured out how to be a teenager, but it wasn’t authentic to myself and I think that’s why I saw so many changes throughout my 20s and 30s, like radical, radical changes. Changes that included depression, changes that included an eating disorder that went on for over a decade, changes that included trying to present as feminine as I possibly could with as many boys in my phone as I could possibly find—trying to fill something I just couldn’t fit. ...

It’s a really confusing time and it took me a really long time, literally 36 years, to come into my own, and I don’t think it’s going to take other people that long. I’m just a late bloomer.

How would you define teenage Jana in a few words?
Shortal: Oooh, interesting. I wish my mom were here to tell you. Curious. Obnoxious. Funny. Awkward.

 Shortal poses for a photo during her basketball playing days in high school. (Photo courtesy of Jana Shortal)

Years ago, Shortal was named prom queen of her high school in Jerseyville, Illinois. (Photo courtesy of Jana Shortal)

When you transitioned from high school to college, how was that transition for you and how did your life change?
Shortal: The first year was difficult because I literally went from prom queen [at my high school] to nobody at a really big school, like 18,000 undergraduates. I’m from a town of 5,000 people. So, yikes. ... [College] was, you chose your classes where there was learning environments where there were lectures. I was just blown away, I thought I was on a different planet and it was so fun. … It literally was like “A Whole New Word” [in] Aladdin. I didn’t know what was happening. Everything was big and different and cool. And scary. And then I wound up making friends toward my sophomore year. And then there were hard lessons to learn, too. It was just harder. But by the time I got to my last three years of college, I never, ever, ever wanted to leave. I barely did.

My first job was 20 miles away, purposefully, so I never really had to graduate from college. Stayed with my college roommates. Milked that one until that job was terrible and I got a really good opportunity to move to a really big market, so I finally had to leave college.

How did you find storytelling and journalism when you went to college?
Shortal:
There was a tiny, tiny TV in the kitchen [at home during high school], and I would watch SportsCenter, which at the time, it was 1994, 1995, SportsCenter is brand new on ESPN. It was the first program—at that time it was Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann—that put almost comedic writing [into the broadcast]. What you all know as Jon Stewart and Jon Oliver—it was that, 25 years ago.

It was the first time that satire [was] presented in a news format— albeit sports, so you could do it. I was like, “What is that? I want to do that.” I was convinced that I was going to go to Syracuse, because that’s where sports journalists go, and then I found out how much it costs. ...

[Because] my father lived in St. Louis and he paid Missouri taxes, I could get Missouri tuition, and that whole thing about going somewhere where nobody else went, that was my way to go to a four-year university. And it just so happened to be one of the best journalism schools in the country. That was just dumb luck, literally.

Why did you come to the Twin Cities?
Shortal:
When I was in college and then in my second job ... we would watch film, VHS tapes at the time, and it would be the NPPA Station of the Year tape, which was the National Press Photographers Association, and KARE always won. … We were mesmerized. I watched local news where I grew up and where I was living and the way we did it, and then this was like the pros. …

When I got to my job before this job (in Kansas City), it was a really difficult place to work and there were a couple of photographers [and] we wanted to work like [KARE], and we just worked for a crime-and-grind, run-and-gun station, and it was awful. And to get us through it, we would watch those tapes. We would order them from the NPPA.

That job in Kansas City ended rather abruptly in 2003 and I thought I didn’t want to do TV anymore. It was just a really bad experience and I didn’t like it.

One of those photographers who was my dear friend compiled my work and sent it to KARE 11. While not in TV anymore, at some shopping mall in Johnson County, Kansas, I got a phone call from the news director at KARE 11. And I hung up on him because I thought it was a prank call. And then he called back. … He flew me up here a few weeks later, and I moved a month after that.

This is the lesson, though, in that, is that you make your own luck … by being good to other people. The guy who sent my tape did that out of the kindness of his heart. … That’s why I’m sitting here right now. This all comes full circle. You don’t know when, you don’t know how, you don’t know why, and you don’t do it for that reason. But if we all help each other, it all starts to make sense when you get to be my age.

When you came to the Twin Cities, how were you received by people?
Shortal:
Not good. I was a lot different. I came in 2003. I was one of the youngest people KARE had ever hired. It [had] a national reputation, and to hire a 26-year-old kid who is pretty green, that was a risk. There were some people on staff that just didn’t take it very seriously and that really got to me. I didn’t do very well.

I wasn’t a good employee. I was scared. I was nervous. I didn’t know who I was. It reflected in my work. By the grace of some higher power, they kept me and helped me grow. And some people reached out and said, “No, you can do this.” Over time, and over a long period of time, it started to get easier. But it wasn’t easy when I first got [to Minnesota]. ...

I also, the year I moved here, was in the process of coming out. It’s not really KARE’s fault, I was in some serious life transitions. 26 was bumpy for me. [Age] 26-29 was really hard, there was a lot going on. That was happening at the same time. It was moving to a city [where] I didn’t know anybody, working at a station that was a legacy station that a lot of people thought I had no business working at, presenting my gender in a very awkward way, at the same time fighting against my sexual orientation. I wasn’t excited about it, which I’m ashamed to say now, but that’s what it was like in 2003-2004.

Eventually you found your voice and your own personal style?
Shortal:
Yeah, [after] trying to use somebody else’s for so long. And it’s funny, that’s an overarching theme to my entire life and career, and how I dress and how I present and how I work. And now I’m sitting here with you. People want to talk to me because they see something in how I’m doing this stuff and I’m like, “Oh, well I’m just doing it my way now.”

What’s your take on the criticism of your attire in September and how did you feel when you read C.J.’s column?
Shortal:
I was shocked. I don’t know that there’s another word to use. I was shocked most of all. I know the tenor of her work, but this just seemed worse.

I also felt really embarrassed that anybody who went into Google that night... [and] typed in “Wetterling” in the Star Tribune, that would be the first thing that they see. And that really [upset me] that that garbage would be inserted into the story so important to our community, a story that we needed to heal, and that was just trash, thrown into that. It’s just gross. For someone writing for our paper of record, that was embarrassing. I thought the whole thing was gross.

What did you take away from that entire experience?
Shortal:
One of these times—if it wasn’t that time, it’s going to be another time—it’s going to be like when … Clark Kent goes into the phone booth and he’s just Clark Kent, and when he comes out he’s Superman because there’s a transformation. I didn’t know it at the time, because it was a million things going through my body that night, and never for one minute did I think when I said in response [on Facebook] that anybody would give a crap. I was just responding for me and not letting somebody do that. I had no idea that anyone would read it or share it—read it, sure—but I didn’t have that kind of reach. I’m not famous. I’m not popular like the main anchors, I’m just a regular reporter. I never thought it would make that much of an impact.

What I can see now looking back on it was that was the moment I came out of that phone booth just angry as hell for all of the times that anybody ever did that to me, and for all of the times anybody does it to somebody else. It’s not OK. It’s not permissible. It’s [beyond] the pale. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the fourth grade and you’re doing it on the playground, or you’re a grown woman working for a major newspaper and you do it in your column. No more.

And I think the response wasn’t because people felt sorry for me. It was because they felt empowered that somebody said “No. No, no, no.”

What were you thinking about when you posted your response?
Shortal:
It’s funny you ask that. I haven’t read it. Probably I did the very next morning because I didn’t sleep very well that night, because that whole night was really just like I was living outside of my body. Now I have a lot of empathy for actual famous people. When they do things and they’re in gossip columns, I feel so sad for them because I’m like, they’re real people. To be objectified in that way, it really feels strange.

What do you think teenagers should take away from your experience?
Shortal:
Be yourself. Because everybody else is taken. It’s true. It sounds ridiculous, but it is true. There’s only one you. And that’s pretty preferable because you’re unique. …

I know people would say, “It’s easy for you to say,” but I was never supposed to be here, ever. From my high school guidance counselor to my freshman year journalism teacher to my first and second jobs, through my own self-sabotage, through my own self-harm—somehow, still kicking. There’s a reason for that. ... It was hard. And hard’s what makes it great. Otherwise everyone else would do it.

I watched your powerful message about the Orlando nightclub shooting in June 2016 on “Breaking the News.” How did you make the decision to publicly say that you’re gay on the broadcast?
Shortal:
As a queer person at my age, those places (nightclubs) are sanctuaries. … It’s a place where we could be as a community and love who we love, in complete and total safety. And it’s also, because there’s no lights and windows for reasons of our safety, it’s an open killing ground if someone wanted to do that.

I just closed my eyes and imagined being at ... every queer space that literally allowed me to become myself, and I could just see it, and it was horrifying. So that was just playing in my head.

Then I got home that night, and I don’t know if you guys watched any of the coverage, but I was watching CNN, and I know other people did it, but Anderson Cooper went on the air and read 49 names. It took 16 minutes, and all he did was stand there and read their names, ages, and where they’re from, and he was weeping, and I was just like—I was sick.

Before that had happened, my mother had called when she’d seen that really did happen. It was like 3:30 and my friend was like, “Let’s just meet for a drink,” and we went ... we’re sitting on a patio, and my mom called. ... And she was literally distraught, and I’m 38 at that point, [and she is] telling me to go home. It was the first time I understood when I came out to my mom why she was so scared, because I could hear it in her voice. This is what she was worried about. ...

The next day was Monday, and we had our editorial meeting… . Through the meeting I just told the story about my mom, and Rena (Sarigianopoulos, Shortal’s co-host on “Breaking the News”) just was beside herself. She was just like, “Do you want to tell that story?” …

I said, I could, but I wanted to do it a very specific way. I didn’t want it to be on live TV, because I didn’t know how I was going to react. I wanted to tape it but only do it in one take, because I wanted it to be real. And then, on the back end of that story, I wanted to do similar to what Anderson Cooper did, but I wanted to just type their names, and play music and then the show to be over. I didn’t want any talking or any debate. So, they gave me that permission to do [the show] that way.

I thought that it was transparent. I’m sure a lot of people that you could interview, because a lot of people don’t like it, they would think, would say it was self-serving—and that’s fine. I mean, as a journalist you’re never supposed to cross that line, but I don’t believe that anymore. I think I’m a different kind of journalist, and I’m comfortable with that. If that makes other people uncomfortable, that’s fine.

As part of this issue of our magazine, we’re featuring different stories that talk about the state of journalism now, and I’m wondering what you think the state of journalism is and where we are now?
Shortal:
Someone described this [as] similar to the state we were probably in maybe in the ‘60s but maybe even more so after Lincoln was elected. And I’m not saying this to be anti-Trump. I’m saying at a fundamental destruction of everything we know as the norms in media and how the country is run has been [blown up]. [Media being] banned from press conferences, being called the enemy of the American people by our president and his staff, on more than one occasion. That’s a little scary.

A significant percentage of the population is spouting off things like fake news when they just don’t like something. Fake news is now used like, if you don’t like something I’m saying, “Fake news!” That’s not fake news. Fake news is something that’s intentionally made up. Me saying, perhaps, that the health care plan has bad parts to it, that’s not fake news. It’s a weird time.

I think our industry will have to change because of it. I think it’s really uncomfortable. I can tell you that newsrooms are uncomfortable right now, because even, I think, and I hear this from friends in other newsrooms, even managers don’t really know how to handle this. You don’t know what to do because no matter what you do, somebody is mad. That was the case before, but not like this. It wasn’t vicious and vitriolic. And so I think there’s some real gutchecking going on, and everything should be happening within the journalist and within the newsrooms, a big soul searching of, what is this going to look like?

I think right now we don’t know, because it’s exhausting. I think we will know. A year from now, I think we’ll have a little bit more of an idea of how to handle this, because we have been in this ride for a bit longer. Right now, it’s just crazy.

What would you say to people who want to do journalism?
Shortal:
It’s never been more important. Ever. Ever in my lifetime, in your lifetime, in my mom’s lifetime. I don’t think it’s ever been more important to do the work. ...

I hope that we’ll find some sort of sense of calm for all people, because I don’t know how sustainable this is. But, the last thing that should happen is for journalists to get scared and stop being journalists because it’s too hard. I know for me, I’ve worked harder in the last year of my life than I have in the previous 17 years, and that’s okay. ... I think right now we have to, and we’ll see what that looks like.

What would you say to teens who get their news from social media?
Shortal:
You know, somebody asked this at [a recent] panel [I spoke on]. This woman asked because her son is 18 and he asked her if CNN was a Democrat channel. Fair question, but that’s what we’ve come to, right, that you’re one or the other. ...

The woman was asking what to tell her son, and I’m like, you need to be a conscious consumer, just like you are with food. You can’t have everything done for you. You need to find out what foods are bad for you, and what foods are good for you, or what foods work for your body, and you need to do the same with news.

There is not one place that you’re going to get news that’s going to make you the most well-rounded citizen of our democracy. I read 30 news publications a week, easy, all over the spectrum. Do you have to do that much? No. It’s my job. But, think of it like sports, you know. Do you think someone at the level of the NFL only watches, like, one other team? No, you watch every form of football you can find, to formulate new ideas and new plays.

This transcript has been edited for length and content.

THE JANA SHORTAL FILE

Profession: Journalist, KARE 11
Age: 39
Hometown: Jerseyville, Illinois
Career Snapshot: Worked as a reporter at WDAF-TV in Kansas City; hired at KARE 11 at age 26; reporter and co-anchor of KARE 11’s “Breaking the News”; was thrust into national spotlight when Star Tribune columnist criticized her attire – in particular, her skinny jeans – while reporting about Jacob Wetterling’s death
Find her: On Twitter at @janashortal

 

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