One of Danielle North’s first big breaks in the local television news business came shortly after college when she was working for WMUR-TV in New Hampshire. Peter Jennings was in town to cover the 1996 presidential race, and North was assigned to assist him.
It turned out that what Jennings really needed was for North to pick him up a pack of cigarettes, presumably to smoke in between live shots. She had every right to be offended by the request, but the quick-witted North used it as a chance to win over the legendary journalist.
“I told him I’d only do it if he told me about his relationship with Barbra Streisand,” she recalled on Monday, 26 years after the fact. Jennings and Streisand were an item for a couple of years in the mid-1990s, and North wanted a little gossip. (The classy Jennings wouldn’t kiss and tell.)
Her attempt at a scoop for smokes isn’t the most interesting story North has ever told (it’s not like she planned to go on air to share the steamy details), but the gumption she displayed in that moment is part of what helped her become one of the most talented local TV anchors in Rhode Island over the past two decades. The combination of charm and empathy makes her easy to talk to, both on and off camera.
So when I heard last week that North was leaving WPRI Channel 12, my first instinct was that she had been scooped up by one of the major networks for a boatload of money, a move that isn’t uncommon in markets like Rhode Island.
North is stepping away from the anchor desk in the prime of her career for a gig in the private sector, and it’s not because her contract isn’t being renewed or that she had some falling out with her team. In fact, her chemistry with co-anchor Patrick Little, meteorologist Michelle Muscatello, and traffic reporter Melissa Sardelli is what gives North the energy to wake up at 2:30 every morning so she can be on air at 4:30 a.m.
No, North is leaving because of the news.
You have to go back to a non-Jennings moment early in her career to understand where North is coming from.
It was the summer of 1997, and North was trying to process, and still report out, the shooting deaths of New Hampshire state troopers Scott Phillips and Leslie Lord. Just hours later, a new police officer who had attended those funerals was killed in a shootout, and North was assigned to cover that death, too.
Only this one hit even closer to home. The officer who was killed was Jeremy Charron, and North grew up with his family. He was the president of their senior class at Hillsboro-Deering High School only five years earlier.
“I showed up to the scene not knowing it was Jeremy,” North said. “And then it all hit me.”
Journalists don’t usually get a lot of time to process the news they’re covering, and God knows they’re not always paid enough to afford a good therapist to talk about their work. In smaller markets especially, it’s also not uncommon to cover tragedies involving people you know, as North learned years later while covering The Station nightclub fire here in Rhode Island.
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “if it bleeds, it leads,” about television news over the years, and it can feel that way at times. But those stories are often the most important subject of the day, and it has been North’s job as an anchor to talk viewers through those tragedies over the years.
North had three young kids at home when she covered the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Her husband Al is firefighter in East Providence, and she has always gone to work knowing that he could be involved in the next fire or mass casualty event.
She almost called it quits seven years ago after the coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people, including 90 at the Bataclan theatre. She called a friend to cheer her up: Frank Picozzi, a Warwick contractor who is known for putting on the best Christmas light display in all of Rhode Island, invited her over for a private viewing.
This being Rhode Island, Picozzi is now the mayor of Warwick.
“He just made me smile,” North recalled. “I needed that.”
Flash forward to this October when two police officers in Bristol, Connecticut, were killed in a planned rampage, and North, for the first time, lost it on air. During the noon news that day, North began to cry as she told viewers about yet another shooting tragedy.
And that’s when she decided it was time for a change.
She put together a resume that for the first time in her career didn’t involve a highlight reel, and started interviewing. She’s staying at Channel 12 until the end of January, and said she’ll announce her future plans sometime in the next couple of weeks.
North said she has plenty of happy memories from her tenure at the station, and having worked with her for six years before I joined the Globe, I can vouch that she is beloved by her colleagues. She’s a mentor to young reporters, the life of the annual Christmas party, and the smiling face that you can’t wait to see during marathon blizzard coverage.
It won’t be easy saying goodbye to the only job she ever wanted. As a five-year-old growing up in Salem, Massachusetts, she remembers meeting legendary TV and radio host Dave Maynard, and her infatuation with television news started. She attended middle and high school in New Hampshire, and she went on to Lyndon State College (which is now Northern Vermont University-Lyndon).
“How lucky are we to witness sunrises every day?” North said. “You’re going to miss your work family. This is where I grew up.”
She knows what she won’t miss, too: The tragedies that always send her right back to thinking about Jeremy Charron’s death all those years ago.
“Over time, it has a cumulative effect on you,” North said.