Russ Mitchell's hand shakes slightly as he pours Diet Coke into a plastic cup. It's close to 8 p.m., three days after Christmas, and he finally has a moment to eat — a couple slices of pepperoni pizza with WKYC co-anchor Sara Shookman in the station's green room.
They've been on the air almost continuously since 2 p.m., when Cuyahoga County prosecutor Timothy McGinty announced that two Cleveland police patrolmen would not be charged in the controversial 2014 killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.
Mitchell's moment of unsteadiness, like the tiny bubbles rising to the top of the cup, registers only because he has appeared so composed on camera the past six hours.
A former CBS News correspondent and anchor, Mitchell, 55, has seen his fair share of breaking stories. He manned the desk with Dan Rather on 9/11 and led the network's coverage of Osama bin Laden's capture and killing 10 years later.
Shookman works on her second piece of pizza, carefully lifting the plate with each bite to protect her black dress. During her two years at WKYC, the 29-year-old has spent time as a reporter and weekend anchor before being named Mitchell's permanent co-anchor in September after just six years in broadcast news.
In preparation for the Rice grand jury announcement, WKYC gathered an impressive list of guests more than a month in advance. Former state senator Nina Turner, Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association president Steve Loomis and criminal defense attorney Ian Friedman have been in the green room and on-air for hours.
While other local stations returned to normal programming after McGinty's press conference, WKYC remained with the story just as it had done last May when Cleveland police officer Michael Brelo was acquitted of charges in the 2012 shooting deaths of Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell.
By most measures, Fox 8's local news coverage is the ratings leader in town and has been for a while. But Mitchell and Shookman are WKYC's shot at finally becoming No. 1. As approachable in person as they are on TV, they have smiles that put emojis to shame and can read the news with the best of them.
At a station trying to identify itself as the news outlet of record in town, today showcases everything WKYC president and general manager Micki Byrnes had hoped for by pairing them up after the departure of co-anchor Kris Pickel earlier in 2015: Mitchell and Shookman interviewing sources live on-air with no script, understanding the importance of the moment and informing their viewers.
For long stretches, Mitchell, in a black suit, white shirt and gold tie, never leaves the anchor chair in the station's main studio. He watches over the newsroom like a Guardian of Traffic with the legacy of Edward R. Murrow cradled in his hands.
"The country, the city, the world has been waiting for this [Tamir Rice] decision," Mitchell says on-air. "And we got it today at an interesting time. A holiday week, I think people were not expecting it. A cold, clammy day. One of the worst weather days arguably we have seen so far this year."
But even on a day like this, Mitchell's charisma and sense of humor helps lift some of the weight. He reads a series of viewer reactions from Twitter until he comes to a critique of his work: " 'Russ, did anyone ever tell you you're an idiot? WKYC hires morons.' " Mitchell says with a smirk. "Well, anyway. Sorry you feel that way."
Separated by a gray soundproof wall, Shookman works from Studio B, hustling back and forth to the newsroom when necessary to check what's being said on social media or reported in other channels.
She dodges the notion of the beautiful, blond Miss Ameriverse newsreader with fresh approaches to stories and content delivery. Her interviews on this day include Friedman, former appellate court judge Mary Jane Trapp and former federal prosecutor Dean Valore.
"You said you're surprised to hear almost anything out of the Department of Justice today," Shookman says to Valore. The Justice Department usually doesn't discuss ongoing investigations, he replies, so announcing that its independent review will continue was unexpected. "It's a little bit unusual," he says. "It's telling."
Then in the name of transparency, she questions Valore's political support of McGinty. "You're supporting him in his campaign for reelection now," she says. "Does that cloud your judgment?"
"Not at all," he says. "My analysis is always about what the law is."
For the regular news broadcasts at 6 and 7 p.m., Mitchell and Shookman are back together at the main desk — its angled glass top and wood accented by slate and steel. They'd both rather forgo the traditional scripted newscast and continue the seat-of-their-pants interview format to add context and insight to the complex Rice story.
"This is a conversation that has an impact immediately," says Mitchell over his slice of pizza. "To have hours in a day to talk about it and to talk to people who are knowledgeable about this stuff is fantastic."
"It's very easy for someone to take two minutes, get online or get on Twitter and figure out [the news]," says Shookman. "But some of the reasons why, or how it can be different in the future, or how we even got to this place are more important and central to fixing it than just what happened."
Mitchell nods: "You hope that the job you do on a day like this actually is part of the solution and not part of the problem."
About 10 minutes before WKYC goes live to Mayor Frank Jackson's press conference, Ronnie Dunn, a Cleveland State University urban studies professor with expertise in racial inequality and the criminal justice system, sits beside Mitchell in Shookman's regular chair.
Understanding how discussions about race can still be difficult in America, Mitchell poses a simple question. "We are talking about this from the legal side and from the political side," he says, sweeping one hand from left to right for emphasis. "First of all from a legal side, are you surprised at what you heard today?"
"I think the community anticipated this type of ruling," Dunn says, "based on the investigative reports that were released by the prosecutor."
Channeling the hopelessness and disappointment from the African-American community, Mitchell takes both hands this time and moves them forcefully over the imaginary fence. With a slight chuckle of what's perhaps disbelief, he asks Dunn if the political world and the legal world can ever be bridged.
Dunn tells Mitchell he's hopeful. "I do understand the ruling," Dunn says. "But just because the shooting was justified, does not make it just."
Amanda Berry escaped Ariel Castro's Seymour Avenue house and called 911 at 5:51 p.m. May 6, 2013. It was nine minutes before Mitchell and his then co-anchor Pickel opened the evening news. By 7:30 p.m., Mitchell was on scene, reporting live from the street for the 11 p.m. broadcast while Pickel held down the anchor desk.
The next day, Mitchell and Shookman, a reporter at the time, were at the scene with a large contingent of national and international news organizations.
"For Russ, it was so old hat. He was literally like the mayor out there. He was like, 'Hey, how's it going?' " she says, mimicking Mitchell shaking hands.
Born in St. Louis, Mitchell grew up in a suburb just outside the city. His mom was an inner-city schoolteacher and his dad was a McDonnell Douglas systems analyst. His first job at a TV station, at 17, was operating the switchboard at KTVI in St. Louis.
After graduating from the University of Missouri, he worked as a reporter in Kansas City, then as a reporter and fill-in anchor in Dallas and St. Louis before getting a job at CBS News in 1992.
As a kid, Mitchell was influenced by the way his paternal grandfather treated everyone he met in the same warm way.
"Let someone know you appreciate what they're doing," Mitchell says, "that you're aware that they're working hard, that you're aware they are like everybody else."
It's something he tapped into in the days following Sept. 11, 2001.Reporting for CBS News, Mitchell was sent to the Manhattan Armory where family members of World Trade Center workers could file missing persons reports. For an entire day, agonized wives, sisters, uncles and aunts on the verge of tears told him about their absent loved ones as they waited in line outside the armory.
"I remember being heartbroken talking to these people," Mitchell says. "There was a sense: I'm talking to these people, but there are people out there watching this who are just like these people."
Carol Story, a retired producer on CBS This Morning and later The Early Show, got to know Mitchell's sensitivity when he was a CBS correspondent covering the Montana Freemen's armed standoff with FBI agents in 1996. "He's got that ability to talk to people, and to let people talk to him," says Story, a native Clevelander who was a founding producer on WEWS' Morning Exchange in 1972 and worked there again from 1977 to '84.
Mitchell learned a lot during his CBS days, watching and admiring how Rather and others offered perspective and context instead of just reading the news. Being the weekend anchor for CBS Nightly News and hosting the Saturday Early Show was great, but he wanted to lead a newsroom.
By 2011, he still wasn't. He wanted the gig at CBS that went to Scott Pelley. "Anybody who was there, if they tell you they didn't want it, was lying to you," Mitchell laughs. "It wasn't something I thought I was going to get, but yeah, of course I want it."
After a long career of her own, Story knows what Mitchell was going through. "We all get to that point where there are one or two people at the top," she says. "So what are you going to do to make you happy? Are you going to do what you've been doing or are you going to give yourself a new challenge or a different path?"
In December 2011, Mitchell left CBS News for a four-year contract to be the lead anchor and managing editor at WKYC. He'd looked throughout the country, including in his hometown of St. Louis, for the perfect local news fit. But in very few of those places was he offered the chance to formally be involved in the editorial process.
"For me, it was important to go to a place that wanted me to be part of that voice," he says.
It's about 5:30 p.m. when Shookman rushes down WKYC's long central hallway to Studio B from her cubicle in the newsroom.
As she passes the control room, producers wrestle with who or what to put on next. They have some protestor footage and a green room full of guests who have all been on-air at least once already.
One of the producers catches sight of Shookman and launches a pen at the window to get her attention. He wants to know how she feels about interviewing Turner and Friedman together for a segment right now. Each has expressed a different view of McGinty's decision today.
"They are going to put Turner and Loomis at 6," she says. "Does anyone care if she goes on at 5:30 and goes back on at 6?"
Shookman lets the question hang for less than a heartbeat.
"I don't," she says. Everyone agrees.
"Then let's do it," she says as she rushes back into the hallway.
Mitchell tells a different story about Seymour Avenue. A year after the three women escaped, he and Shookman were back for the anniversary coverage. Mitchell took a picture with her and tweeted it out calling it a blackmail photo so Shookman wouldn't be able to claim she didn't know him when she hit the big-time.
"I told her, 'You can do whatever you want,'" Mitchell says. "'Whatever that it-factor is, you've got it.' She can go anywhere she wants. I hope she stays here."
Shookman grew up outside Akron in New Franklin. As a kid, she was always in performance mode: musical theater, dance lessons and a high school cheerleader.
Her parents loved the outdoors. Her dad, Scott, was a swimmer at the Ohio State University. Their first home was on the shore of Long Lake in the Portage Lakes. The whole family — including Shookman's younger sister, Kimberly — spent a lot of time on the water.
In seventh grade, her curious ways and general interest in everything led her to journalism. Her dad was a stockbroker and her mom was an occupational therapist. "I had spent enough time at both their jobs that I had no interest in either one of them," Shookman says.
So for Take Our Daughters and Sons To Work Day, she shadowed an Akron Beacon Journal reporter doing a story about specialty stamps. After a stop at the post office for research, they went to McDonald's. "It was a true journalist's day," she jokes.
She joined the Manchester High School newspaper, but her performance instinct and a meeting with Fox 8 anchor and fellow Akronite Tracy McCool led her to the broadcast side of journalism at Ohio University.
During college, she interned at NBC's Today in New York City and at WKYC, and worked at the PBS station in Athens. The experiences honed her ability as a multimedia journalist who could research, report, shoot and edit stories.
It all helped her land a job at WVLT in Knoxville, Tennessee. "I had never been to Knoxville before, but I had heard of it, which felt like a great accomplishment," Shookman laughs.
After her three-year contract in Knoxville, she earned interviews in Baltimore and Indianapolis. She imagined coming back to Cleveland, a market-step above both of those cities, but thought it would be a few more years away.
When an opening here came up, she applied and got the job. "I felt really good about that," she says. "Oh, wow, I can work in Cleveland? OK!"
Byrnes liked Shookman's local ties and strong reporting and multimedia skills. "She's also a millennial with all the sort of millennial questions in terms of the new world we live in and how people get their information," Byrnes says.
Shookman is also an old soul. As a kid, she was more interested in talking to adults than kids her own age. Even now she listens to 1940s big band music on SiriusXM rather than the Top 40 stations.
Her multimedia chops and rising stock at WKYC led the station to send her to Sochi, Russia, for three weeks to cover the 2014 Winter Olympics as the station's lone correspondent with no sound guy, no video guy, no producer.
In the face of safety concerns over terrorism, a lack of Western-friendly hospitals and #SochiProblems such as incomplete hotel rooms, Shookman never wavered. That's until a conference call outlining a shelter-in-place emergency plan put things in perspective.
"I was like, Oh shit, I'm really doing this all by myself," she says.
She followed Northeast Ohio athletes competing in the games, reported on major events and even had fun with her coverage. "You could be like, 'This is a tour of my bathroom,' " she says. "People were eating it up. They wanted to see everything you were doing or encountering."
Her pieces aired in every WKYC broadcast for three weeks, and the station promoted Shookman on social media, raising her visibility in the city.
"It's the biggest event in the world," she says. "To be in the center of something that the entire world was looking at — that's the ultimate big story."
Her work earned her a trip to Rio de Janeiro this summer to cover the Olympics again. And she hasn't flinched at the reports of unfinished projects, and water and safety concerns facing this year's games.
While the nine-hour time difference in Russia allowed her to report, edit and file stories in advance, Rio presents other challenges and opportunities. "This will be in real time," she says. "We'll have a lot more viewers, which is cool for the live TV portion."
Her Sochi experience taught her how to cover one story in more detail and not fret about finding the perfect angle.
"You can sign me up for the Olympics until the end of time," she says. "Rio will be great. It's an interesting city, and it's got some of those same challenges of, Will it be ready?"
Shookman's mother, Becky, says her fearless streak is passed down from her father, who never met a home project or an adventure he wasn't willing to tackle.
"She's always been comfortable figuring out what she needs to do and then doing it," Becky says. "It wasn't scary to her."
It led Shookman to buy a foreclosed Lakewood home in September 2013, despite her parents' protests. They were concerned about the work involved, but she was undeterred.
The week she got the keys, her father was diagnosed with appendiceal cancer.
The home renovation became an important project for the entire family. Scott, when he was feeling up to it, acted as supervising contractor as Shookman and her mother did things such as tiling, painting or simple electrical work.
They finished in February 2014 before she left for Sochi. "I'm so connected to it and all the work that's gone into it," she says of the house. "Maybe I'll have to live there forever."
In February 2015, her father died. He was 58.
A month before, Pickel took three weeks off for a surgical procedure, and Byrnes tapped Shookman to fill in with Mitchell. Close to the end of her assignment, she lamented to her father — who was in hospice care at home — that she was sad the temporary gig was ending.
"He was like, 'I don't know, it's not ending,' " Shookman says fighting back tears. "He said, 'I hear the crowd starting to swell.' Which is one of those dad things that he probably said to me five years ago, and I was like, 'Dad, shut up.'
"But now that's so meaningful, especially because the whole trajectory of last year was so crazy. I never anticipated this [anchor] space was going to be open. Then to be chosen for it, I feel like he's probably had a hand in it."
In December 2011, Romona Robinson, the face of WKYC's newscast for 15 years, signed off for the last time. The station needed a new anchor and was planting early seeds for its "See the Possible" campaign of helping Northeast Ohio move forward.
"It's not completely altruistic," Byrnes notes. "If businesses aren't successful, they're not spending money on advertising."
And to capture those dollars, a station needs viewers. Yet it would take more than seeing the possible to find someone who could draw ratings and fit their mission.
"I had this vision that Russ sort of poked his head up to look, and we went "¢" Byrnes pretends to snatch something out of thin air. "But I think what he felt was this passion about using our platform and our megaphone to really make a difference."
Plain Dealer TV critic Mark Dawidziak, who's been covering local news in Northeast Ohio since 1983, says many were surprised WKYC was bringing in Mitchell.
"This is not the way it's supposed to work," he says. "You're supposed to go from a station about the size of Channel 3 to New York."
Yet, Mitchell showed that the major networks don't have to be the final destination for broadcast news fulfillment. "I was looking for a place to make a difference," he says.
A member of Leadership Cleveland's class of 2014, Mitchell joined the boards of College Now Greater Cleveland and the Press Club of Cleveland. He's also moderated several City Club of Cleveland forums, including the 2014 and '15 states of the city with Mayor Frank Jackson.
"He brings a kind of gravitas and seriousness to the work," says Dan Moulthrop, CEO of the City Club. "He also lifts up civil discourse a bit because he's played on the national stage and understands what happens in Cleveland can matter to the nation."
A month into the job, Mitchell anchored coverage of the Chardon school shooting live from the field. "There is a role for a news anchor that makes you think, The world is going to be OK," Byrnes says. "Russ has the experience and the knowledge and the heart to be that guy. He could be that guy more so than anyone else in this market."
But Clevelanders are fiercely loyal — especially to their news — and a hefty resume might not be enough to make them switch.
Dawidziak notes that in person Mitchell's smarts and sense of humor were clear. "But when you're being the anchor, sometimes that doesn't come through," he says. "A good partner can bring it out."
In April 2012, WKYC hired Pickel, an experienced anchor from California, to be Mitchell's partner a few months after he started. She had no problem drawing out the fun side of him on-air, and they started to build chemistry.
But Fox 8 and its "Cleveland's Own" branding — much of the on-air talent are locals — was still holding strong in the ratings game.
After three years, Pickel left WKYC for a job in Phoenix to be closer to family. "It's hard to say how that would have played out on camera," Dawidziak laments. "It was too short an amount of time."
Byrnes says the station got calls from throughout the country from anchors interested in sitting next to Mitchell. "Which is really flattering for him," she jokes. "All these women want to be next to you, Russ."
But WKYC had an ace in its ranks. Shookman had been anchoring weekend mornings and played a major role in most of the station's big stories such as LeBron James' return and the November 2012 police chase that ended with the deaths of Williams and Russell.
Last summer, WKYC put Shookman next to Mitchell for its 11 p.m. broadcast temporarily. The two had fast chemistry, and she was able to bring out Mitchell's fun side as well.
"It certainly is a tremendous advantage for [WKYC] to say, 'Here we have this national person who chose to come to Cleveland' — Clevelanders like that — 'and with him we are putting somebody who is from here,' " Dawidziak says before letting out a laugh. "Oh, c'mon! Tell me that isn't a marketing dream."
Nina Turner has been here for nearly three hours. It's almost the end of the 6 p.m. newscast, and Mitchell is on-set with Turner and patrolmen's association president Steve Loomis, who recently arrived.
Midway through what's been a somewhat collegial five-minute debate, Mitchell asks Loomis what he'd say to a young African-American male who sees the lack of an indictment as a reason to fear for his life.
"Comply," he says. "On my kids' lives, you will not get hurt if you do what a police officer tells you to do."
Turner, whose son is a cop and husband is a former officer, agrees in principle but not in this case. "Look what happened to Tamir Rice. Less than two seconds of the officers being on the scene," she questions, her voice rising. "Come on now. You talk about comply. That's wrong."
Loomis brushes her point off as spin. As things start to get heated, Mitchell gets the signal from a production assistant on-set to wrap the segment up. He grabs control of the conversation and asks Loomis for a last word.
Turner audibly sighs, perhaps relieved that this is about to be over, as Mitchell waits for Loomis' response. "The last word is a 5-foot-7, 191-pound person ... " Loomis begins.
"Oh, no, uh-uh," Turner says, unable to control herself any longer. "I'm not going to let you do that to that 12-year-old little boy."
The two trade heated barbs: "He's a little boy," Turner says empathetically.
"It'll never get better if you don't keep it real," Loomis fights back.
"No, you keep it real," she says, incensed that Rice's size would be Loomis' last word. "That's wrong. That's wrong."
Mitchell stays quiet, letting them argue for a full 31 emotional seconds.
"That's wrong," she says one last time.
Mitchell grabs the slice of silence her comment creates to find a graceful close.
"Steve Loomis and Nina Turner in a spirited discussion," he says, "one that I'm certain will continue."
"Unemployed or maybe just looking for a better job?" asks Mitchell from behind a pair of safety glasses, while people on a factory floor work behind him.
Shookman, with the city as her backdrop, answers. "Watch Channel 3 News."
That message opens a promo the two filmed last year to help launch WKYC's new jobs initiative. A man on the street laments about putting in applications that go nowhere, while an autoworker says some specialized jobs can net six-figure salaries.
"There are many pathways to success," Mitchell says. "And we plan to explore them in every newscast."
"And on every platform," Shookman adds.
A narrator closes the spot saying, "Channel 3 News, helping you see the possible."
It's easy to dismiss WKYC's "See the Possible" branding campaign as boosterish.
"There are some real issues we are facing in terms of education, in terms of workforce development, in terms of race relations and community policing," Byrnes says. "If we can somehow use the momentum of all this energy and all this attention to create sustainable change, it could be huge."
It's everything Mitchell, who recently signed a new multiyear contract, was looking for when he came to Cleveland. A true managing editor he has a strong voice in the direction of coverage with deep-rooted ideas about fairness, balance and the role of journalists.
But Shookman too has a greater opportunity to be a big part of the newsroom and community. "I am our viewers in a lot of ways," she says. "I grew up here. I'm surrounded by people who we are trying to serve."
She and Mitchell point to this summer's Republican National Convention as a chance to be part of the new national narrative of Cleveland.
"The world will have the chance to see Cleveland in a cinematic way as opposed to snapshots: The river on fire. Three women in a house. LeBron coming back," Mitchell says. "The world will get a reboot of Cleveland."
A similar thing can be said about WKYC's new anchor team. What's possible may be best expressed on days like the Rice grand jury decision, but there are hints of it even on the slow news cycle days before Christmas.
In the middle of the Dec. 22, 2015, 6 p.m. newscast, Mitchell reads a story that Northeast Ohio McDonald's are starting to serve mac "¢n' cheese. The serious newsman cracks a joke about the fast food chain extolling the use of "real cheese." "Imagine that," he says unable to hold back a chuckle while both Shookman and chief meteorologist Betsy Kling laugh.
He goes on, comparing the mac 'n' cheese's 190 calories to the 230 in an order of small french fries. "Are you trying to make me feel guilty about these fries?" Shookman asks Mitchell with a wide-smile.
"No. No," he swears. "Just providing a service to our viewers out there."