Since his 2008 debut as a general-assignment reporter at WISC-Channel 3, David Douglas has made a mark, lending him the aura of a rising star destined for some big-city television news constellation.
"I like him," says Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz. "I've always felt that he treated me fairly. He asks smart questions" and "does as much preparation as any reporter I know."
"He's very diligent," concurs Joel DeSpain, public information officer for the Madison Police Department and, before that, a longtime WISC veteran himself. DeSpain expresses respect for Douglas' adoption of Facebook, mobile uploads and Twitter (@News3David) as tools to extend contemporary broadcast journalism.
Reporting from the White House lawn, the opening of a new Madison police training center, a Portage flood, a Monona Terrace bomb scare or a Capitol Square bike race, Douglas has drawn notice among bloggers and viewers for his versatility and a seasoned approach that belies his youthful appearance.
By the time he landed in Madison, he had covered the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre during his tenure at the NBC affiliate in Charlottesville, Va., and done a rigorous stint in Miami.
Douglas traces his career ambitions to childhood. Born in 1984 in Greenville, S.C., he grew up "in a home where the news was always on." Before he was born, he notes, his mother had worked as an assistant to the executive producer for NBC's Today Show. An only child, he was raised by his mother in the realm of adults, the sole kid on his block until he was 10.
A sixth-grade field trip lit the fuse on his career aspirations when he watched the local CBS affiliate's noon news produced live.
"Television hooked me."
Television shows you things you can't see any other way, says Douglas, citing its power to broadcast high-definition footage of houses washing into the Wisconsin River as an earthen dam gives way and a draining lake consumes them.
He is also captivated by the medium's capacity for interviews. One night, for example, he talked to an African American fifth-grader from Elvehjem Elementary during a school board meeting about a charter-school proposal. Douglas asked him how many other African American kids were in his class. The fifth-grader looked down, pondered, looked up, answered, "none," and looked back down at the floor.
Douglas followed up, asking how he might feel about going to school with more African American students. He said, "It would make me happy." Douglas asked why, and he said, "Because sometimes I feel embarrassed."
As Douglas recounts this story, his voice softens: "To see his face, and how he reacted and processed, and how he was almost having a journey of self-discovery in that moment, was powerful."
Douglas earned a degree in broadcast communications at North Carolina's Elon University, and his career climbed a steep arc to Miami, where he worked with the CBS affiliate's Emmy-winning chief investigative correspondent on reports about human trafficking in south Florida. Driving out to the fields to talk to migrant workers one day, she tossed a copy of The New York Times at him and insisted he read it aloud. "If you're going to be on television," she coached, "you've got to lose your Southern regionalism." He has learned to suppress the dialect, Douglas says, but "believe me, I can pull it out if I want to."
His first jobs drilled him in the importance of initiative, of beating rivals to stories. "If you're not doing something different, there's no reason for people to choose you," says Douglas, confessing to a competitive streak.
"He's an aggressive reporter [who] brings a lot of ideas to the table," says WISC news director Colin Benedict, who hired Douglas and hails his enthusiasm for investigative and long-form stories. Douglas' work stands out amid the sometimes-fluffy stories reported by local news, and his style makes him a good fit for the 10 p.m. newscast and its efforts to go beyond the events of the day by providing viewers with greater analysis and depth.
Benedict credits Douglas with an "underdog mentality" that doesn't accept things at face value. He excels, says Benedict, at "asking the question after the question that everyone asks."
In transitioning from Southern markets in red states to one of the bluest cities in the upper Midwest, Douglas has proved a quick study. There is less overt corruption here than in other markets where he has lived and worked, he says.
This has required him to adapt. Elsewhere, he explains, his doggedness often met with respect and a willingness to be more forthcoming. Here, he learned early that public officials and law-enforcement authorities were less appreciative. "You had to back off to get somewhere," he says.
There are compensations to this change in approach, notes Douglas, citing the opportunity to cover stories that might not fly in other markets - stories with an emotional element transcending straight facts.
The story he did about an 8-year-old boy who drowned in Sauk County comes to mind. At the mention of it, the word "awful" escapes his lips as a whisper, and he starts to tear up.
How does he protect his own emotions on a story like this? "Sometimes you don't," says Douglas, his voice quavering. "That little boy," he says, bringing his fist down on the table, "you just, sometimes you don't." Deep inhalation. "You have to be able to do your job and not get emotionally involved at the moment."
Another bang on the table. Another deep breath. A sigh. Veteran WISC anchor Susan Siman walks past, notices his distress, ducks her head through the door. "You okay?" she asks. "We were just talking about that boy who drowned in Sauk County," he replies, "and it just totally got to me."
Siman's first impressions of Douglas included his youthful appearance, which is hard to escape. Some people have called him Doogie Howser, she says, noting that it fuels his drive.
If the youthful visage is his cross to bear, "David's gift is that he's real," observes Siman, calling him "one of the hardest workers I have ever seen in my life." To get a story first and to get it right, she says, "he'll stay overnight, over the weekend, whatever it takes." She likens him to the student becoming the master: "To sit in the assignment meeting with David is sort of intimidating."
Whatever his career destiny, for now, "David is the person you want on a big story," Siman says. "In a newsroom, that's probably the highest compliment I can give anybody."
He is "also the person you want to take to Oakwood Village when they're having a potluck," she adds, "because he's warm and friendly. He'll talk to you until the cows come home, and he gets very emotional."
This, she suggests, may burnish viewers' sense of his authenticity. "He really is the consummate professional," she says. But she has seen the way stories marinate in him long after they're news.
Sequestering one's emotions may be a professional obligation, Douglas allows, but "I think you need to feel a little human" to deliver your best work on a story.
Reporting from the White House lawn in November, for example, "I was very nervous that I would be very nervous," Douglas confesses, "because obviously it's a big deal. It's not something I get to do every day."
On Nov. 16, President Obama awarded Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta the Medal of Honor for, among other acts of heroism, preventing the capture of mortally wounded Sgt. Joshua Brennan, of McFarland. As he did his homework on the story, Douglas' anxiety yielded to a determination that "we're here to do this. Let's do it."
He does not always enjoy the luxury of abundant preparation time. The clock starts at 1:30 p.m., when he gets his assignment for the day. His job is to learn as much as he can about that story within seven or eight hours, when it is due on the air.
Obliged to uphold his employer's reputation, he is a jealous guardian of his credibility - a currency that can't be squandered. There have been a couple times, he says, when he has had to tell his producers that a piece was not ready. He is compelled to dig, to learn, to craft stories with depth.
In Charlottesville, Douglas was used to be being recognized and approached by the public. But "it blew me away how quickly it happened in this town," he says. Within days of his first on-air appearances here, Douglas says, people were saying hello. He attributes this, in part, to being the Southern kid. "I look like I'm 12, to a lot of people," he says, resigned.
Douglas is philosophical about the attention. "The way I see it, that person is doing me a favor by watching our news and choosing us over another source of information. For whatever reason, they've developed some sort of connection with me, and they want to say hello."
He can't fault anybody for that. "I meet so many people who say so many nice things."
David Douglas: The Appendix
On his left ring finger: Nothing. "The timing is not right for me to be married," Douglas says. "I have a boyfriend."
Home: A modest west-side apartment, "nothing fancy."
Size of his Facebook tribe: 748.
Reading list: A Rock and a Hard Place, by Aaron Ralston; now finishing Imperial Life in the Emerald City ("but I've been finishing it for a while") and starting Sebastian Junger's best-selling War.
Music: Grew up on Top 40, now favors country (Lady Antebellum, Rascal Flatts, Gloriana).
Fitness regimen: An avid cyclist and Tour de France fan, Douglas rides a Trek 2300 road bike and works out six days a week at a west-side gym.
Admires: Veteran NBC Middle East correspondent Martin Fletcher. "If I could do anything," Douglas says, "I'd be a war correspondent."