Knoxville News Anchor Beth Haynes Reflects on 20 Years at WBIR-TV
For the last 20 years, Beth Haynes (’98) has elevated the people, stories, and community of Knoxville through her platform as a news anchor at WBIR-TV. Haynes has an aptitude for looking at a topic or issue and seeing the people first, and handling even the most difficult stories with deep compassion and respect. Recently, the long-time journalist announced she was leaving her position at the station to spend more time with her family, and to explore new pursuits in her career.
“I love being an advocate in this community. We would see first-hand the real need, the issues, and we need to bring that to attention and be a voice for those who are voiceless, and that’s what I really enjoyed about the job,” Haynes said.
Her Dream Profession
Haynes said she was one of those rare children who knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up by the age of nine, and sure enough, she fulfilled that childhood dream. It started in the fourth grade, when she began entering speech contests sponsored by the Optimist Club, and the wheels kept turning from there. The Athens, Tenn. native then got a chance to be part of a children’s news reporter program led by Chattanooga’s WTVC-TV news personality Marcia Kling, who helped Haynes learn the importance of enunciation and encouraged her throughout high school to continue pursuing her journalism goals.
When Haynes began looking at campuses, she chose the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, because of its size and opportunities. She majored in Communications studying broadcast journalism, and after an internship with the Senate Government Affairs Committee in Washington, D.C. she decided to minor in political science.
During her time at UT, Haynes said she took advantage of hands-on opportunities offered to students, and loved getting the chance to gain practical skills she’d later use in the newsroom. Though she knew she wanted to be an on-air personality, she appreciated learning every bit of production from shooting and editing to developing sources and building relationships. Gaining the full experience of newsroom work, behind and in front of the camera, served her well throughout her career and in the relationships she made at her workplaces.
But for Haynes, living in Knoxville and participating in campus activities was an even broader education, one that she continues today: learning about different people from varying backgrounds, and being open-minded about others’ unique experiences and perspectives.
“My first semester, my mom knew I’d be homesick, so she told me not to come home until after Thanksgiving. I think she knew that I might miss out on new experiences on campus,” Haynes recounted. “So I learned to take those calculated risks, to step out of my comfort zone, and to meet people and grow and expand my horizon.
Starting a Journalism Career
Though Haynes knew she wanted to tell stories in a newsroom, she couldn’t pass up an opportunity offered to her right after graduation to intern at Walt Disney World in their media relations department. It was there that she learned all the ins-and-outs of the other side of media, the one that coordinates and sets up stories and visits from journalists, and writes press releases and pitches stories for news coverage.
It was at Disney that she learned just how much she loved telling people’s stories.
“I’m very grateful for the high standard I learned there. It was very much about storytelling and branding and connecting with people and drawing on those memories and heartfelt moments. I think that’s something I’ve carried with me, especially with branding and who you are and what you want to represent,” she said.
She took everything she learned at Disney and UT into her next position as a news anchor and multimedia journalist at a small local station in Hopkinsville, Ky., where she “wore many hats” and produced newscasts, acted as news director, and even stepped in to do the weather at one point.
“I learned every aspect of the job and that made me a better storyteller and it made me a better journalist, reporter, and news anchor. It really made me understand what my colleagues had to do. I worked in that newsroom for nine months, shot all my B-roll, edited all my news content, wrote all my news content, then I went to a Fox affiliate in Macon, Ga.,” she said.
In that time of journalism, the way to work up the ladder was to get a little time at one position while looking for a big break at a larger news outlet, and Haynes was no different. While she was in Macon she once again took on multiple roles as a news anchor and multimedia journalist, or as they called it, “a one-man bander,” who hauled around gear that weighed almost as much as she did.
“I worked nights, I worked weekends, it was hard and taxing physically, mentally, and emotionally. I did it, as many journalists do, because I was passionate about news and storytelling,” she said.
Once Haynes was ready for her next news job, she started making and mailing hundreds of tapes of her work to every news director she could—to the point where workers in the three post offices she patronized were on a first-name basis with her. If she was near a news affiliate, she’d drop in and try to speak with the news director. Finding that end-game job was practically a job in and of itself, but she had the fire to become a news anchor and to make an impact.
Coming Back to Knoxville
Haynes got her break when she interviewed to be a “Live At 5” reporter at WBIR-TV, and she recalls that day very clearly for many reasons. As she sat and waited for her interview, a man with a “larger-than-life personality” walked into the room and began chatting with her about why she was there. It turns out he was Russell Biven, who would eventually be her co-anchor for many years. Looking back, Haynes still shakes her head in wonderment at how the woman who interviewed that day had no idea what the next 20 years held for her.
It wasn’t long after she was hired at the station that she stepped into the co-anchor role and began her journey of telling the stories of Knoxville and its surrounding community. Out of the many issues she covered during her time at WBIR-TV, three series stand out in her mind, each of which still bring her emotions to the surface when she recalls them. She started with the topic that was the most deeply personal one: infertility.
“When I first brought the series up to my news director I said, ‘I’ve got an idea here.’ I had struggled with infertility, I wasn’t able to have kids. Through that process, I thought, ‘Now wait a minute. People are suffering alone.’ I thought, ‘We really need to spotlight it.’ I want to connect with women and our viewers to share their stories,” Haynes recalled.
At first, she fell back on the “old guard” way of approaching journalism, which is to never insert ones’ self into a story. But as she interviewed various women about their infertility journeys, and saw how vulnerable and brave they were, she realized it was time to share her own story.
In a similar vein of difficult stories to tell, Haynes also highlights a series she did about teen suicide in response to multiple teens who died by suicide within a few months of each other. Those were hard conversations, but good ones, that she believes reduced stigma and shed light on how teenagers and others going through depression can be better supported in efforts to prevent such tragedies.
Finally, her series on East Knoxville touched on everything she’s loved about being a journalist in Knoxville. She learned about the rich history of the once-thriving Magnolia Avenue, and the effects of urban sprawl, gentrification, and other issues that over the years have affected those who live in East Knoxville. Haynes said whether it was reporting these in-depth series, or heart-warming stories, or more tragic incidents, she wanted to ensure every story she told was about the people involved.
“I love the heart of the story and being able to connect, and getting someone’s trust. You have to have that empathy and respect for people, and you have to listen. That’s what I really enjoyed most, connecting and developing those relationships and gaining that trust and sharing their story. The heart of the story is sometimes overlooked,” she said. “That Volunteer spirit is something you have to live. The WBIR-TV brand, ‘Straight from the heart’—that wasn’t just words. It is a way of living. It doesn’t mean that you don’t tackle the hard stories. It means you do it with respect and care at the forefront.”
As for the next part of Haynes’ own story, she’s still not sure what it is. With the advent of new platforms and technology such as podcasts, social media, and blogs, there are plenty of avenues she could take.
“I’m not starting over, just starting a new chapter, and it’s OK not to know. It’s probably the first time since I was nine that I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up. As Russell Biven has recently said, ‘Get ready to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.’,” Haynes said.