By Christine Kole Maclean
Jane Pauley strolls across the set of NBCs "Today Show." Shes in no hurry: shes got ten seconds to get to her chair, joke with co-host Bryant Gumbel, put on a microphone, and chat with guest Molly Ringwald before they go on the air. Plenty of time.
Ringwald, though, doesnt seem to think there is plenty of time. Shes perched on the edge of her seat, looking as though a loud noise would startle her into taking flight. Pauley whispers a few reassuring words to her guest, who settles back into her chair and manages a smile. The director begins the count: "Five seconds. Four, three, two, and . . ." He slices the air with his hand, signaling that they are live, on camera, in front of six million bleary-eyed Americans.
Her ability to put "Today Show" guests at ease is one of the many things that make Jane Pauley good at her job. Even though this was just another working day for her, she hasnt forgotten what it was like to be in Molly Ringwalds shoes: unsure of what to say or how to sound intelligent saying it, all within the span of four short minutes.
In fact, Pauley readily admits that the pressure of always saying the right thing on live television used to fill her with something close to panic. "For years," she says, "the first thing I would think about in the morning was: feet on the floor, terror, I have to go do television! " Now, though, the first thought that crosses her mind when her feet hit the floor is "coffee." Ten years of experience have made all the difference. "The luxury of experience," she says, "means that I can probably handle anything that comes along on the show todaythat Ill always have a question to ask, an ad-lib to get me though an awkward moment."
The experience shes gained is paying off in ways other than calming her nerves. Recently, the ratings for "The Today Show" climbed above the perennial leader in the early morning TV time slot, ABCs "Good Morning America." "The ratings have never been better," Pauley exults. "And believe me, that kind of feedback is energizing."
Shes not just saying that; she means it. Positive public feedback is obviously very important to Jane Pauley; it has been ever since she got her first dose of it on her high school debate team. Pauley decided to join the team only after she failed to make the cheerleading squad, and then surprised herself. She was, she says without affectation, good. "Id get off the school bus at a speech meet," she remembers, "and I had this illusionbut it felt real at the timethat I was casting terror into the hearts of my competitors." Within a year, she had become one of the teams stars. This was due, she thinks, more to natural ability than to hard work. "I did seem to have a talent, and everyone has talents. When I was 14, 1 didnt know I had it. When I was 15, suddenly they were giving me ribbons for it."
From that point on, Pauley was addicted to blue ribbonsor anything else that was proof of excellence. "I wanted to be really good at what I did, because I didnt like winning third place," she says. "I liked winning the trophy. I couldnt be content with being average."
In college at Indiana University, Pauley shifted her attention from blue ribbons to grades. She got the As without much trouble, but wonders now how much else she got from the college experience. "I got good grades, but I cant really say I got a very good education. The whole payoff was the A. You dont look further down the road to What am I learning here? "
By her last semester at Indiana, Pauley realized that her high marks had lulled her into a false sense of security. She hadnt been planning her future; she had been avoiding it. "I had to face the fact that I had gotten this degree in political science to go to law school because I didnt know what I wanted to be. Law school would just put that decision off another three years."
Her uncertainty crystallized right before her graduation, when the question of "What next?" loomed so large that Pauley broke out in the first major attack of hives shed had since childhood. When she started hyperventilating at 4:00 one morning, she called her mother. Her father immediately drove to the college, bundled Jane up, and took her home.
To get back on track, Pauley turned to a sort of psychological security blanket that shes believed in since childhoodsomething she calls her "things falling out of heaven" theory. "Whenever I was most depressed because nothing was going well," she says, "boom, an incredible opportunity would come out of nowhere, turn things around, and Id be sailing again."
This time Pauleys father, an arch Republican, accidentally launched her in the direction of the Democrats by getting her a job stuffing envelopes at the Democratic State Central Committee. The job itself wasnt so great, but it proved to be valuable because when Pauley later did develop an interest in newscasting, the right people in the right places remembered her from that job. She started her broadcasting career as a bottom-rung television reporter at WISH-TV in Indianapolis. Three years later she moved on to WMAQ-TV, where she became the first woman in Chicago to co-anchor a regularly scheduled weeknight news program. In 1976only five years after her college graduationshe went to work for "Today."
Ready to Jump
If it seems that Pauleys career chose her more than she chose it, that may well be because she has let her talents guide her decisions. She has learned to relax and be ready to jump at the opportunities that come her way. You cant ignore the fact that she was also just plain lucky in finding her niche so early on. But while Pauley agrees that the opportunities really have seemed to fall out of heaven for her, she maintains that her own ability to take advantage of them was the crucial factor in her success.
"There was no moment when I finally figured out my career path," she says. "It evolves. You have surprisingly few choices. You may have many options, but they present themselves as they will. Even if you know in high school exactly what you want to be when you grow up, the chances that it will turn out that way arent very good. But it might be more interesting," she says emphatically. "It might turn out even better than you imagined."
As for newscasting, Pauley doesnt recommend it for those who arent sincerely dedicated to reporting the news. There are many more young women who want to be television newscasters, she says, than there are positions available. As a result, women who have talents that could be applied in other businesses wind up in unchallenging positions at local television stations for 10 or 15 years. "I dont mean to put women off because the competition is ferocious," she says. "Im just saying to examine your motives. If you want to do it because its glamorous, then dont do it."
Not only is it difficult to break into national newscasting, its also difficult to stay there: when the ratings drop, newscasters often get the blameand sometimes, a pink slip. Pauley attributes her own career longevity to her sense of humor and perspective. When she makes mistakes that are no laughing matterand she hasPauley says she knows enough not to make excuses. She hesitates, and then adds, only half joking, "Ive known when to duck. Ive known when to keep a real low profile. "
Theres been very little ducking lately. With a sharp wit and such high personal standards backing her up, its no great surprise that Pauley has outlasted many of her newscasting peers. Nor is it surprising that Pauley is feeling quite satisfied with her job. After all, by tuning in to watch her and her colleagues on "Today," millions of Americans are handing Jane Pauley a blue ribbon every morning.