photography by Keith Lanpher
Wonder what it’s like to debut a journalistic endeavor during a global pandemic? Ask Bec Feldhaus Adams, WHRO’s first news director. The Kentucky native and her team were in the middle of strategic planning in March when the fire hose of coronavirus news opened wide. The timing was fortuitous in a way, Feldhaus Adams says – she was glad that they could add to the work that other news organizations were already doing. Distinction caught up with Feldhaus Adams in early May to see how things were going.
Hampton Roads | Twitter: @RFeldhausAdams | whro.org
How did COVID-19 impact your newsroom rollout?
It was like a light switch — we just turned on. I had been wanting to kind of slowly turn the lights up and that was just out the window. We started going, as much as we could, as hard as we could. And that probably lasted about three weeks.
What was it like facing down a global pandemic?
Oh man, it was really difficult. I think we all looked out at the people who need information and we just thought, “I will work myself to the bone to give people that information.” And then I had to be the person that’s like, that’s not always the best thing for our audience. So, it was difficult, but it’s kind of a crystallizing moment because it shows you what’s important and what’s not.
WHRO Public Media announced in April 2019 it was adding a local news department and you came on board a few months later. What was the motivation behind the new initiative?
Bert Schmidt our CEO. He’s a huge advocate of local journalism and really believes in it, and it’s something he’s been wanting to do for a while.
What excites you about the opportunity to set the tone for the newsroom?
I just really believe in local journalism. I believe in its importance for a healthy community. I live next to the people that I’m doing my work for and you can see the difference that your work makes. And in light of the pandemic, I feel a deep sense of responsibility.
What is your role as news director?
It’s a unique position. Often, I see my role as kind of half-and-half: I’m the person on the front line, editing stories, getting them out, but I’m also a leader and manager. But now I’m kind of seeing it more in thirds: I’m also the biggest advocate for journalism, both inside WHRO and outside.
What is your vision for WHRO journalism?
We’re working on a few focus areas. We’re not going to do beats because we’re just too small. So, I think we’re kind of testing those right now. I want us to become known as a shop that is flexible, that isn’t afraid to try things and that delivers really important journalism that people come back to over time.
How do you see WHRO fitting into the local news landscape?
I don’t think we’re going to be a breaking news shop. I think we’re going to be paying attention to deep threads in the community, to trends, things that maybe go overlooked.
Tell us about your two full time reporters:
Mechelle Hankerson made the switch from print to audio. And she is excellent; she brings such a good sense of growing up here. And then Sam Turken comes from Miami and he is a very strong audio storyteller. So, they have been able to kind of cross train each other, whether it’s explicit or not, we just kind of learn from each other.
You say you grew up listening to your father on commercial radio, but you wanted to be an opera singer.
When I started college, I pursued classical music and journalism. Music is still a big part of my life. I love it. I think it’s one of the reasons I gravitated toward audio because I just love sound and I love how it connects people.
Do you remember the moment you knew you wanted to be a journalist?
That’s tough. I’ve always been a total chatterbox, and I love asking people questions. And so, even though that’s not what I saw myself doing for so long, it seemed like such a natural place for me to end up.
What do you miss about the Bluegrass State?
I miss my family the most — the rest of my family still lives there. I miss how different Kentucky is if you drive from east to west; even the accents sound different. It’s just a very cool place with lovely people.
But you don’t have an accent.
It’s because my dad was a radio journalist and he trained out his accent. He trained himself to have a non-regional dialect. And so, I grew up hearing a non-regional dialect and that’s how I speak now.
Name some favorite, newly discovered Hampton Roads spots.
I love Chick’s Beach. I love First Landing (State Park) a lot and I just discovered Newport News Park.
You were a roller–derby girl in Kentucky, right?
Yeah, I played in Paducah. I was on the Radioactive City RollerGirls.
Is your roller–derby alter ego fit for print?
Yes. Yes, it is. I considered a few that weren’t, but I landed on one that was: Ruth Breakher Shinsburg.
Ever think of getting back to it?
I have all my gear still. I’m trying to plan — I mean, once we can do this — a team outing to go to a bout because it’s been a while since I’ve seen one. And it only takes you seeing one to make you want to do it desperately.
What’s your favorite bourbon?
I have tried Pappy van Winkle. I feel like they might take away my Kentucky card if I say, it was good. It was fine. I didn’t feel like it was like $500 good. Blanton’s is great. We always have some Woodford. And then I would say Buffalo Trace is a great, just like any day of the week bourbon – on the rocks, neat, in a drink, it’s always nice.
– Interview by Victoria Bourne, condensed and edited for space and clarity.