In the language of 2-year contracts and moving up in the markets that consume broadcasters recently, a reporter staying at one station for more than a decade, and staying as a reporter, is almost unheard of.
Mike McKnight, 69, has been a reporter for WOWT – Channel 6 in Omaha for almost 50 years, reported on over 13,000 stories and pioneered the role of Multimedia Journalist in Nebraska.
“It just comes down to always wanting to know something and always wanting to get the scoop. Always wanting to know something that somebody else doesn’t and then being able to tell them first,” McKnight said.
McKnight got his interest in journalism after a Boys Scout program let him and a few others take over a radio station on New Year’s Eve, and he’s been hooked ever since.
After four decades, McKnight has a true passion for investigative journalism, and working for the community he’s covering.
“David and Goliath stories are what I like to do now, I’ve done everything else,” McKnight said.
That “everything else” he’s covered includes talking to almost 40 convicted murderers, witnessing an execution, covering war zones in Central America and Husker Football.
“People would say ‘didn’t you feel in danger in Nicaragua, or didn’t you feel in danger in Saudi Arabia?’” McKnight said. “I would always say no, the most scared I got was covering the Orange Bowl in Miami.”
According to McKnight, the throng of emotional football fans in downtown Miami was what made reporting on that the most intense.
He also says when you’ve been covering the same area for so long, the way you see the state revolved around what news you’ve covered there.
“I think I’ve been able to tell people I’ve been to every town in the state,” McKnight said. “When I go through a town, I remember that there was a double homicide over here, and there was a river flooding over there,”
Brian Mastre, an anchor/reporter for Channel 6, has worked with McKnight for 25 years, and to describe McKnight in one word, the answer was “tenacious.”
“He will do all the work to track down everybody involved in a story and get to the truth of it,” Mastre said. “He’ll keep making calls and trying to find out, while at the same time being as fair as he can on it.”
According to Mastre, Mcknight embodies the ideals of being a watchdog journalist through his reporting on those “David and Goliath” stories.
“Sometimes he ends up doing a story on someone who’s just lost their fortune, and he can shine a spotlight on the bad actors, but maybe not necessarily get people their money,” Mastre said. “They at least, at the end of the day, feel good about it, because they know they’ve stopped these people.”
McKnight was Nebraska’s first one-man-band, better known as a multimedia journalist, purely because he didn’t want to wait for other people to load up and be ready for breaking news.
“I didn’t want to wait for a photographer to get his lunch or go to the bathroom or fill up gas, I wanted to go,” McKnight said. “The only way really to do that was to learn how to shoot.”
“It was just out of necessity, this inner burning. When something’s happening, I gotta be there right away. I gotta be there first. I gotta be there to see what’s going on.”
Eric McKnight, 31, Mike’s oldest son, can attest to that burning passion, even when his father was straight out of surgery.
“This year, I kid you not, he was maybe three hours post back surgery. We’re in the hospital and the nurse is in there doing whatever and I’m standing in front of the window,” Eric McKnight said. “And he’s like Eric move. And I was like, oh crap, like what’s going on? He’s like, you see there’s a police light up there. Can you see what’s going on?”
One of McKnight’s favorite stories, out of over 13,000 that he’s put together, was one that some say sparked real change within the judicial system. In the past, when a person pleaded insanity, only the doctors had to clear that person to go back out into society. There was a mother who had killed her four children, and was found not guilty by reason of insanity, but was set to be released by the doctors after three years. McKnight found out and televised it, which eventually changed the law.
“It caused quite a bit of shockwaves and it actually got the law changed, changed it to a judge had to let them out, not just the doctors,” McKnight said.
McKnight did say that constantly being on the hunt for news made personal life challenging, saying that “you just need the right person who understands and is flexible.”
For him, that person is his wife, Carla McKnight, who sometimes got a front-row seat to her husband’s job.
“It’s tough. You got to find somebody that accepts that. My wife used to hold the lights for me.” McKnight said. “We would go to dinner, and it was ‘got to go,’ and she’d either go with me or I’d have to go.”
Eric McKnight fondly remembers him and his brother being holed up in the bathroom in the 90s with their mom during the worst storms while his father was out chasing the tornado to get the best shot.
“He’s [the weatherman] like, ‘this one’s going to be really bad. Make sure you get in downstairs, get somewhere safe, like don’t try to watch it or whatever.’ And then Dad is out here in the Honda CRV with 250,000 miles just chasing down this tornado.”
As McKnight’s sons grew up, they just learned to go with it.
“They grew up in the news business too because they know. No matter what the plans are, short of a birth or a wedding, I’m going to go there,” he said.
“He’s never going to retire. He just loves it. He lives for it,” Eric McKnight said.
Through the years, McKnight had the opportunity to move to bigger markets like Denver or Seattle, but Channel 6 provided everything he needed to be content.
“The bigger the pond, the bigger the piranha, and so I was comfortable here. They let me do what I wanted, and the pay was good, so it never interested me,” McKnight said. “If I had a bad boss along the way, I might’ve left, but fortunately, I’ve only worked for three news directors in 46 years.”
The biggest change McKnight has dealt with is the new social media aspect of news reporting. When he first started in news, there were only two broadcasts, and that was that, but whatever is on local news now is typically last on the list, after social media and web articles.
McKnight said that the pace is so fast for broadcast journalists now, it hurts the industry’s credibility.
“A lot of misinformation gets out there because there’s a hurry to get it on first, and it’s not always accurate,” he said.
The biggest advice he has for young journalists, though, is to soak up everything about everything.
“You gotta have fun doing this job. Being excited to get that shot, that wondering ‘I got that scoop, I got the information, I got the exclusive. That’s what you live for, you don’t do it for the money.”