Our interview of Natalie Brunell for “The Creative Influencer” podcast is available today for download on iTunes, Spotify, and premier platforms everywhere.
Natalie is a national ABC News correspondent in Los Angeles and an adjunct professor of journalism at the Annenberg School at USC. She has won an Emmy Award for breaking news coverage and an Emmy nomination for investigative series.
Natalie talks about her journey from sitting in front of her living room TV, as a 5-year old immigrant, learning English by watching the news, to being on TV and reporting the news. Her passion and persistence offer an example to other Influencers about how you can accomplish anything you set your mind to. We talk the future of News and how Journalism is aided and impacted by Social Media.
A transcript of the episode follows:
Jon: I am joined today by Natalie Brunell. Welcome to the podcast.
Natalie: Thank you for having me!
Jon: You are a freelance national correspondent with ABC News. You've won an Emmy award for breaking news coverage. Tell me about the story.
Natalie: That was actually for a spot news report about a fire that happened in the Palm Springs area. So it was actually a newscast when we won for covering the fire from all angles: for anchors and reporters and the weather team, altogether. And so that was a very proud moment for me.
Jon: And you've also been nominated for another Emmy for investigative reporting.
Natalie: Yes. For an investigative series that was also in Palm Springs. I did a six month long investigation into public corruption allegations surrounding the mayor of Palm Springs
Jon: Scandal at City Hall!
Natalie: That's what it was called, yes! Took six months, ended with a FBI raid of City Hall. It was a very interesting moment in my journalism career to be chasing that.
Jon: And you are an adjunct professor of broadcast and digital journalism at USC.
Natalie: Yeah, that's right.
Jon: We'll come back to that one. You're the founder of NB media productions.
Natalie: Yes. So I put on a podcast of my own and through the production company.
Jon: And then you're the host of Career Stories. What is Career Stories?
Natalie: So career stories is a podcast that I started, I launched it this year, but I actually started doing the interviews for it last year. And basically I was just curious about people's career paths, especially people who you see in the media. Primarily, I've been interviewing a lot of journalists since that's sort of my forte, my background.
Jon: For season one?
Jon: I actually listened! [Laughter]
Natalie: Oh, that's great. Thank you so, so much. I didn't know if there would be, you know, anyone listening to it. I was just really curious about these types of stories and wanted to reach out to people to hear how they overcame obstacles and how they rose to success and built their brands. And so now I'm expanding beyond journalists and documentary filmmakers to everyone from politicians, celebrity chefs, social media influencers. And it's been a great experience.
Jon: So is there a common thread to each person's journey?
Natalie: What's been really interesting is I wrap up all of the besides by asking people what they would tell their younger self. And that's really where the common themes are because everyone's journey is so different. There is no one path or formula to success, which I love that the podcast showcases, there's not, you know, some puzzle that you can plan out in advance.
Jon: So you don't have to start at Harvard?
Natalie: No, of course not! [Laughter] No, you don't have to be born in a specific country. You don't have to start out with wealthy parents. You know, everyone's path is so different. But ultimately everyone kind of comes back to the same thing that I just, I wish if I could talk to my younger self, I would say to just go for it. Don't be afraid, don't be so self conscious, don't doubt yourself. Just really have your passion come first and take risks and enjoy your life and your career.
Jon: So I would like to take you through your career story. Let's start at the start.
Jon: You are an immigrant.
Jon: Where were you born?
Natalie: [I'm a] first-generation immigrant. I was born in a town called Łódź in Poland.
Jon: And then you grew up [where]?
Natalie: I grew up in Chicago, so my family immigrated to Chicago when I was five. It's so funny, I don't remember much of my time in Poland. I look at, you know, pictures of when I was younger and my mom has to fill in the gaps with anecdotes and stuff. But, right away, remember when we moved to Chicago watching a lot of news programs and movies and television, because my parents, we were all learning English at the same time. My Dad was 41 when we came. My mom was 38 and they had to start completely over.
Jon: So that was your "Rosetta Stone," watching the news?
Natalie: Yeah, totally! Totally. We constantly had something on. And that's where I really think my love of storytelling came.
Jon: I read somewhere where you also watched classic Hollywood films to help learn English?
Jon: What were your favorites?
Natalie: Oh Gosh. We would watch everything. I mean, I was just totally a sucker for all these old movies and nineties movies and eighties movies, but of the classics, I really love The Godfather series. [Laughter]
Jon: Now, what did immigrants coming to America think of The Godfather series?
Natalie: Oh Gosh. Well, I mean, it's just such great storytelling. You can't make a movie like that today. You really can't. I just thought it was so suspenseful and the acting was fantastic and it just...
Jon: I'm just imagining five-year-old Natalie, sitting there with their parents on the couch watching The Godfather.
Natalie: well, The Godfather probably came a little bit later. The first movies I remember watching include, Breakfast at Tiffany's, which I really, really always loved. I loved the, just the sort of carefree spirit of the main character, Holly Golightly, and Pretty Woman. I mean, just like random, you know what I consider "classics" that probably people would not, but those are classics to me.
Jon: When did you first know you wanted to be a broadcaster?
Natalie: I think it was pretty young that I knew I wanted to do something in TV or film because I was surrounded by so much of it. We were constantly watching news as well as movies. I really wanted to become--part of me wanted to become an actress. And then part of me wanted to be Barbara Walters. So I knew from a very young age that I really wanted to go to L.A. Because I saw L.A. as the place that you can make any type of TV or film dreams come true.
Jon: Now. Did your parents try to dissuade you? I mean, first generation it's like "get a profession where you're always going to have work."
Natalie: Yeah, and you know, that's so true. I mean, they didn't try to dissuade me, I think. I think that my parents always just wanted me to focus on education first. So, you know, they didn't me to struggle in life the way that they did. So they kind of programmed in my head that yes, you can do this sort of performance stuff that you enjoyed but always prioritize education. So I think, had it been my mom's choice, my dad's choice, I would have majored in law or medicine for sure, which sometimes I look back and I'm like...
Jon: Doctor, Lawyer...
Natalie: But you know, I think they also noticed that from a really young age, I just had this bug. I really, I took acting classes when I was really young. I was constantly performing. I did dance. I was always on stage. So there was some element that I think they always knew that I was going to do something related to TV.
Jon: Have you always been comfortable in front of the camera?
Natalie: Uh, I think that I've always felt like I enjoy the performance elements, but I think that comfort in front of the camera really came with practice. I think there's self doubt that always comes up, especially when you're starting out and you have to watch yourself back. Like you think you're the greatest person and then you see the video or you hear your voice and you're like, oh, maybe not. I didn't know I sound like that, or I'd look like that. So I think it was a little mixture. I knew I had some sort of talent that people would tell me they saw in me, but I also knew that it needed to sort of be nurtured.
Jon: Were you outgoing in high school?
Natalie: Yes. I've always been outgoing! [Laughter] Yeah, my mom tells me that ever since I was young, I would just randomly be willing to talk to people, make conversation. I was very, very curious. So yeah, that's always been a part of my personality I think.
Jon: So Journalism is like a natural fit then? Talking to people.
Natalie: Yeah! Yeah, and I think it was definitely during college that I maneuvered totally toward the journalism track. At first I thought maybe I would still dabble in the entertainment acting, when I first came to Pepperdine, that's where I went to undergrad. But it was actually my time studying overseas in Florence that sort of cemented the idea that I loved learning about different cultures and people and doing interviews and I thought that those, that love of performance could be sort of molded with Ia desire to learn and be curious and ask people questions.
Jon: Now I've got to back you up just a second. So you're a Chicago girl.
Jon: Chicago suburbs, but Chicago girl.
Jon: And you picked Pepperdine for college?
Jon: How did that choice come about?
Natalie: Well because I knew I wanted to do TV or film, I only looked at schools in L.A. In fact, while I was in high school, I did a summer program through UCLA to gain college credit. I took acting of course [laughter] for college credit for arts.
Jon: So you flew out, you spent the summer in the L.A.?
Natalie: Yeah, while I was, when I was a junior, after my junior year of high school. And I just knew. I just wanted to be out here. I felt this energy, I felt like it was the hub for creative minds and people who wanted to do something in entertainment or TV/film. So I wanted to come out here and I applied to, like I said, only L.A. schools. I actually got into USC and I told them I was going to go. Applied as a business major for the business school. Got into like a fast track international relations program. What I was thinking, I don't know! And then while I was in this program, we toured Pepperdine. And it was just like, I have to go here. I'm obsessed with this school. Everything it offers.
Jon: It's a pretty school.
Natalie: You know, you teach there! It's gorgeous, but more so than it being gorgeous, I felt like if I went there, there would be a sense of community I could be a part of. They really drove home this idea that even if you're a freshman, you can be really involved in different things, whether it's extracurriculars or doing newscasts or acting or whatever it is. It's a small enough school where you can be really involved right away your freshman year as opposed to, I felt a little bit like UCLA was too big for [that].
Jon: Full disclosure, you took a media law class while you were there.
Jon: My class [laughter]
Natalie: Yes, your class!
Jon: Now I keep track of the students, your names are in Address Book so I can email the student during the class period. But I only keep two pieces of information.
Jon: I keep your major. And what your career goals are.
Jon: And you're looking at me like, what did I write down?
Natalie: Yeah, I wonder!
Jon: First let's talk about your major. You were Broadcast News and Italian.
Jon: And I found out in looking at one of your bios that you were the first Italian Studies major in [the] school's history.
Natalie: Yeah, I created the major!
Jon: How did you finagle that?
Natalie: Isn't that funny? So I mentioned I studied abroad in Florence, Italy. I loved my time there. I took all sorts of classes because it's not a major-specific program. So I took everything from astronomy to humanities to Italian. And I just fell in love with being there, with traveling every weekend. I was in a different country with my friends. And so I also just really enjoyed Italian and I was, I specifically remember taking classes in Italian cinema and thinking Italian directors and screenwriters were just just awesome. And I loved the plots of these stories.
Jon: You can explain a Fellini movie to me then!
Natalie: Yeah. Okay. Yeah, [Laughter] I mean, Divórcio à Italiana. I remember was one of the films we would pick apart and it was just so hilarious. It's such a funny movie. I don't know if you've seen it, but I highly recommend it. And so I just really wanted to keep taking classes. I ended up staying, most people just stay their sophomore year overseas and I petitioned to stay longer. So I ended up staying a third semester and then a fourth semester. So I did four total semesters in Florence. And in order to do that, there needed to be classes for me to take. So I went to the, one of the Italian professors I had and I said she had wanted there to be an Italian major, but there was no student that was interested in majoring in it, I guess. So I said, "oh, well I'll do it! I mean, can we create a curriculum and I'll just, I'll be your first?" And she goes, "okay!" So we worked on a curriculum together and they essentially created classes that I could take. I was the only student in those classes in Florence and then I...
Jon: So you were home schooled? [Laughter]
Natalie: I feel like that sometimes! But what's funny is at Pepperdine, one of the great things about the school that I've learned is not the case at all universities, is they required you to have an internship or some sort of job within the major for you to graduate with that major. And so I basically needed to find an Italian studies internship or job that I could have. So while I was in Italy, I did my sleuthing and I found a broadcast station--a TV, essentially tiny station that put together 15 minute bilingual pieces about things you can do in Tuscany, art exhibits, museums, cultural events, food and wine. And I basically said, hey, I'm a European Union citizen because I was born in Poland, I would love to work for you. You don't even have to pay me. Like you just get free labor. Uh, and they said, yeah, come on board. So it allowed me to finish out that major.
Jon: And then the other thing I record is your career aspiration and you put down "to be a travel host for a travel channel."
Natalie: Oh my gosh! That doesn't surprise me at all! That's literally what I wanted to do. I still want to do that!
Jon: Well, I can tell from from your Instagram account that you've traveled a lot.
Natalie: Yeah. I mean I want to...
Jon: Now if you could just have it paid for!
Natalie: I wish I could travel more. Yeah. I wish I also had a crystal ball back then to know that Instagram or YouTube was going to become this thing and I can become a travel influencer like these girls that I see. I'm like, "oh, why didn't I know?" I would've,
Jon: Who knew, who knew...
Natalie: I would've started my blog back then.
Jon: You graduated in '09?
Jon: There was a recession in '09.
Jon: Where did you go to work out of school?
Speaker 2: Well, it was so, it was such a difficult decision about what to do because the job market was just terrible. And I remember there, there was an option for me to go to say, a small market and become a local newscaster. And I remember because I really wanted to be a travel host and I was really interested in these more like documentary style programs that I would watch stuff on Discovery or Travel Channel. I remember I loved Anthony Bourdain's show at the time, No Reservations. And so I just felt like going to a local news market was not the path for me. And so I didn't even consider, I didn't even apply for jobs like that. I just wanted to stay in L.A. and work at some sort of production company and I would send out applications and you know, I don't really remember where I even applied at this point, but I know at one point, one of my mentors from Pepperdine, he was a film director, his name's Tom Shadyac. He said, you know, if you want to work in TV or film, but you don't really know in what capacity an agency is a really great place to start. So I applied to and got my first job at CAA.
Jon: [Laughter] No, I laugh because CAA has that reputation.
Jon: Just of being a very hard place to start.
Natalie: Yeah. I mean it was also a really good experience for me.
Jon: Right, I'm not saying that, yeah, I mean...
Natalie: Yeah. No, it's definitely a lot like the show Entourage if anyone in your audience has seen that. You know, there's elements of it that are very cutthroat and competitive and certainly I was among people who wanted to become heads of studios and really, you know, aggressive agents like the Ari Golds. And I was there thinking like, "I don't even know what I'm really doing here." I want to do stories. Some of you are representing people that do that. So it was an interesting time, but also interesting in the fact that I was making about half of what I made in an internship in high school per hour.
Jon: And I base my comments on, I just finished Michael Ovitz's autobiography.
Natalie: Oh Wow.
Jon: One of the cofounders of CAA and he describes it kinda that way.
Jon: You then went on to get a Master's.
Natalie: I did.
Natalie: Medill [at] Northwestern. So I went back home for a year.
Jon: While you were--was it there or after you graduated that you started at CNN--did work at CNN?
Natalie: So I did my, my schooling first and then I applied to, it was essentially a fellowship that CNN had. I don't think it exists any longer, unfortunately, but it was for people who specifically have a Master's in Journalism and it allowed you to, it was one position in the L.A. Bureau and I think maybe one in the D.C. Bureau. And you would rotate through all of the departments, all of their different shows, and essentially contribute, whether it was field producing, writing for cnn.com production assistance, editing. I mean...
Jon: So you got to see everything.
Natalie: You get to see everything. Yeah. Yeah.
Jon: From there, your journey took you to Reuters?
Natalie: Yeah. So, well that's sort of, um, I was juggling a couple things at the same time because at that point I knew my goal was to get on air and I had to create essentially a tape, a newsreel that I could send to news directors.
Jon: Well, when you graduated high s-- [not] high school!--, Graduated college, did you have a reel?
Speaker 2: I did have a real, but it was funny. I mean, I've always had this pull back to LA and so I applied to this fellowship not knowing if I would get it or not. My plan was to just send a bunch of applications out, see what happens, apply to local news markets, for on-camera. But then the CNN opportunity seemed amazing and it was back in the city that I felt very comfortable in. So I literally have the job right out of Grad school. I started the following Monday. Uh, so it kind of, it veered me off the on camera path for just a little bit, but I also felt like that experience was really--was really beneficial to be at a major international cable news outlet.
Jon: So I interrupted you on, you were talking about putting together a reel for Reuters.
Natalie: Yeah, so basically after my fellowship ended, I stayed on as a freelance associate producer at CNN and I was creating a reel, I would go out with reporters, I would shoot my own stand ups and look lives for pretend live shots is what we call them. And then I also contacted Reuters because Reuters was looking for people who could shoot, write and edit their own pieces. And so I contributed to their science and technologies innovations feed is what they called it. And so I would do stories, anything related to science and tech around California. I would shoot the pieces myself, edit them, write them, and they would be sent out to Reuters international feeds. And from that reel that I created at both CNN and Reuters, I got my first on camera job.
Jon: Which was where?
Natalie: Palm Springs.
Jon: Palm Springs. Which is where you got the Emmy and the Emmy nomination.
Natalie: Yeah! Yeah.
Jon: How did you get that job? Because I've heard you in your interviews of other newscasters talking about there's tests.
Natalie: [Laughter] Yeah.
Jon: Did you have to take a test?
Natalie: Oh Gosh. I had such a funny experience. I actually tell my students about this and tell them, you know, to be really, really persistent because I did not let this idea of working in Palm Springs go. I really wanted to start there. And so I bugged the news director just incessantly. The reason I want to just start there is because, local news markets are losing resources. I mean, now it's even worse than when I was entering the business. And I knew that I wanted to go somewhere where they would allow me to do live shots and where I would at least occasionally be able to work with a photographer because you do so much better work when you're not also worrying about the production element.
Natalie: And so Palm Springs for me was a place where not only would it be great to live there--two hours away from LA, an airport where I can fly home to see my parents--some of these local markets, no airport for hours in site!
Jon: I grew up in Nebraska so I feel your pain!
Natalie: Yeah! And--and they allowed you to, they did live shots every single night and it was a top rated station. It just had really great resources. So, I just started sending my reel to the news director. His name's Bob Smith. He's no longer there unfortunately, but, I just would send him updates and I would bug him pretty much every couple of weeks saying, do you have an opening yet? You know, here's my new reel!
Jon: [Laughter] "Sure you don't want to fire one of the broadcasters?"
Natalie: Exactly, right! Like, "are you sure you don't have an opening?" And he was very, very nice and he allowed me to come in for an informational interview, but he said, "you know, we don't, we don't have anything. So, you know, next time if something comes up, like I wish you all the best, don't turn it down." And I did not take his advice. I turned down offers, I would go to other local markets and I just saw the value in Palm Springs. I would go to places where I would be doing my own live shots with a satellite backpack...
Natalie: And where I wouldn't be able to go live and where I wouldn't have an airport to potentially fly home to see my family. The little things that sort of add up. And when an opening came, I was the first person, to of course email him because I was tracking the website like an obsessive maniac! And he said okay like of course he announced it in the meeting after I got hired that I pretty much there was no one else he could've hired. I would have bothered him and like kept bugging him and kept flooding his inbox. So the persistence paid off for sure.
Jon: Now I--I heard through your interviews that sometimes you have a test where you have to pronounce different streets?
Natalie: Oh, yeah!
Natalie: I mean cause I was thinking the first--When I first moved to Los Angeles "Sepulveda" did not roll off the tip of my tounge.
Natalie: Oh yeah. Well, some news directors will actually give you a test of the area to see how well you know it. I don't think it's a terrible idea. It's a little bit intimidating, you know, when you're just starting out. But yeah, I remember doing an interview in the Central Coast, I think it was San Luis Obispo where I had to take like five tests just to become a local reporter there, or for the chance to become one. And it was everything from current events to knowledge of the Central Coast area to, you know, go--doing an Anchor audition where they're just giving you names of people and streets...
Jon: And you have to pronounce it?
Natalie: And you just have to--yeah. And so hopefully you've done your homework a little bit. But all of that, hopefully I think good managers know that you can learn anything. You just need a little bit of time and research.
Jon: How long were you in Palm Springs with the airport in the nice weather?
Natalie: [Laughter] So I was there for two years.
Jon: And then you went to Sacramento?
Jon: Tell me about that job.
Natalie: So I went to KCRA in Sacramento, which is, it's known as a legacy station. It's the top rated station in the State Capitol. And one of the reasons I really wanted to go there is because, not only were they so well known in the broadcast world, but I had really enjoyed my experience of being like an investigative reporter and looking into city politics. And so I thought, what better place for stories than the State Capitol?
Natalie: What I didn't know is that, you know, the Sacramento market is number 20 for a reason. You cover 20 counties in Northern California. You cover everything from the Bay Area, all the way to Tahoe, sometimes north, all the way to almost Redding. So you're covering such a wide range of stories. It's definitely not just state politics, but, but yeah, I actually loved living in Sacramento. It was a good experience.
Jon: And then you transitioned back to ABC or not back, but to ABC.
Jon: Back in Los Angeles.
Natalie: Yes. Yes. So, I did not realize, and I think this has changed since when I started, most of LA is a freelance market nowadays, especially for reporters. So most of my colleagues in the business are freelance. Um, it's very rare now to get a full time contract, whether you're on camera or behind camera. And so this opportunity came up and it was for what's called news one. It's the affiliate service for ABC News. So basically, I would go to a national story like let's say it's the wildfires here in California or a hurricane or a mass casualty incident. I file a national story and that story goes to 200 ABC affiliates across the country and internationally. So we have affiliates in Canada, in France, in New Zealand, in Israel--and you're also basically offered up to do live shots for any of them. So sometimes, I mean, I've been in stories where you go live from like two o'clock in the morning until 11 o'clock the following night because it's breaking news and you have to have that live presence.
Jon: And I want to talk to you about the live--which do you prefer, live or recorded?
Natalie: Um, it really depends. I prefer live when there's something active happening. And there's something to show because then it's really exciting and cool and I think, you know, live TV's amazing. You can't, there's no planning it, you can't predict it. There's like something really real and raw and authentic about it. What I don't like is when you have to go live, when there's nothing to show, like everything's over. You're just live. We call it for, you know, for the sake of live sometimes just to have that presence. But really there's like just a boring background behind.
[Remainder of Transcript Pending]