Tell and trust
Covering the news this past year has felt like trying to sip water from a fire hose. There's a deadline every second, and the environment is so competitive. But trust is the most important commodity out there and is obtained by imparting the truth. The entire team and I have a relentless appetite for truth. We also try to deliver hard news with heart — storytelling that creates an emotional connection. As my mother always says, “If you capture someone's heart, you capture their mind."
A story above all others
I'm from a military family and have spent the last two decades talking about the incalculable cost to human lives after 9/11 and the strain it's put on so many people. But the global pandemic has been unlike any other story in my entire career, because it brought every single one of our lives to a screeching halt. And it affected my own family in a very profound way.
My husband [a restaurateur] had to completely transform his business. And that meant letting go of a whole bunch of servers who were making a decent living. I think the next story that's going to be told is how this global pandemic has exacerbated what was already a huge wealth gap.
I have three kids [a 12-year-old and 13-year-old twins], and in the beginning, when a lot of people were not comfortable coming to work, my children were put to work in the restaurant. They were running the takeout food and rolling the napkins and doing the ketchup packets. And they learned to appreciate just how hard the work is. I'd go by at 8 o'clock, and they'd be like, “Oh, my feet hurt, Mom. This is really tough.” And I'd say, “You've only been here four hours.” [laughs]
Listen and learn
I once told a female boss at NBC, “I'm totally worn out. Do you really need me to do this?” And she said, “Don't ever tell anyone you're tired or you won't get another opportunity like this again.” Maybe times are changing — people can show more vulnerability — but I thought it was good advice and still do. Nobody wants to hear you whine. Just do your job. And that's what I try to do.
A cancer scare … and an appendectomy
Mine was a melanoma caught early, and I learned that I really should have been less foolish when I was younger in taking care of myself. And my kids learned that they don't ever want cancer, so they're a lot better about wearing sunscreen. The appendectomy was just such a fluke but very scary. After the surgery I said, “I will never take for granted a pain-free day in my life."
All we need is … help
We did not have a lot of money growing up. My parents are very frugal people. So part of my desire was to build the life that I wanted. I imagined it and sought it. If you're a working woman, if you're going through a medical crisis, if you have an aging parent — you have to have a strong support system. No one does anything alone.
Happiness is …
Not having an alarm clock! I mean, for seven years I was waking up at 4 a.m. [to cohost CBS This Morning], so now I just wake up on my own around 5:45 and read the paper in bed without having to go anywhere. That actually brings me joy.
And for a rollicking good time …
I exercise! I really enjoy it. I grew up exercising — my parents were my soccer coaches. In San Antonio it was so hot we went swimming every day, and we played sports in school. I like to run, golf, play tennis, take walks with my husband. It's what keeps me centered.
A line a day
Before I took over at CBS Evening News, a friend said to me, “I want you to just write the date down and write one sentence, every day. It's not a diary, just a sentence about how you feel or one interesting thing that happened, because the next year of your life is going to be incredible.” Two years later, I'm glad I did that, because daily reflection is one of the most important human elements. As they say, the days last forever, but the years fly by.
And one more thing!
I think real, practical stuff should be taught in school. Like daily writing, how to balance a checkbook, apply for a mortgage, read the stock market and how to invest. And how to get tax deductions! Nobody understands the tax code, and it can treat people so unequally if you don't understand it. That's my couple of cents.
—As told to Marilyn Milloy
Emmy award–winning journalist Norah O'Donnell, 47, lives and works in Washington, D.C., where CBS Evening News is produced.