Former TV journalists find success in communications and public relations careers

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 2,469 views 

Arkansas native Aaron Nolan recently left the TV news business and is now the communications director at Downtown Bentonville Inc. He's one of many former TV journalists who've gone on to work in communications and public relations roles in Northwest Arkansas.

The road that led Aaron Nolan to an award-winning TV journalism career started on a whim. His 17-year TV news career included trips to cover the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Nolan was a University of Central Arkansas student majoring in theatre when he responded to a campus flyer seeking a UCA news anchor.

“I said, ‘Why not? That seems somewhat theatrical.”

Without teleprompter experience, he auditioned for and landed it. He soon changed his major and graduated with a communications degree in 2004.

Nolan recently made another change — one that’s becoming a trend for former TV journalists. These semi-celebrities have been transitioning into communications and public relations careers in Northwest Arkansas. Many work in Bentonville promoting the city, school district or Walmart.

In February, Nolan joined Downtown Bentonville Inc. as its communications director after he and his wife, Ashley Ketz, returned to Northwest Arkansas in 2021. At the time, Ketz, also an award-winning TV journalist, started a corporate affairs role at Walmart.

“When we moved back to Arkansas to Bentonville, realized it was time for a change and fell in love with downtown Bentonville,” Nolan said. “I fell into this passion project and was asked to join the board of directors for Downtown Bentonville Inc. After a leadership transition, I stepped on in a consulting role helping through this transition. Then, a door opened to allow me to continue this passion project into a new career inside this communications realm away from the TV news industry.”

The emotion has carried over from what he most enjoyed about the TV news business.

“It was the rush of adrenaline when the red light on the camera came on, and you knew you were live,” Nolan said. “And you knew that you had valuable information. You had emotion to convey to the audience. And that’s one thing I firmly believe in any storytelling is the entanglement of emotion. These emotions can range from being unhappy about a situation to laughing, crying, and angry about how X, Y and Z affect your life.”

Nolan and Ketz previously worked for NewsNation, a national cable news network of Texas-based Nexstar Media. Ketz was a national correspondent and fill-in anchor, and Nolan was a weekend breaking news anchor. The Arkansas natives lived in Chicago, working to develop the new network.

Before joining NewsNation, they worked for Little Rock NBC affiliate KARK-TV. Nolan co-anchored the morning news and was a sports anchor and reporter for “Razorback Nation.” Meanwhile, Ketz was an evening news anchor at KARK. Earlier in their careers, Nolan worked as a general assignment reporter at NBC affiliate KNWA-TV in Fayetteville, and Ketz was an evening news anchor at CBS affiliate KFSM-TV in Fayetteville.

Nolan said he met Ketz in a newsroom — the same one he took his daughters to after they were born.

“I’ve been to two Olympic Games,” Nolan said. “There’s nothing quite like being…in a medal ceremony and watching the red, white and blue risen above that stadium after a gold medal — there’s nothing in the world like that. I’ve got a couple of Emmys [and] a couple of Murrow Awards. Those are great. Those don’t mean as much to me as the memories of meeting my wife … taking my kids into a newsroom [or] going to the Olympics. For the past two years, I was on the frontline of building a network news [company], so I hit the pinnacle of the news world. We built it from the ground floor. Being a part of NewsNation on that ground floor was really special.”

He added that he’s still making career highlights as he helps to put on world-class events, such as First Friday and the Farmers Market in downtown Bentonville.

He explained the easy transition from TV news, staying connected to the industry through press releases and media interviews, and keeping in touch with former TV journalists. He also helps create a weekly TV show as a project of DWTN Media, a digital storytelling platform operated in-house by Downtown Bentonville.

“Dana Schlagenhaft, the executive director, and I put on a TV show each Sunday on KFSM, Channel 5, about what makes downtown Bentonville great,” Nolan said. “We still get to have our toes in the water of TV news while also running this organization and helping to support what this organization does for all of downtown Bentonville.”

In 2020, Schlagenhaft, a former TV journalist, started creating content for DWTN Media as the organization’s communications director. In November, Schlagenhaft transitioned to interim executive director and was named to her current role in February. She said hiring Nolan was one of her first acts as executive director.

“Journalists and former journalists are a rare breed,” Schlagenhaft said. “We are used to working on quick deadlines and chaotic environments. And we’re used to prioritizing and making sense of things very quickly. In my role, it’s a perfect fit whether in [communications] or now as the executive director. When you do events and lead people doing events, you have to think quickly, collaborate with others and maneuver through potential roadblocks. Having that background as a journalist was a great first step in my career to train me to do these kinds of things now.”

Leslee Wright

Leslee Wright, director of communications for Bentonville Public Schools, left TV journalism about 15 years ago when she was pregnant with her daughter. She said the move to public relations allowed her to be a better mother and noted the “crazy hours” broadcast journalists work.

The Springdale native was the evening anchor for ABC affiliate KHBS/KHOG-TV, Channel 40/29. She joked about the semi-celebrity aspect of it: “When people said that back in the day, I used to say, ‘Yes, it’s all very glamorous. I make $16,000, and people within a 50-mile radius know my name.’”

She said Carrie McKnight, a former CJRW executive who also worked at Walmart, was a mentor when Wright transitioned to public relations. She said public relations still allows her to do what she loves: writing. She previously worked at Walmart before joining the school district in 2017.

A career highlight was spending a day with and interviewing journalist Peter Jennings, who was in Northwest Arkansas promoting a book at Walmart. She also highlighted her work on a documentary with another mentor, Larry Foley, filmmaker and journalism professor at the University of Arkansas. She was a freelancer for the film about the U.S. recovery efforts in the wake of the 2004 tsunami that killed at least 225,000 people across dozens of countries in South and Southeast Asia.

Nate Kuester, senior media relations and communications specialist for Mercy NWA in Rogers, started his 14-year TV journalism career in the Pacific Northwest. He was 29 when he graduated

Nate Kuester

from the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.

In 2015, he returned to Northwest Arkansas and was the evening news anchor at KNWA. He previously lived in Northwest Arkansas during his childhood.

In 2019, he started his public relations career at 4media Group. The move allowed him to spend more time with family. He and his wife have three children and reside in Fayetteville.

“It was the best move I ever made,” he said. “I miss news so much, and I will always want to be in the newsroom when something is happening that’s important in the community. But for my own family life, it’s been the most rewarding thing.”

He joined Mercy in November 2021.

“My relationship with Mercy started because of my TV news days,” he said. “I would do quarterly stories with them for a segment on KNWA called ‘Doing Good.’

“I’ve never worked someplace where the culture is amazing as it is. I’ve had good experiences along the way, but the Mercy culture has been fantastic for me.”

Channing Barker, senior manager in corporate communications at Walmart, spent about five years in TV journalism, including hosting the morning news show at KNWA.

Channing Barker

“Being in TV news is like a family,” Barker said. “You usually run from story to story, working on holidays together. That becomes your family, and people come in from all over. I hold those connections and relationships super dear to my heart.”

In 2017, she became the first communications director for Benton County. In December 2021, she joined Walmart and was named to her current role last fall. Barker said she’s working on “cultivating a story of how Walmart is creating an environment where everyone feels like they belong.”

Tyler Thomason is a senior manager in corporate communications at Walmart, focused on the health and wellness division. The Sherwood native worked in TV news for about eight years, including at KNWA as a reporter, weekend anchor and producer.

While at KNWA, he met fellow reporter Rebecca Jeffrey, who later became his wife. They remained in touch after he left for a west Texas TV station to become the evening anchor. She followed him there to become the morning anchor. They married in 2016.

“When I became the news director, it was also the same week that Rebecca and I got married,” he said. “We joked that I became her husband and boss in the same week. It was an interesting dynamic.”

Tyler Thomason

In 2017, they were recruited to work at KARK in Little Rock. Thomason said he worked there with Nolan and was an investigative reporter. In early 2020, Thomason and his wife were offered positions at Walmart.

“It’s kind of a full-circle thing,” he said. “We met here in 2012, and little did we know we would be moving back eight years later, married with a child on the way and transitioning out of the news.”

Debbie Griffin, director of administration for the city of Bentonville, spent about 15 years covering Northwest Arkansas for multiple TV stations. She was recruited to manage Channel 51, the first TV station broadcasting from Benton County. It later became KNWA.

Her journalism career led her to Walmart, where she worked in its broadcast TV department, producing daily shows and broadcasting training to its U.S. stores. She worked for the company for about nine years before transitioning to Fellowship Bible Church as its communication and technical production director.

Before joining the city of Bentonville in 2019, she was executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce. She helped to grow the Northwest Arkansas Technology Summit into a national event.

“My career kind of began when I was a teenager, and I was covering local government stories for news,” she said. “That thread has continued because now I’m working for the city and the mayor’s office, and a lot of that all ties together with city council and how local government functions.

“Being here and being involved in those relationships really helped because of some of the larger projects we’ve had in Northwest Arkansas, like the highway, airport and community college. When you’re in media, you get access to all that. But then in my career, I’d say that it helped because those relationships continue, and I still work with some of those people today that I did early on in my career.”