Capitol Communicator has been interviewing people who are or have been in the media about their careers and the media. Below is our Q&A with John Sherman, well known locally as a TV reporter, once a question on Jeopardy and now CEO of Storyfarm in Baltimore. John offers Capitol Communicator readers a blunt assessment of his former profession: “I love news. It was my dream. I wouldn’t undo any of it. But I couldn’t go back.”
Hi John, what are you doing now?
I’m the CEO of Storyfarm, a video agency in Baltimore. I started it more than 12 years ago with my WBAL photog and best friend, Beau Kershaw. Today we have 15 full-time employees and a roster of amazing clients like Uber, Under Armour, American Standard and Electrolux to name a few. We make both live action and animated tv and web video content for brands. It’s a totally different life than news. People are happy to see us when we show up with cameras now. I wake up each morning captain of my own ship, setting the course, no assignment managers or producers telling me where to go and what to do. When I was in news it was inconceivable I would ever get out. Now, I feel exactly the opposite. However, Beau and I do have a standing offer to do a one day “guest news crew” stint at WBAL, although we’d consider other station offers. We also just started a double dog leash company, BESTIES. We’re busy!
How did you get your start?
When I was a sophomore at Georgetown Day School in DC, a news producer named Maria Checcia from WUSA came and spoke to my journalism class. I followed up with her about an internship and the first time I saw the inside of the then new WUSA newsroom I was hooked. High school interns were not a thing and I had to get the rules bent. But from that summer internship at WUSA on I knew I wanted to be a news reporter. Jan Fox was a GA reporter at the time and she really took me under her wing and became a mentor for many years. I learned a ton from the photogs like Billy McKnight, Mike Fox and Mike Trammell. I interned for Tom Bettag at Nightline the next summer, and with Roberta Baskin at CBS News 48 Hours the summer after that. When I graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1997 I went back to WUSA as a PA ripping scripts for the morning shows. My first reporter job was at WVIR-TV in Charlottesville with Dave Cupp.
Why did you want to go into news?
I grew up in DC with parents who met on the McGovern campaign and a dad who worked on the Hill for this whole career. Politics is deeply embedded in me. News was a way that I could be around politics but not in it. My parents were both great writers and I have always loved writing. News was a way to write and get paid.
What are the best and worst parts of the job?
Let’s start with the best parts. I like to say news is a young person’s job. Your first small market newsroom is like a sitcom. As you move around early in your career you make lifelong friendships and memories. And there’s just nothing like the feeling of you and your photog in the news van heading out for the day, you two versus the world. It’s a cool job. Being recognized by strangers at my Giant is a weird thing in life, I was never all that into it, but it can be fun.
Winning a Peabody Award at age 29 and then a duPont-Columbia, a National Emmy, and a National Murrow in the years that followed was really fulfilling and are among the most meaningful achievements in my career. And being a question on Jeopardy was a ton of fun.
For the worst parts I will try to take it easy on my old buddy news. As wonderful and vibrant as newsroom social life can be, news is simply an incredibly unprofessional profession. I worked in 4 newsrooms, WUSA, WVIR, WTVD and WBAL. The first two I found to be very positive environments. It was WUSA in the days of Dave Pierce and Ken Crawford. And WVIR under Dave Cupp was an ideal first station. The second two, the bigger markets, I heard more screaming and yelling and witnessed more politics and pettiness and rudeness and cruelty than I have anywhere in my whole life before or since. Outside of the newsrooms news life was always out in the field. But as a GA reporter in a city, you get to spend the 3-5 days a week sharing the worst day of someone else’s life. And you’re not really helping and the families usually don’t want you there. It wears on you. Especially after you have kids yourself. In my most jaded indictment of local news I say it’s 8 minute blocks of exposing awful things about your neighbors and your community to sell cars for 2 minute blocks in between.
I love news. It was my dream. I wouldn’t undo any of it. But I couldn’t go back.
Who have been your role models?
When I first got into news WUSA’S Jan Fox and Ken Crawford were my role models. Jan used to say of Ken that the way you knew you messed up with him was when the thank yous and compliments and good energy stopped. He never got mad. She looked out for me for years. Ted Koppel and Tom Bettag and Scott Willis and Mark Nelson were role models at Nightline. I thought they were gods.
What stories moved you the most?
So many murders. Hundreds. Crying relatives, candlelight vigils. There are at least three that still haunt me. Things I’ve seen and heard in murder trials you can never un-see or unhear. I reunited an adopted son with his birthmother in Durham. I’ve looked dozens of killers, some famous, in the eyes for weeks during breaks in murder trials. I’ve interviewed hundreds of victim’s relatives. It all moves you. I remember one time I was working on the 11pm news and it was like 9pm and the producer just heard about a local Marine killed in Afghanistan. She wanted me to drop my story, drive from Baltimore to Annapolis and knock on this family’s door. The night they found out. At 10 p.m. To showcase their grief on the 11pm news, best case scenario. I was stunned. I questioned her, and she said “John, this is what we do.” I looked at her dead-on in the eyes and said “No that’s what I do, you’ll be sitting right here in your chair.” Oddly, the family “didn’t answer the door” as it turned out. A detective could pick apart my 12 year GA news reporter career and find a stunningly large percentage of assignments to go hound victim’s families where strangely no one was home. No producers on the doorstep.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for the media going forward?
When I left the news I thought it was dying. I was dead wrong. Journalism saved the world these past 4 years, straight up. The need for robust, fearless journalism has never been greater. Well OK, it was greater before January 20th, but it’s still critically important to saving the world again. Climate change can only be stopped by journalism. Child poverty can only be stopped by journalism. If we can’t see what’s wrong we’ll never fix it. So the biggest challenge for the media now? We need one media not left and right. The attacks on the press these past four years have been incredibly damaging. Too many people don’t trust truth. We must fix this.
What would have been your second career choice?
Politics has always called me. My dream job is White House Press Secretary for President Ossoff. Not finding a way to work in the Obama White House is a regret.
What do you enjoy doing when not at work?
As an entrepreneur, my brain is working on my business 24/7. I truly enjoy it. Work and vacation are a lot the same to me. But I do love enjoying life. My wife Sarah and I have 15 year old twins, Jack and Ellie, who are freshmen at Friends School here in Baltimore. I am very much looking forward to the post COVID world when we can see our friends and family again and travel.