KARE 11 anchor Jana Shortal
Photographs by Ackerman + Gruber
Jana Shortal has never dressed “right.” In elementary school, she insisted on wearing her t-ball uniform when her mom wanted her to dress up. In high school, her hair curled awkwardly while the other girls wore theirs long and straight. And on TV, Shortal, co-anchor of KARE 11’s newest show, Breaking the News, has rejected what she calls the “lady uniform.” She wears her hair short, her shoes flat, and pairs her blazers with skinny jeans. She’s been questioned and criticized about her looks at every life stage—by her mother, her Catholic school teachers, by news directors. She’s been bullied. She’s been hailed as a hero. She’s provoked debate about the role of local TV news and its anchors in an online, on demand world. So when a judgmental tweet from Star Tribune gossip columnist C.J. arrived on a busy news day in September, it felt like more of a nuisance than a career-defining moment.
“Do you wish you’d worn different jeans/pants @janashortal on Tuesday’s Breaking the News which dealt mostly with Jacob Wetterling’s death?” C.J. tweeted at 10:37 a.m.
“IDK what my clothing has to do with covering the tragedy of Jacob’s death. My only ‘wish’ on Tuesday was for Jacob’s family,” Shortal replied, and went back to prepping for her 6:30 p.m. newscast. But the public fashion critique, being tied to the tragic outcome of the kidnapping that had haunted Minnesotans for 27 years, ignited social media outrage. C.J. fanned the flames for hours, and then direct messaged Shortal on Twitter late in the afternoon to say: “I have everything I need.”
Shortal learned what C.J. meant moments before going on the air. In a column posted on the Star Tribune website, C.J. took Shortal to task for wearing skinny jeans while delivering a Wetterling tribute. She called Shortal’s appearance “inappropriate,” and accused her of prioritizing “hipness” over the gravity of the news.
Shortal was sure she was going to throw up. All those old feelings of being different, a weirdo, came flooding back. She somehow made it through the news and went directly home to her studio apartment in the North Loop. She sat down with her laptop and the words poured out in a Facebook post:
On Tuesday morning I got dressed. The light on my porch woke me up. Jacob’s light, his sign, to come home. Sick to my stomach I got dressed. Dreading the day I got dressed. Knowing I would learn, with all of you, what really happened to Jacob Wetterling. I dressed. I prayed. I went to work. I kept my head down. I learned what happened to him. I prayed again. I went on the air. I did my best. I gave that newscast every single shred of hope and love I had for Jacob. For his family. And for every single one of you who was hurting. I left everything I had on that newsroom floor. And today. You took that away. You made it about my pants. You were asked to create joy. Help your neighbor. You wrote about jeans. You took the life out of what was meant to be a tribute to a life lost. I won’t let you do that to me. I’m going to create joy. I’m going to help my neighbor. I’m going to go turn my porch light on now. And remember why I did that show the way I did it. And I promise you, what I won’t remember, was the cut of my jeans.
She hit the post button without hesitation. Then she flipped on Netflix, and started making Rice-A-Roni for dinner. The pings came fast. Like. Like. Like. Like. Like.
Shortal got scared. She couldn’t look. She shut down her computer and turned off her phone. She went to bed. “For a person who has craved attention for so long,” she says, “I wanted to hide.”
But the story went viral. The confluence of a hot topic like body shaming in relation to an indisputably tragic story of child molestation and murder, bolstered by Shortal’s eloquent response, made it national news. People Magazine picked it up. So did Huffington Post and Today.com.
Star Tribune eventually yanked the column and issued an apology (C.J. says she’s not allowed to comment on the incident). But the disdain for the bullying, and the rallying support of Shortal, continued. Shortal’s Facebook post was shared 6,889 times. It racked up 48,000 “likes.” By morning, she had 10,000 new Twitter followers, skyrocketing her into unfamiliar territory as a trailblazer in an industry that hasn’t evolved nearly as much as the world it covers.
“I’d never had more than 100 likes on anything,” Shortal says a couple of months later, over tea at Moose & Sadies, where the staff stops by our table to share predictions with Shortal for that evening’s Lynx game. Shortal is still trying to get comfortable. Not with herself—she’s paid the therapy bills for that work. But suddenly, the 39-year-old TV anchor/reporter is wrestling with the reality that because of one news cycle that she’d erase if she could, she now has a much larger platform to try to change the norms of her industry, and the world beyond.
Every time she tries to put this chapter behind her, it’s there, again. In December, Shape magazine named Shortal one of “10 Badass Women Who Made 2016 Better by Clapping Back at Body-Shaming Haters.” She reacted, as she does to most things, with self-deprecating humor. “Shape magazine? I don’t even work out!”
KARE 11 anchor Jana Shortal
Jana Shortal is a lot of things television news anchors generally aren’t. Outwardly opinionated. Gay. A tomboy. But the one she’d prefer not to discuss? Prom queen. Jerseyville Community High School, class of 1995.
When Shortal talks about her childhood in rural southern Illinois, she emphasizes feeling out of place. Her parents had to pull her out of Catholic School after fourth grade because her “un-ladylike” behavior kept getting her sent to the principal’s office. She resisted her mother’s pleas to wear dresses. She never could figure out how to style her unruly hair.
“Her older sister Julie was born with a curling iron in hand. Jana wouldn’t know the top from the bottom of it, and you can tell,” quips her mother, Maureen Shortal, a retired high school English teacher who still lives in Jerseyville, where she raised three kids (Shortal’s parents divorced when she was in her early 20s). Maureen is fiercely loyal and protective of her middle child. She streams Breaking the News every night. She talks to her daughter most every day. Shortal texts, and Maureen calls in response.
“There was never a time I thought she wasn’t going to shake the dust off this town,” Maureen says. “She thought differently than people here. She just marched to the beat of a different drum.”
But she was hardly an outcast, Maureen adds. Her senior class voted her “best all around.” And then came that consummate sign of high school acceptance: prom queen. Shortal borrowed her prom dress from a friend—she saw no reason to buy a new one.
“Jana has always been her own person,” Maureen says. “But there wasn’t anybody she couldn’t be friends with.”
She wore her hair long. She dated boys. Fitting in was exhausting. “I wanted to be liked, to be popular,” Shortal admits. “I did everything I could do aesthetically not to stand out. I would do and wear everything the girls were doing and wearing, to a certain point. But I just couldn’t get it right. It always felt weird.”
Shortal didn’t figure out that she was gay until she was in her late 20s. She says she wasn’t in denial—at least, it didn’t feel that way. Having never even met an openly gay person until college, she just didn’t consider it. Looking back now, she realizes she always tried to date the boys who were slightly out of reach. Her most intense relationships were with women.
Her career path was clearer. By junior high, Shortal had decided that she wanted to be Bob Costas. “I was really good at watching sports, analyzing sports, talking about sports,” says Shortal. She discovered Keith Olbermann. Dan Patrick. She noticed that there weren’t a lot of female voices in sports reporting. So that’s what she decided she’d do.
She enrolled at the University of Missouri, known for its top-ranking journalism school. But Shortal admits its location in Columbia, two-and-a-half hours away from Jerseyville, was more compelling. “It had that rogue appeal,” Shortal says of leaving for college. “I’m going to do something no one from Jerseyville does, so that makes me cool.”
Shortal loved everything about college: the diversity, the challenge, the largeness of it all. She made friends. She got good grades. She cut her hair short and felt good about it. Journalism classes were everything she had hoped they’d be, filled with ideas, storytelling, and debate. She shifted focus from sports to news. “It’s different all the time, and it never stops. That was fascinating to me.”
Print journalism was never a consideration—the structured style of news writing didn’t appeal to Shortal. And she rather liked the spotlight. So she chose the medium that is structured by format, as well as appearance. The irony is not lost on her. “I can’t quite present in a socially acceptable way what television news is supposed to look like, but I chose to go into the most normified female profession. It didn’t occur to me at the time that [it] was a problem.”
But it hit her the first day of Broadcast Journalism 2. “I took a look around at all that long hair, all those beautiful girls, and I thought, ‘I can’t do this.’ I just remember thinking I’d gone as far as I could go.”
She dropped the class. She switched her major to advertising. She squelched her longing to be on camera, as she had become adept at doing with so many feelings. But she couldn’t shake the stares of associate journalism professor Greeley Kyle. “Jana stood out,” says Kyle, who was also executive news editor at the NBC affiliate in Columbia, Missouri, where students staffed the newsroom. “She had a spark and fire inside her that was evident from the first time I bumped into her. I asked her if she was running to advertising because she loved it, or if she was running away from broadcast because it was hard. I called her a coward and told her I wanted her in my class.”
Shortal stayed after graduation and enrolled in summer school for broadcast journalism. This time, it stuck. She was a natural on camera, weaving wit, sincerity, and emotion into the news of the day. It made wearing heels seem worth the sacrifice. She got a job as a morning show anchor at the NBC affiliate in Jefferson City, Missouri, and soon after, moved to Fox in Kansas City. She bought Ann Taylor suits. She grew her hair long. She wouldn’t cut it short again until 2008, five years into her tenure at KARE 11.
Years before KARE 11 hired her—before she’d ever been to Minnesota—Shortal carried a KARE 11 tote bag. A cameraman at her station in Kansas City picked it up for her at an industry convention, knowing that Shortal had held KARE in the highest regard since she saw tapes of their broadcasts in college. She idolized Boyd Huppert, host of KARE 11’s “Land of 10,000 Stories” segment and recipient of a national Emmy and more than a dozen other writing and reporting awards.
With the help of a Kansas City colleague, she scored a job interview at KARE in late 2003, nailed it, and moved to Minnesota without knowing a soul. There she was: a general assignment reporter at her dream station, in a newsroom that she says has never judged her for her appearance. She had a fresh start in a city that had no preconceived notions about her. But she got scared. So she found a boyfriend.
“I didn’t want to be gay,” she says. “I hate saying that. It makes me really sad, but I want to be honest about my story. That’s why I get really angry when people assume this is a choice. It’s not.”
It took years—a lot of therapy, and a brief leave of absence—for her to come to terms with her sexuality. She came out at 26. As she began to accept herself, Shortal found her voice on air. She looked past the headlines to the unlikely heroes and unimaginable heartbreak. She became a master of the heartfelt voiceover. She cajoled witty, insightful interviews out of kindergarteners. Her story about a Chisago County Girl Scout troop selling cookies by sled to ice fishermen got picked up by NBC Nightly News.
“When you start to get positive feedback for specific stories that I felt were really indicative of who I am, then you start to think, well maybe it is OK,” Shortal says of her individual approach. “My work has always been described as quirky, different. It’s just the way I write. I want to make it personal. Which you’re taught not to do.”
A year and a half ago, the rules changed when Shortal was selected to co-anchor a new nightly program called Breaking the News. It airs at 6:30 p.m., after the local news. The show has been described as a conversation rather than a traditional newscast—a deeper dive into the stories people are likely to be talking about around the dinner table. It wasn’t so much about breaking news as breaking the formula. No sports or weather. No ambulance chasing.
Co-host Rena Sarigianopoulos is Shortal’s opposite in most every way, from her dresses and perfectly coiffed hair to her belief that opinions should not be shared from the news desk. She’s tiptoeing into letting more personality show, but you won’t catch her debating politics on air. Like most in the newsroom, however, Sarigianopoulos recognizes it’s necessary for TV news to evolve, to look and sound more like the communities it covers.
“If you’re not on the train, it’s going to run you over,” Sarigianopoulos says. “I still personally feel like we should separate journalism and politics. I still believe in balance. But the biggest part of this is that we all need to be ourselves. And people need to be OK with that.”
Sarigianopoulos tears up talking about Shortal. “She takes the brunt of the criticism. People feel like they have the liberty to cut her down. She’s just so brave.”
Breaking the News premiered the day after David Bowie died, in January 2016. Shortal wore a Bowie T-shirt under a blazer and delivered an oral essay on what the music legend meant to her. “I was a huge fan of Bowie,” she said, that first night in the anchor chair. “For a misfit and an outcast like me when I was younger, he made me feel like different was OK.”
When former WCCO TV news director Scott Libin saw Shortal on TV in her Bowie T-shirt, he thought, “This is someone trying to prove a point.”
“I respect that,” says Libin, now a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “As long as she’s willing to accept the fact that some will judge.” Within the KARE 11 newsroom, there seems to be nothing but support for Shortal’s individuality. Her penchant for editorializing, however, makes some veterans uncomfortable.
“It’s not something I would want to do,” says KARE 11’s top anchor Julie Nelson. “I’m very cognizant of trying to make sure we aren’t taking sides. But Jana isn’t on a traditional newscast, and sharing opinions is part of Breaking the News. Her viewpoints might make some uncomfortable, but what you can’t take away from Jana is her transparency. She cares about what she puts on the air and the people she’s covering. Ruffling feathers is part of the assignment.”
Editorializing newscasters are not a new phenomenon, especially in this market. Don Shelby was WCCO TV’s senior anchor when he launched his controversial nightly opinion piece on the 10 p.m. news. That was back before broadcasters were sharing personal opinions on social media. “He wasn’t young, nor was he wearing skinny jeans when he did it,” says Libin, who green-lighted Shelby’s editorials. “He was the senior guy, and it was something that we thought differentiated our brand.”
Libin applauds KARE for recognizing that people are getting their news from different sources today. “But those sources are getting their news from the mainstream,” he points out. “I think there’s a place for evenhandedness and impartiality in journalism. But as a viewer, I’m also interested in commentary. I think of it as a diet—there’s room for a lot of things. But don’t mistake a candy bar for broccoli.”
If anything, Breaking the News is grappling with how to differentiate itself from the traditional 5 and 6 p.m. newscasts. KARE 11 president and general manager John Remes says the station is proud of the program, and its effort to “explore a new model for locally produced news content.” But as Libin points out, it isn’t all that different than what viewers are used to seeing. The show has already backed off its integration of social media reaction—making that more of an occasional add-on than a feature of every story. An executive with a Twin Cities–based media buying agency says Breaking the News has struggled, but that the general perception is that it’s gaining ground even if it’s unlikely to ever be a major contender.
But it’s only been a year, and Remes believes there is potential for the show. “KARE 11 is very pleased with BTN’s performance and continued growth,” he says. “The future for BTN is very much wide open for building on that success.”
On the Monday morning after last year’s mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, the Breaking the News team huddled to figure out their take on the story gripping everyone’s attention. All eyes in the newsroom—hesitantly but inevitably—turned to Shortal. She told her colleagues about the upsetting call she received from her mother the morning after the rampage. Don’t go outside, her mom pleaded. “You’re not safe.”
Shortal, who had been hanging out with a friend at Pat’s Tap when she got the call, was confused. Then angry. And then, she finally understood. Back in her mid-20s, when Shortal told her mom she was gay, her mom was supportive, but Shortal also got the sense that she wasn’t entirely convinced (Jana had always dated boys, after all). “It took 13 years for me to hear that fear—realizing what it must have felt like for my parents when I came out. It broke my heart.”
Shortal and her team now considered all the typical ways she could approach the Orlando headline on the evening news. She could interview gay people. Find a spokesperson for the gay community. “I’ll just tell my story,” she announced to her colleagues. She did it in one take, pre-recorded before the live show. “My heart is broken for the senseless loss of so much life. I remain tonight so proud to be who I am. I’m a gay woman.” She ended on a note of firm optimism. “We live our lives. It is a life, not a lifestyle.” And then came photos and names of the victims scrolling across the screen, silently.
“It was a way to tell the story,” Shortal says. “This show is supposed to be about being transparent.” Months later, the Orlando story stands out to Shortal as one of the seminal moments in her most profound year. A year in which she also started the process of taking classes to convert to Judaism—a religion that this lapsed Catholic from rural Illinois says she felt drawn to from the first time she entered Temple Israel in Minneapolis two years ago to report a story about the High Holidays. She appreciates the value Judaism places on asking questions over having the answers. “It’s OK to never know. You keep asking, you keep learning, and you try to be of service to this world.” Every Tuesday night after her show, Shortal rushes to Temple Israel for conversion classes. She’s single at the moment, and tends to keep a low profile off of social media. An ideal evening is spent at home with a book and her blind rescue dog Vivian, who, Shortal jokes, shares her owner’s disdain for intimacy.
The moments keep coming—almost as if no longer part of one crazy year, rather, a major, sustained shift. Every time a story of sexism, racism, or misogyny is in the news, Shortal feels compelled to weigh in. It’s a role she accepts, even if it means she’s talking herself out of ever anchoring a traditional news show. That, she says, was never her goal. She’d rather end up a news director in a smaller market where she could “blow stuff up and no one would care.”
So when the buzz after Hillary Clinton’s first public appearance post-concession speech was all about her flat hair and lack of makeup, Shortal reacted on air. “I’m not wearing makeup right now because I choose not to,” she said on Breaking the News. “A lot of women are doing that this year, pushing back on the societal expectation that to be ‘put together’ as a lady, you put on a fresh coat of paint. I’m not criticizing women who wear makeup or women who do not. But I want to start a conversation as to why both choices are perfectly fine and perfectly feminine. So I’ll start.” Some might say that Shortal is inviting critiques of her unconventional TV appearance by continuing to make it a factor in her reports. She has come to see it as her calling. “I get letters from people saying they’ve never known how to dress for work and that I gave them encouragement. There needs to be one person who says its OK.”
By the time she signed off for the evening, her Facebook page and Twitter feed were once again jammed with comments, mostly positive, like this one: “Jana Shortal is non-stop inspiration for me. I have great admiration for her candor and fearlessness. She’s a courageous leader and incredible role model.”
But of course, there’s a flip side, and it can be vicious. “@janashortal is a mutt,” read one of the tweets she received that evening. “Very difficult to look at. I change the channel every time she [sic] comes on my TV.”
Shortal took the high road. “Thanks for sharing,” she replied to Twitter hater @651Citizen. “Let’s get a selfie together sometime?"