Deborah Norville is no stranger to the world of broadcast journalism, though she said she has seen the industry change since her beginnings back in the 1980s. Norville, a Georgia native, made the climb from local newscaster to nationally syndicated talk show host, transitioning from the anchor of NBC’s “News at Sunrise” at age 28 to the co-host of the “Today” show just three years later.
Now, Norville serves as the co-host of the primetime newsmagazine show, “Inside Edition,” which she has been the face of for 17 years.
On Thursday night, Norville visited Providence for an event at the Vanity nightclub hosted by ABC 6, the local network that carries “Inside Edition.” Despite leaving her home in New York City just hours earlier, Norville couldn’t escape the far-reaching effects of Hurricane Sandy – the power at the downtown club was still out, and the lights were run off the generator of an ABC news truck.
But the extreme weather didn’t dampen Norville’s spirits, and she greeted the dozens of partygoers with smiles and an unending willingness for photo opportunities.
Though Norville was only in Rhode Island for a few hours on Thursday (she had to film “Inside Edition” in New York a short time before the party), she noted that she has visited the Capital City before.
“Providence is just one of those cities that’s like a big city but in a manageable small town,” she said. “I just like the vibe here.”
Being a self-described small-town girl, Norville said she enjoys visiting Providence, especially for the Italian food.
Most of Norville’s time is spent in New York, where she lives and works on the show. Though she joined “Inside Edition” in 1995, the show will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year. Norville called the milestone “sobering.”
“This program has essentially chronicled an entire generation of pop culture,” she said, mentioning specifically their coverage of 9/11 and their exclusive interview with serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
“I look at the totality of what we’ve done at ‘Inside Edition’ and I look at what we’ve done this week,” she said.
Norville said she is proud of the show’s coverage of Hurricane Sandy, which she experienced firsthand.
Norville lives on the East Side of Manhattan, and said she and her family waited for something to happen, but nothing did. Instead, only a mile down the island, mass destruction was taking place. Norville said knowing that her fellow New Yorkers were going through such turmoil while her neighborhood was unscathed was “otherworldly.”
“You realize … how capricious Mother Nature is,” she said. “Why is this house untouched and that one obliterated? Unfortunately, it’s entire towns that are obliterated and then the next village is still there.”
The “Inside Edition” team has been busy covering the disaster, but also continues to live up to its “newsmagazine” title by blending in pop culture and entertainment news.
“Every now and then you throw in a Lindsay Lohan and a Kardashian, you find your head spinning and you kind of marvel at what’s going on,” she said.
It’s this combination that Norville believes makes the show so successful; it’s also a trend she sees increasing in broadcast journalism in general.
Norville said she has seen the world of media change since her early days. Today, news happens fast and people want it when it breaks. Sound bytes in the 1980s could be as long as 22 seconds, recalled Norville. Today, they can be less than a tenth of that.
“You talk about living in a nano-second world, we’re in a nano-second world,” she said.
But mostly it’s the content that’s changed, a fact that Norville said she sometimes laments. Today, people want less news and more entertainment.
“Our job is to keep the government honest. Our job is to ferret out the bad guys. Our job is to find the info that our viewers and readers need to know so that they can be well-informed citizens and keep their families safe,” she said of reporters.
But often, that information needs to be disguised with what Norville calls “zazzy” news: the strange headlines or celebrity news that grabs the viewers’ attention. Once they’re hooked, said Norville, you sneak in the things they really need to know.
“It’s kind of like how your mother used to hide the peas under the mashed potatoes,” she said. “We stick the peas in there … and you didn’t realize you ate them until you’re on to the next zazzy story.”
For Norville, it was her experience on Sept. 11 and not a “zazzy” story that sticks out in her mind as the most powerful of her career.
“September 11 is a day that is seared in my memory, as it is for all Americans,” she said.
Norville was in Washington, D.C. that day giving a speech at a Newsweek conference. She remembered feeling like it went exceptionally well, and wrapped up just after 9 a.m.
Then the editor quickly approached the podium and informed the crowd that Norville had to leave to cover breaking news in New York. At the time, she didn’t know what happened, but the pieces quickly began to fall into place. She scrambled to get back to New York City, where the two planes had just struck the World Trade Center. And then the Pentagon was hit.
Norville knew she had to report the story, so she set up a spot to broadcast from right there in D.C.
“You saw the smoke of the Pentagon over my shoulder as I was broadcasting ‘Inside Edition’ from there,” she said.
Once her job as a reporter was done, her thoughts immediately turned to getting home – her husband and children were in New York, and she needed to get back to them.
“It was really weird to make it home that night,” she said. “There were no trains, there were no cars and obviously no planes.”
Norville decided to wait around Union Station, and eventually, a train to New York came by. She got back to New York City at 11 p.m., and there were no cabs to be found. So she started walking the 50 blocks from Penn Station to her home on the East Side.
But then, she said, a bus appeared out of nowhere. With no bus card and no coins, Norville was afraid she wouldn’t be able to ride. The driver, however, offered her a free trip home. “We just want to get you home tonight,” he said.
“To me, when that bus driver said, ‘We just want to get you home safe,’ that was … 9/11,” she said. “We wanted everybody home safe, and I don’t think at that moment any of us appreciated how unsafe our world had become.”
“Inside Edition” airs locally on weekdays at 12:30 and 7:30 p.m. on ABC.