2017-05-01 / Up Close

Media Maven

Longtime WTAJ anchor Carolyn Donaldson joins WPSU
Julia King

Telling stories has always been a driving passion for Carolyn Donaldson. It helped spark her interest in television news, leading to a 21-year career as a news anchor for WTAJ. Now, Donaldson is taking on a new way of telling stories through her position as the community engagement manager for WPSU.

After growing up in the small town of Maumee, Ohio, a suburb of Toledo, Donaldson attended Siena Heights, a liberal arts college, where she double-majored in television news and business administration.

“I didn’t know if I would be able to get a job in television because it is very competitive,” she says. As it turned out, her first job was not in television, but as a sales and marketing representative with Procter & Gamble.

Though this may not have been the job she was looking for, it became the reason that brought her to Central Pennsylvania. “They moved me out here and said, ‘This is your sales territory,’” Donaldson says. “This was 1982; I had never been here before, and I had to just pack up a U-Haul, drive out here and start working right away.” Donaldson’s career in sales would prove to be just a short detour. Just six months after moving to the area, she began working for WTAJ as a weather forecaster, and eventually became a news anchor.

Having participated in radio shows throughout high school and college as well as writing for her university’s newspaper, Donaldson realized her passion for telling stories early on. “It was women like Diane Sawyer and the late Mary Tyler Moore who prompted me to want to go into television,” she says. “I remember watching them and thinking, ‘She’s an independent, young professional woman — that’s what I want to do.’”

Donaldson found another way to tell stories: through her passion for theater. “I was in theater and plays and I didn’t mind asking questions and being out there,” she says. Her love for the theater continues today and is something she hopes to get more involved with. “I can’t sing or dance, but I can do straight stuff or comedies,” she says. “And I love to watch plays as well.”

Donaldson points out WPSU’s many awards. “None of them are mine, of course, but I’m just so excited to work with this team.”Donaldson points out WPSU’s many awards. “None of them are mine, of course, but I’m just so excited to work with this team.”After reporting the news for 21 years, Donaldson has told her fair share of stories; some have stuck with her more than others. For Donaldson, as with much of the media and the country, the day of Sept. 11, 2001, was a life changer. “I remember being at home that morning, and we were actually doing a shoot in my kitchen when my videographer got a call that said, ‘Get here right away.’”

“Here” was Somerset County, one of 25 Pennsylvania counties in WTAJ’s coverage region, at the crash site of Flight 93. Before learning of the events in New York and Flight 93’s connection to the larger terrorist attack on our country that day, Donaldson went to work reporting the local tragedy. “I clearly remember getting dressed in red, white and blue. I got there at around 10:30 in the morning and I stayed on the air until midnight,” she says. “It was horrific and horrible, but it is the number one story that has stayed with me throughout the years.”

Not all of her most memorable stories have resulted from tragedy. Some of the high points of Donaldson’s career in news included getting to be part of a team that met with Pope Benedict during his visit to Washington D.C. “With my religious background, that moment was very important to me,” she says. Donaldson also counts getting to attend the presidential inaugurations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama among her favorite memories. “Those were very exciting to cover as a reporter trying to find a local story in such a large context.”

Throughout her career with WTAJ, Donaldson has had the chance to travel and meet new people from around the world, as well as gain friendships within the office. “After 21 years, it really became like a family,” she says. “There were a lot of people who came and left, but the business is so small, you get to keep in touch with friends you’ve made throughout the country and around the world.”

Despite her love for being on the air, Donaldson is looking to utilize her communication skills as the community engagement manager for WPSU. “It’s a new position,” she explains, “and my biggest job is really to be the brand ambassador for all of the wonderful quality reporting that we do on the radio, television and now digitally.” WPSU is affiliated with media platforms like NPR and PBS, which can reach audiences on both national and local scales. “I get to put my listening ears on,” she says. “I find out the issues that people want to hear and talk more about and then develop programs to match those.”

As the community engagement manager, Donaldson also will be working closely with local school districts on how to improve the learning process for both kids and teachers. PBS has recently developed the Ready to Learn Initiative, which consists of hundreds of curriculum guides, all approved by the Department of Education and tied to videos and stories, which can be downloaded onto tablets used by the kids. “Kids these days are digital natives, but a lot of this stuff is learned behavior for the teachers,” she says.

Donaldson with longtime co-anchor John Clay.Donaldson with longtime co-anchor John Clay.To further her efforts, Donaldson is working to give underserved children access to better education. “There are counties in Pennsylvania where the literacy rates are still very low, and they don’t have access to the internet, so we’re going to arm them with some learning materials that they can take home.” As part of her new job, she will constantly be evaluating what WPSU is doing, what they can do differently, what they can improve on and where they can continue to grow and connect with the community around them — something with which Donaldson has plenty of experience.

When she’s not at work, Donaldson spends time volunteering for various nonprofit organizations throughout the region, from Big Brothers Big Sisters to the Children’s Miracle Network and The Humane Society. “My nickname amongst my family is ‘Zest;’ when I’m not busy with my real job I love to volunteer,” she says. “My husband and I believe strongly in giving back to our communities.”

Donaldson hopes to find ways to incorporate her experience with nonprofit organizations into her new position at WPSU. “These nonprofits need a vehicle to get their message out, so hopefully we can be a communication tool for them.”

Donaldson, whose husband, Robert, and daughters Elisabeth and Sarah are all graduates of Penn State University, also has plenty of Penn State pride. In fact she recently decided to go back to school to pursue her master’s degree in media studies. “Now that I’m here at Penn State, I thought, ‘Why not?’ There’s no reason to not keep learning,” she says. She and her husband, a Penn State football season ticket holder since his graduation, have been to nearly every home game. And when she’s not working, volunteering or cheering on the Nittany Lions, she likes to spend time with her two grandchildren in Maryland.

Donaldson’s family was behind her 100 percent when she decided to change careers. “They encourage me to keep reinventing myself,” she says. “I’m always one who likes to keep stoking the fire and trying something new and different.”

As for where she hopes her new career path will take her, Donaldson says that’s a very long-term question, and she is just starting to formulize her goals. For somebody with so much passion for their community and the people who live here, it seems she has found the perfect way to continue telling stories. “I find this place to be a very inviting, great community full of people who are open and respectful of each other,” she says. “This is home more than any other place for us, so I’m just proud to be here.” •SCM

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