Day in the Life of: a television newscaster, Jim Donovan

Jim Donovan, wracked with anxiety, vomited in the news-station bathroom just minutes before going on air to do a consumer-affairs report. He brushed his teeth, straightened his tie and checked his hair before heading to the set.

Earlier that day, a public-relations representative for the motor-vehicle manufacturer he was investigating had told him, “If you air this story, we are going to sue you and own your TV station.”

Donovan’s boss at the Columbus, Ohio, station where he worked before joining Philly’s CBS3, asked him, “Are you absolutely sure you are accurate with this report?”

He responded, “99.9 percent. No one is perfect, but I’m sure.”

For months Donovan had been looking into a vehicle defect in which the car in question would suddenly shift into reverse while in park, often ending in serious injury.

The issue had first come to Donovan’s attention from a viewer-submitted complaint. A woman had parked her car in front of the outdoor return slot for Blockbuster Video. Like many people back then, the woman got out of the car, left the driver-side door open and hurried to drop the video in the return-slot.

Except in this case, the woman’s car shifted into reverse while she was returning the video — her child sitting helplessly in the back seat.

As the vehicle rolled backwards, gathering momentum, the woman ran after the car and her child. She tried to jump in the driver’s seat but was hit by the open door and knocked to the ground.

Then the car ran over her.

Luckily, neither she nor her child was injured.

The incident, along with several similar ones, raised serious red flags for Donovan, who honed his Emmy-award winning — 13 at last count — consumer-affairs investigative skills on the matter.

“You looked a little nervous about that one,” said one of the news anchors to Donovan after he aired the segment blasting the car company.

“Yeah, let’s hope I’m right,” Donovan replied.

The next morning, Donovan walked into the station and was greeted by a standing ovation from the news team — 750,000 vehicles were recalled by the car company following his report.

After 27 years in the biz, Donovan knows every scam and rip-off; nothing takes him by surprise — at least as far as the hundreds of complaints he receives each month from his viewers — the bulk of which fall into two categories: cars and contractors.

Donovan has an electronic database of almost every complaint he has received, which on the date of our interview he estimated was around 25,000.

While less than 1 percent of the calls he or his team receive ever make it on the air, that doesn’t stop him from trying to help them.

“Some TV stations will only help you if they can do a story on it. But we say ‘3 on your side’ for a reason,” said Donovan. “We will call you back and help you, even if it does not get on the air.”

That’s probably why Donovan has attracted such a large group of loyal followers. That and maybe because merely mentioning Donovan’s name can often get your lazy contractor into gear.

“I tell my viewers to use my name, and it works,” Donovan said. “They don’t want me showing up at their house.”

One of his first major reports at CBS3 came when four families had hired the same contractor to do work on their homes.

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The families would pay him, he would start the work and then leave them with the project unfinished and go to the next family.

“It was like the classic robbing Paul to pay Peter scenario,” Donovan said.

In total, the contractor had taken $42,000 from the families.

“Because he had done some work, it was not considered criminal,” said Donovan. “I knew no one was going to go after this guy and lock him up.”

So Donovan placed a “tough-guy” phone call to the dubious contractor: “Look, I am going to stick you on TV and I am going to get the D.A. on as well — who is up for reelection and wants face time on TV — and he is going to promise to put you in jail … ”

“Click.”

Within days of the call, the four families received every penny back from the contractor.

“The police can’t do it, the judges can’t do it, but sometimes the camera can,” said Donovan.

If a phone call doesn’t work, then he makes what he likes to call an “unscheduled interview.”

“They don’t like when I pop out of the bushes,” he said. “I never do that unless I get an unreturned call.”

While some stations ambush unsuspecting wrongdoers without first attempting to contact them, Donovan always gives them the benefit of the doubt at first.

“They may have a legitimate reason,” Donovan said. “I don’t ‘go after’ companies. I understand that the impact of me putting them on the air is real. A negative report could lead to a loss of business for them; people lose their jobs and may not be able to pay their mortgages, when it could have been an honest mistake all along.”

With the ability to cross-reference complaints in his file-database, Donovan can spot patterns. That’s when he knows it’s not an isolated incident.

“Now how do I prove it?” he asks himself. Or, “How do I present it in a way that is balanced, that gives the company a chance to explain what happened?”

In the case of the latter, he lets the viewer decide.

“I’m not a judge,” Donovan said.

While that may be true, he does possess an intuitive sense of right and wrong. It’s something that has been a part of him since he was a young boy and later tested when, as a student, he refused to abandon his morals even in the face of his teachers’ reprehensible behavior.

“Apologize, James,” said Father Bolger to the senior-year Donovan in front of his entire computer science class, “for cheating on the exam.”

“I didn’t cheat, Father,” insisted Donovan.

After having initially missed the exam because he stayed home sick, Donovan returned the next day to take the make-up test, only to — much to Father Bolger’s surprise — ace it.

“Yes, you did. There’s no way you’re bright enough to get a 100 on any exam.”

“Well I won’t disagree with you there, Father, but there’s a way to do it, and I didn’t cheat,” Donovan said.

Instead, when the pressure to perform was at its highest, Donovan used his sick day to study.

“Well I want you to apologize so we can move on,” Father Bolger said.

“No. I’m going to the principal’s office,” Donovan said and he gathered his Jansport knapsack and went to Father Ansaldi’s office.

Father Ansaldi opened the door.

“What are you here for?” he asked.

“Father Bolger is accusing me of cheating, and I didn’t cheat,” said Donovan.

“Well go back to class,” Father Ansaldi said.

“No. I want you to call my mother.”

Father Ansaldi grabbed Donovan by the neck and brought him into his office. “Explain to me what happened,” Father Ansaldi said.

Donovan explained. But Father Ansaldi tried brushing the issue aside. “Well, just go back to class, James.”

“No. I want you to call my mother and explain why she is paying all this money for tuition at this school and I am being accused of cheating,” Donovan said. “That’s just not right. People think I am smart, and now word has gotten around that I cheated. He needs to apologize, and I want him to do it in front of all his classes.”

“And if I don’t?” asked Father Ansaldi.

“I’m not going anywhere,” replied Donovan.

Sure enough, Father Bolger apologized to all of his classes. Unfortunately for Donovan, when he auditioned a few weeks later for a school-television broadcast program, it was Baldridge who was the faculty advisor presiding over the elective.

When Donovan expressed his interest in wanting to be on camera, Bolger told him, “No. You don’t have what it takes to be on television.”

Donovan went on to attend Seton Hall University, where he majored in communication and, through a co-op program, worked as a part-time flight attendant. He began interning at WWOR-TV in Secaucus, N.J.

Upon graduation, he moved up from his position as an intern at WWOR and held various roles there over the next six years. He also continued to work as a flight attendant for People’s Express, and later Continental Airlines.

In 1993 he decided to move into television full-time, and made the move to WNBC-TV, the NBC flagship station in New York City. Within a year, he nabbed his first Emmy for an investigative report on a plane-crash survival that put his experience as a flight attendant to the test.

“You couldn’t spot talent then, and you probably still can’t spot talent now,” said Donovan’s note to Father Bolger after Donovan won his first Emmy. A photograph of Donovan with a golden statue in hand accompanied the letter.

Over the next 11 years, Donovan went on to work for the national cable network CNBC on the show “Steals & Deals” as an investigative producer and consumer reporter — during which time he also contributed segments for NBC’s “Today Show” — followed by stints at highly rated stations in High Point, N.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

Donovan joined CBS3 in Philadelphia in 2004 as the featured reporter for “On Your Side,” the station’s consumer unit that resolves thousands of consumer-related complaints from Delaware Valley viewers each year.

“Getting a job in Philly is kind of like winning the lotto,” said Donovan. “There are about 7-million viewers in the area, and only about 100 of us on-air.”

It’s not uncommon for Donovan to arrive at the station, near 16th and Spring Garden streets, around 8 a.m., and he usually tries to get out around 6:30 p.m. But in a “sweeps” month like February, during which stations schedule programming designed to increase viewership, his days can stretch to 16 hours.

“Unless there is some type of breaking news story, my story will be done relatively early in the day,” Donovan said. “A lot of pieces are what I call ‘evergreens,’ meaning I can do the interviews one day, but can present it on-air at any time.”

On the day of our interview, Donovan’s segment included pieces on a recall of an Ikea baby crib and the implications of the Affordable Care Act on tax returns. These stories can air throughout the day across many of CBS3’s media platforms, including CBSPhilly.com, KYW Newsradio 1060 and CW Philly, the affiliate/sister network of CBS3.

“The nice thing about consumer news is that there isn’t necessarily major news every day,” Donovan said. “But we could be sitting here and suddenly GM announces a recall, then it’s time to hustle.”

There are also segments that Donovan knows he will do again every year — returns and deals around Christmas, dealing with utility companies after a big winter storm and who is responsible if said winter storm causes one of your trees to fall into a neighbor’s yard.

“Sometimes I get to thinking that this info is kind of useless, but then I will be at a party and people will tell me how interesting it is, and how much I know,” Donovan said. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I guess I kind of do.’”

Some stories take a couple of days to produce; others, weeks. Sometimes he’ll even be working on a story for months. Some stories get dropped after things don’t add up or he spots deception by the complainant. Donovan said it just depends. 

“In the end, I can just tell if the pieces are adding up or not. The good thing is I have never been sued — which is unusual for a consumer reporter in this country.”

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It really isn’t all that surprising considering the number of people who review a report before it makes it on the air. The editorial team, Donovan’s manager, producer and the legal department all lay eyes on the material.

Donovan has also been spared getting run through the vicious local tabloid rumor mill like some other Philly television personalities have, especially as newscasters here enjoy a level of celebrity not seen in other cities.

“The audience is very different in Philly compared to New York,” Donovan said. “Here, people really follow the professional athletes and newscasters, whereas in New York it’s the actors and people like that — I guess it’s because we are out of the ordinary. But I’ve never had a bad story about me, probably because I don’t live a very exciting life.”

His low-profile life outside the station can be attributed to the fact that Donovan sees himself as a walking billboard — always representing the station. He also feels an obligation to listen to people who recognize and approach him on the street or indulge selfie requests and hugs from fans.

“It’s part-PR, part-journalism, part-showbiz,” said Donovan. “I am very conscious every time I leave my house or the station that I am a civilian but also a reflection of this station. You’ll never see me drunk or anything like that. The people who don’t realize that are the ones who don’t usually have great careers because they implode.”

However, Donovan has a reputation for speaking his mind on air, injecting highly appealing moments of refreshing, impromptu authenticity into what could be an otherwise stale broadcast.

“I have a tendency to not have a filter on air,” he said. “A lot of people will just read what’s in front of them, but I say things sometimes that I’m sure makes management nervous. But I say what a viewer would say if they were watching at home — they wouldn’t hesitate to call something out. It’s human nature.”

“What you see is what you get,” he added. “I am not going to be P.C. I’m not going to tell you what I think you want to hear. I am going to tell you what I think. If you don’t like it, oh well.”

Part of his candid on-air persona also includes not making any attempts to hide his sexuality. While there is nothing about his job that has ever presented him with an opportunity to come out on air, Donovan thinks most viewers have probably figured it out.

“If they know, they know. If not, then whatever. If they have even seen at least one of my segments, I’m pretty sure they can figure it out,” he added jokingly. “I never attempt to ‘butch it up,’ and I never have.”

It’s never been an issue at CBS3, nor at any of the previous stations he has worked for. Donovan pointed to the fact that he has been one of the Pride parade judges for the last three years.

“You can’t get any more out than that,” he said. “I can’t be someone else just for a paycheck.”

Donovan said he came out to his parents in his 20s. His Irish-Catholic family didn’t talk openly about personal issues growing up, and they just avoided certain topics all together. But his mother wasn’t surprised when he told her, though it did take some time for his parents to come around.

“I remember my mom saying, ‘Well dear, we have known for quite some time,’” Donovan said. “And I asked, ‘Well how did you know?’ And she said, ‘Oh, your fourth-grade teacher told us.’”

Donovan, nonplussed, replied, “Well, you could have spared me a lot of angst and told me that sooner!”

Between his early fascination with news anchor Jessica Savitch’s segments in the 1970s — who coincidentally worked at the same CBS station as Donovan does now — and his flight-attendant job, Donovan said he clued into his orientation early on.

“I think I came out when I was born,” he said. “I used to stay in and watch Savitch’s segments when the other kids were outside playing baseball; then the flight-attendant thing. Come on. What’s next? Hair-dressing?”

Donovan’s parents would have supported him no matter what he decided to do, he said. His father, a cop, and mother, who worked at a Wall Street brokerage firm, could have easily connected him to a number of similar professions. But when Donovan would tell them he wanted to work on TV, “they would look at me like I was crazy,” he said.

His brother ended up staying on Staten Island and now runs his own high-end plumbing business, two blocks away from their parents’ home.

“I had to get off ‘the rock,’” said Donovan, referring to Staten Island. “I’ve never felt like I really belonged there. I remember thinking, These are just not my type of people.”

After living in several cities here in the United States and visiting 44 countries, Donovan is happy to put roots down in Philly and assimilate himself into the community.

“I’ve been here 12 years. I love the city, I love the market. If all goes well, I would like to retire here. The viewers have been nothing but kind to me.”

He is aware that someone younger could replace him at any time, but he said studio execs would be hard-pressed to find someone with more than 20 years of experience in the field and the same level of expertise he has acquired in that time, let alone put in the number of hours he does — in other words, someone willing to live the job like he does.

“A lot of people just want to be on TV,” Donovan said. “But I live my job. I sit there and cut the coupons, and do the research when I buy a car, etc. … I have people follow me around at DSW or Wegman’s because they know I can spot a deal.”

His advice for any up-and-comers?

“If you want to be successful in this job, you have to give back as well. I do a lot of events, I emcee a lot of charity things and that is part of the job. If you don’t want to do that, then it’s not for you. I tell a lot of kids coming into the business now that it’s not for the feint of heart.“

His charity of choice? Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutritional Alliance.

“I am obsessed with selling those pies for the annual fundraiser,” Donovan said of MANNA. He placed third for total number of pies sold last year and is determined — much like an overachieving Girl Scout peddling cookies — to move up in the rankings this year. “If I have to sell a thousand pies this year, I will. I’ll ask every single one of the people in this station.”

He also volunteers time at Center for Advocacy for the Rights and Interests of the Elderly and Mazzoni Center.

Even as the television-news game has changed dramatically over the past 10 years — with the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, the emergence of social media, budget cuts and drastic changes in viewer behavior, among a few developments — Donovan and his team have remained adaptive, evolving into and defining the modern-day newscaster. 

“These days, more television folks are doing stuff for radio and vice versa,” Donovan said. “We understand that people are not necessarily watching news the way they did 10 years ago. So the key thing is that they are watching a CBS product — whether that is watching on CBS or CW Philly, CBSphilly.com or listening on KYW or any of the social-media platforms.”

Despite the changes, Donovan still finds comfort in that fact that he can help people solve their problems and hopefully affect some positive change in the world.

“I go home at night and I’m proud that I got Mrs. Jones a new washing machine, or someone their money back,” he said. “There is a certain aspect to it that makes me feel like I have done something good, left the world in a better place.”

During our visit to the station, Donovan recorded that night’s segment in a sound-proof booth for KYW before heading into the studio to tape two on-air segments, one for that night and the other for the following morning, either one of which could also air on CW Philly as well. Before he goes on live at 5 p.m., a team of producers, editors and techies formats the content for digital distribution, especially on CBSPhilly.com, which is the second-most-popular news site in the city, after Philly.com, and receives millions of hits each month.

At half-past four, an assistant comes into the conference room where we are conducting the interview to let him know that he needs to get ready.

Long gone are the glory days of appointed hair and makeup people; Donovan has been doing those things on his own for several years now.

He rushes into a dressing room and comes out 10 minutes later in a handsome suit. His hair is quaffed, and he’s donning a bit of foundation. He looks sharp. He looks like somebody who crossed his Ts, dotted his Is and triple-checked every fact — someone you would trust to give you information that could end up saving your life.

At quarter till, he leads us to the studio, looking over a few pages of notes as we walk.

Inside the studio, other anchors are getting ready. Donovan finds his seat at the news desk and continues looking at his notes and occasionally chatting with the anchor sitting next to him.

A few minutes later, the broadcast begins. Soon it’s Donovan’s turn.

“Good evening everyone. I’m CBS3 On Your Side’s consumer reporter, Jim Donovan … ”

To stay up to date on the latest recalls, scam alerts and travel deals, follow Donovan on Twitter @jimdonovancbs3 and on Facebook: Jim Donovan Fans.