Jenn Suozzo ’99 (CLAS) was named executive producer of “NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt” last fall. The former dancer says she directs each episode as if it were a ballet.
By Julia M. Klein
Photos by Peter Morenus
typical day for Jenn Suozzo ’99 (CLAS) starts around 8 a.m. and doesn’t end until Lester Holt, who anchors “NBC Nightly News,” signs off at 7 p.m. But that’s only when no crisis intervenes.
Atypical day for Jenn Suozzo ’99 (CLAS) starts around 8 a.m. and doesn’t end until Lester Holt, who anchors “NBC Nightly News,” signs off at 7 p.m. But that’s only when no crisis intervenes.
“I always feel like we’re on 24/7. News happens all the time,” says Suozzo, who was named executive producer of “Nightly News” in October after serving as interim EP since July. She remembers the logistical challenges of a recent spring Sunday night, when tornadoes slammed the South, causing multiple fatalities. “Lester was in California, and we needed to get him from California to the South to cover the tornadoes because there were so many people who lost their lives,” she recalls. “Those stories stay with you.”
Suozzo is headquartered at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, also known as 30 Rock or the Comcast Building, an iconic 1930s Art Deco skyscraper in midtown Manhattan. The building’s dark, busy lobby has black terrazzo floors with brass inlay and is decorated with scenes of men at work in Catalan artist Josep Maria Sert’s massive mural, “American Progress.” By contrast, the NBC and MSNBC newsrooms upstairs have a sleekly contemporary look, with exposed brick walls and screens tuned to shows from broadcast and cable competitors. Suozzo’s own small office is still largely unadorned. A coffee mug sits on a shelf above her desk. “Behind every successful woman,” it reads, “is a tribe of other successful women who have her back.”
Wearing a flowing, patterned black and gold dress, Suozzo greets a visitor with a firm handshake and a radiant smile, projecting warmth and command amidst the daily frenzy. “She is so calm under pressure,” says Maureen E. Croteau ’71 (CLAS), the longtime head of UConn’s Journalism Department, who remembers Suozzo’s cool professionalism during the 9/11 terror attacks. “She takes the job very seriously. She doesn’t take herself seriously at all.”
“I bring leadership, I bring passion, I bring dedication, and I bring empathy — every day,” says Suozzo, who also counts among her strengths “great people skills” and “a strong ability to read a room.”
Suozzo has enjoyed a charmed career at NBC, her only employer since graduation. She counts among her mentors the network’s revered chief foreign policy correspondent, Andrea Mitchell, whose MSNBC show she helped launch in 2006. Now Suozzo, in turn, is helping to boost the careers of other women, including Kasey O’Brien ’16 (CLAS), an associate producer with the show. “She cares about the people who work for her,” O’Brien says. “She gives you opportunity before you know you’re ready for it because she knows you’re ready.”
“She is so calm under pressure . . . she takes the job very seriously. She doesn't take herself seriously at all.”
— Maureen E. Croteau ’71 (CLAS) Journalism Professor and Department Head
A Frenchtown, New Jersey, native whose mother was an English teacher, Suozzo didn’t initially envision a journalism career. “I was very passionate about helping women who were victims of domestic violence and their children — the legal side of all of that,” she says. She thought she might become a lawyer. Her great love was dance, but her parents counseled her, “You can dance after you go to college.” She did study dance at UConn, even subbing at times for her professor.
In high school, Suozzo worked on the student newspaper. At UConn, she joined The Daily Campus. By junior year, spurred by her love of language and interest in investigative reporting, she was ready to commit, double majoring in journalism and English. For her television internship, she was placed with the FOX affiliate in Hartford. But a field trip to WVIT, the local NBC station, convinced her that was where she belonged. She asked Croteau to switch her.
“So she did — and she really laid the trajectory for my whole career,” Suozzo says. The two remain close friends, and Suozzo serves on the Journalism Department’s professional advisory committee.
Croteau remembers how adeptly Suozzo took to that internship: “She would talk to me about the things she was covering, and it was very mature — not like a kid who was wowed by everything. And she was so interested in every part of it, every tiny facet of what was going on the newsroom.”
Uncertain whether she wanted to be on air or behind the camera, Suozzo did her best to learn both sets of skills. “It was like catnip to me — I just loved it,” she says of the experience, adding that WVIT’s lead anchors at the time, Gerry Brooks and Joanne Nesti, were also instrumental in laying the foundation of her career. And she stays in touch with them to this day, too.
Suozzo’s first paid TV gig, also at WVIT in Hartford, was as a teleprompter operator.
“I worked my way up to the camera and then the floor director,” she says, before becoming an associate producer and then a producer. The news director Liz Grey “just really believed in me,” Suozzo says.
“I will never forget it. I was sitting in the newsroom towards the back. She came out of the office and screamed my name, ‘Where’s Jenn Suozzo?’ And I was like, ‘My God, what did I do? I’m right here!’
“I went into her office, and she said, ‘So, I’m going to promote you. I need you to go into the control room and learn how to do the control room and don’t come out till you know.’ And so — I did.”
When new management took over the Hartford station, Suozzo made the move to MSNBC and then NBC, ascending the production hierarchy. She produced for many of the network’s stars — “you just have to adapt to who you’re working with” — but admits to especially warm feelings for Mitchell and the late Tim Russert, host of Sunday morning’s “Meet the Press.”
“He was the icon of the business” and was “beyond nice,” she says. Her partnership with Lester Holt, whom she met when both were at MSNBC, began in 2012, when she was part of the small team at NBC’s weekend news program.
“Jenn brings a calm to a process that can be anything but,” says Holt. “Her demeanor, confidence, and quick decision making lowers the stress level for all of us. If there is a crisis going on in the control room during the broadcast I never know it. Jenn’s voice in my earpiece remains steady and reassuring no matter what else may be going on.”
Suozzo enjoys covering politics, getting the big interview. But the stories that have haunted her most have involved the loss of life. She cites the case of Scott Peterson, convicted in 2004 of murdering his pregnant wife, Laci, and their unborn child, Conner; the 2005 disappearance from Aruba of Natalee Holloway, declared dead seven years later; and “a particularly gruesome murder case that I’ve never forgotten,” involving Jessica Lunsford, a nine-year-old who, in 2005, was raped and buried alive. “I choke up now thinking about it,” Suozzo says.
Another day she will never be able to forget came in 2012.
“We had just entered a network meeting when we first learned there might be something happening in Newtown,” Suozzo recalls. "Then we heard it was an elementary school and then a first-grade class. Someone said how many victims there were, little children. To this day I remember the air stood still, everyone was silent. Some people cried, others left the room. And that night we reported live from Newtown on the bone-chilling tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, many of us through our own tears and feelings. There are still no words.”
Suozzo and Holt at their current newsroom desks. The two worked together at MSNBC before both ended up on “The Nightly News.”
Suozzo’s regimen involves a blizzard of meetings and decisions. She starts the morning talking to senior producers and fielding calls from correspondents around the country and the world. “We’re trying to lay out what we’re doing for the day,” she says.
A 9 a.m. meeting with the entire news division is followed by a 9:30 meeting with the show staff, which she runs. “The producers have a chance to pitch their stories to the whole ‘Nightly’ staff, and then we’re off and running,” she says. She gives an example of the thought process: “How do we make Peter Alexander’s piece about what’s happening at the White House today? What’s the angle? How are we telling it? Who’s telling it? What does that look like?”
By way of guidance, she asks her producers: “What is your moment of impact in every story? What is the one thing I’m going to remember?”
With many viewers already aware of the top news of the day, the evening broadcast needs to provide something extra. “We can all be on our phones all day, and you know that there is a school shooting,” says Suozzo, on a day when yet another school shooting, in Colorado, will lead the show. “What is it that ‘Nightly News’ is going to offer you from that school shooting that you’re never going to forget? What is going to stay with you the next day? Is it a sound bite? Is it a moment? Is it an image?”
Suozzo says that she has also “put pedal to the metal on the original reporting.” On this particular day, she and producer Eric Salzman are proud of nabbing the first television interview with Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, whose op-ed in The New York Times called for the powerful company to be broken up. NBC national correspondent and weekend anchor Kate Snow goes beyond the headlines to ask Hughes about the state of his friendship with Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO. Hughes, in response, turns almost wistful, noting that it’s been two years since he’s seen his former Harvard roommate.
“Throughout the day,” Suozzo says, “there’s constantly producers in here,” part of a “nonstop conversation.” They discuss their changing stories, logistical hurdles, how to get the job done cost effectively. She also spends time discussing the next day’s and next week’s stories. Her pace quickens as she describes the routine, as though mimicking the day’s accelerating rhythm: “All these pieces are coming together. Everybody out there is working on their story in their silo, and then it’s our responsibility — and mine — to funnel everybody, so that it comes out seamlessly.
Meanwhile, I’m having marketing meetings, PR meetings, staying on top of things like that. I’m meeting with news directors from across the country [and asking]: ‘How is NBC helping you? How can we help you more? How can you help us? Let’s partner together.’ Building those relationships is something that is very crucial, too.”
Suozzo leads a second news meeting at 2:30 p.m. Holt sits to her left at a conference table ringed by producers. One of them summarizes the latest developments out of North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela. Andrea Mitchell joins the group to offer her insider take on the foreign policy news, including its domestic political ramifications.
Producers and correspondents, some of them calling in, swiftly run through other stories: U.S.-China trade talks, President Trump’s defense of his son Donald Jr., the school shooting, storms across the country, the Hughes interview, controversial abortion legislation in Alabama, a San Francisco teacher on extended medical leave obliged by state law to pay for a substitute teacher. They detail the planned succession of images and sound bites and the questions that remain. Suozzo, earnest and low-key, thanks each one in turn.
“She gives you opportunity before you know you're ready for it, because she knows you're ready for it.”
— Associate Producer Kasey O'Brien ’16 (CLAS)
After the 2:30 p.m. meeting, she says, it’s “go time.” That means, she says, “the scripts need to come in. I need to make sure that all the scripts have what they need in them. Is there something missing? Is it written well? Does it make sense?
“And then,” she says, “I have to look at the broadcast as a whole: What are the pieces in the first block, what’s in the second, what’s in the third, and how are we ending the show? Because of the dance background, I like to look at the show as like a ballet. It all needs to flow together. All the acts need to come together for the final show.”
One of the obvious challenges is late-breaking news. “The school shooting the other day didn’t happen till 5 o’clock,” she says. “For a while, the White House was deciding to release all of their news at 5:30, and we’d have to blow up the show and do something different. So we’re constantly on our feet — up until we’re in the show. Things happen, and you have to react.”
So far, the all-important numbers are good: Though trailing ABC’s “World News Tonight” in total viewership, “Nightly News” continues to lead the three networks in the coveted demographic of adults 25-54. “I have no concerns about the durability of the format,” Suozzo says. “People said years ago that the evening broadcasts would be obsolete.” In fact, she says, “we get 9 million viewers, on average, every night.”
Suozzo in the “Nightly News” control room. When she made the move from floor director to producer back in Hartford at WVIT, she recalls her boss there promoting her by saying: “Go into the control room and learn how to do the control room and don’t come out till you know.” And so she did.
Suozzo’s day ends in the darkened control room, a complex of computer monitors, audiovisual equipment, and screens that resembles the Broadway set of “Network.” Wearing headphones, Suozzo sits near the center, surrounded by her team. The order of stories has been reshuffled slightly during the day, and one planned story has been held. But there have been no major crises, no need to blow up the show. The Hughes interview, as Suozzo anticipated, is arresting. A closing piece, for NBC’s signature “Inspiring America” segment, focuses on identical twins who both battle and support each other on their way to academic success.
When the broadcast wraps, Suozzo rushes out to dinner, but not before thanking her guests. Postmortems will have to wait. Tomorrow, she will do it all again.
To an outsider, the constant pressure seems stressful, exhausting. Not to Suozzo.
“It’s invigorating,” she says.
Julia M. Klein’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Mother Jones, and more. She is a contributing book critic for the Forward.