Alumna Jenna Kelley shows Georgia viewers that telling good stories can make a difference

Jenna Kelley became a television journalist, in part, to connect with people in a compelling way. Delivering facts and news of the day is important, of course, but Kelley aims to reach viewers on a deeper level.

“I got into this business for the love of storytelling, for the love of good storytelling,” says Kelley, who graduated from Florida State University in 2018 with an English-editing, writing, and media degree and a minor in communication. “You know, the ones where you watch and find yourself smiling over something powerful.”

Kelley is currently an on-air reporter at WJBF in Augusta, Georgia, where she has worked since February 2019. The Georgia Association of Broadcasters recently recognized her commitment to telling meaningful stories: on Oct. 24, she won a 2020 GABBY for Best Online Produced Story.

The virtual ceremony honored Kelley and her photographer Nikki Wilder for a regular segment on WJBF called “In Your Neighborhood.” Kelley came up with the idea for the feature videos, which Kelley refers to as her “literal brain child,” while she was watching the late Anthony Bourdain in an episode of “Parts Unknown.”

She realized that his style of journalism – being on location to show and tell rather than just tell – was what she wanted to do as well.

“I thought, on a local level, how could I host something that creative?” Kelley says.

And so, her concept became reality.

“I created it, wrote it, edited it, scheduled it, edited the promos, made sure that producers were adding the teases to their shows, writing the blog posts on the website, and sharing it as much as possible,” she says.

Wilder accompanies Kelley on the assignments to videotape the episodes. The result is a way for Augustans to meet their fellow residents and for Kelley to tell her stories – good stories.

“I like to evoke emotion and I loved meeting people you see walking down the street but getting a glimpse into their livelihood, and watching them, myself, light up as they talked about their passion,” Kelley says.

Kelley watched the virtual awards ceremony with Wilder and Wilder’s husband (WJBF’s digital producer). Normally, the ceremony is held in Atlanta, but the three gathered at the Wilders’ home, where Kelley said the overall atmosphere was more relaxed.

The naming of many winners before her category was suspenseful, Kelley says, but no matter the result, “I put so much heart into the show I was so happy to even be recognized as a finalist.” The announcement eventually came, along with the excitement of winning. “I am so overjoyed because this was something that I worked even on my off time to do and make sure it was produced and executed well,” Kelley says. “So, I'm stoked it paid off well.”

The specific episode that garnered the GABBY was “extremely powerful,” Kelley says. She interviewed and highlighted a local Augusta woman, Sherry Brooks, who customizes wigs for cancer patients. The stories Brooks' clients told Kelley were “heartbreaking.”

“It was like seeing a whole other world and listening to how people really can be transformed by something a lot of people can take for granted, like hair,” she says. “You hear people say all the time, “Oh it’s just hair. It grows back.” And yes, that’s true, but these patients don’t have the option when they go see her.”

That segment was emotional, but Kelley has created more lighthearted episodes as well. One of her first ideas became a look at how women thrive in the male-dominated community of first responders. She noticed a surprising number of women firefighters at scenes of breaking news, and she saw a story to tell.

“We don’t see that as little girls, so seeing how they handle certain situations was very eye opening,” Kelley says. “And let me tell you, that firefighter uniform is hot. And I mean temperature hot, not cute hot. The firefighters had a great time watching me try and get out of it.”

The segments Kelley produces for “In Your Neighborhood” have an emotional impact on her, and she hopes viewers feel a bond with their fellow citizens.

“The people I have featured weren’t people who just owned a restaurant for money, or just paint because they like art — there's a fundamental purpose as to how each of these people got into their niche,” she says. “Seeing their passion and being a part of their story is what filled my heart.”

In addition to her award-winning “In Your Neighborhood” series, Kelley continues to deliver other news about the Augusta community on the station’s morning show. As much as the GABBY means to her and how the honor brings recognition to her important work, she laughs at a joke about having to watch out for the paparazzi herself.

“Very funny. No, I’m still the ‘little people’ on a local level,” Kelley says. “I get noticed around town here and there, so it’s cool that people know who I am, but it’s nowhere near paparazzi level.”

Kelley started her TV journalism career at KLST in San Angelo, Texas, where she moved to after just one day at home in Fort Lauderdale following her graduation from FSU. She worked at KLST for eight months before moving on to Augusta and WJBF.

The differences between the two cities and stations are not found just in the national market rankings — San Angelo is 196th out of 214, and Augusta is 108 — but in the annual “big story” for coverage. Kelley says San Angelo prepared all year for a February rodeo, while Augusta always has eyes on the Masters golf tournament, which this year was postponed from April until the middle of November. Kelley covered both events for the respective stations.

San Angelo is a town of approximately 100,000 residents in the western center of the state, and the station had to get by on few luxury resources.

“KLST was very much so a wake up to applying every single skill you have to learn how to be a journalist. I knew I had to start somewhere and I was ready,” Kelley says. “There was one weekend in particular when I had to report a story for my newscast, produce, write, edit, and anchor the show, and we scrolled our own teleprompter. It was a great learning experience, though, because I learned all of those skills and wore all those different hats. When I go anywhere else, I can say ‘Yeah, I can do that.’

“When things seem like a lot of work, just understand, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and it’s worth it.”

Moving to Augusta, about double the population of San Angelo, brightened the path for Kelley. The station is still relatively still small, but she has more help in terms of producers, anchors, reporters, and photographers.

“A bigger city means bigger stories, and live shots, and breaking news, and all that stuff we always wondered what it would be like to do in Texas,” Kelley says. “This market is giving me a lot more development on my actual storytelling, and how to excel at reporting. There’s always a lot more to learn, but the best thing is to at least try, and don't be afraid to ask.

“The worst you get told is 'no,' and then you’re just right back where you started.”

Note: This article is the result of two separate email interviews with Kelley, one in late May and one in late October. Circumstances due to the pandemic and to the summer protests for civil rights caused a change in publishing.

Kelly also answered other questions about being a television journalist.

Q. How are you handling the Covid-19 environment and being out in the community as a reporter?

A. It's very hard. The media has been seen in a very negative light. Let me tell you, journalists put in long hours for little pay — depending on where you are — and we work hard to get the job done. No one would be doing it if they really didn't want to. So, learning to not read comments is mental health tip #1. It was an adjustment working at home, but we are all back in-studio now. It's scary…but you just really have to protect yourself, know your boundaries, and wear a mask. As a morning reporter, it’s slightly easier because I interact with fewer people from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. Q. Is there something that you had to learn during the pandemic — a skill, a self-awareness moment — that caught you by surprise? A. I love working remote. So much more can be done productively that way, too. I was able to do so much more than I thought possible alone and away from the studio. That change really stretched my ability to work around what I had. I actually refuse to use my desktop computer at my desk because I feel more comfortable nesting all my video on my laptop since it's personalized to my settings.

Another Kelley brain child came to her early on during the nationwide shutdown, sparked by her persistent positive outlook and her creative energy. Called "Good News Minute,” the spot featured Kelley in her living room, riffing on news items from around the world that she found to be fun, snippets that she hoped would make people laugh. She posted her first of seven episodes on April 24.

Q. How did you come up with the idea for "Good News Minute"? And how did you pitch the idea to your station manager?

A. I came up with "Good News Minute" really all by myself. I kept interviewing people around town and viewers kept messaging in that they were sick of the negativity and I was like ‘hey aren't we all?’ I had to take on this project for my own personal sanity. I really want to be a lifestyle host at some point in my career and this is the perfect outlet to show my personality. I figured it would be quick and fairly simple to start off with one minute, which keeps viewers’ attention, and it’s snappy.

Q. How do you research the topics for each video? You have mentioned Australia and the Great Barrier Reef, young people offering to infect themselves with coronavirus for vaccine-oriented challenge trials, and Fyre Fest—that’s a broad range.

A. I always start with a celebrity news story because, let’s face it, I love reality TV and Hollywood in general. Plus, it’s all lighthearted and putting people in the know on pop culture. That also sets the tone, leaving the rest of the minute to be fun and not so "serious news-y," if that makes sense. [Using Google search resuIts], I try to spread them out because I want to talk about things you wouldn’t normally hear and things that interest me. It’s important to stay interested in what you’re doing. That’s what will bring out your passions and make it what it is.

Q. Your sense of humor really comes through in the clips. Do the jokes come naturally for you when writing the short script or do you sometimes reword/revise/rework the takes?

A. It is a timed show and I do it from home, so I don’t have a teleprompter. (I know, wow, really smart on my end, huh?). This helps me practice my craft, but it does take a lot of behind-the-scenes work. As I’m reading the stories I choose, I always have that little voice in my head that comes up with jokes on what I read, so I find the most important things I want to get across and I just practice it on the fly. Only three stories, though! I don’t want overkill, and I really do want to tell the stories, not just crack a joke. I usually practice what I’m going to say to get the ball rolling, and then I’ll time myself, then I’ll record—and then my dog will make a noise in the living room. I’ll re-record, but then I’ll say the wrong thing. Eventually, everything gets done right, but it’s never perfect. You just have to invest time and be okay with the imperfections.

Q. Anything thoughts of what could be next for you?

A. I was lucky to keep a job during the pandemic—getting any another gig would be a challenge. I want to change my path from news to lifestyle, and that’s just a tougher, more coveted kind of position. I am nearing the end of my WJBF contract, in February, which is right around the corner. I decided I’m going to focus a lot more on writing. So many jobs are available in writing to start your own business. I am in the works of starting a freelance copywriting business, and using my TV skills as a platform to nest videos on my Instagram account. This will also give me freedom to tell stories the way I want to, as news can sometimes be limiting.

I am in the very early stages, though. So, check back with me in six months…LOL. The future is bright.

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