Mark Jennings led 3 News for over a quarter of a century. Today it was announced he is stepping down. David Farrier, one of countless journalists to have worked and learned under him, pays tribute to a New Zealand journalism legend.
Oh God, it was just awful. I was sitting in Mark Jennings’ office. It was the same office he had when I started at TV3 back in 2005 as an intern. Now it was a decade later. I’d aged considerably. He looked exactly the same. And then it happened. I just started crying, sobbing, gasping. Some snot came out my nose. “I’m so-so-sorry” I trembled. He looked back and gave a little giggle.
I was having a minor panic attack at the prospect of presenting TV3’s new late-night news show. I would be hosting it with seasoned presenter Samantha Hayes, who was younger than me, but infinitely more experienced at this sort of thing. I’d said “yes” to doing the show, then realised I had never presented a TV show before, and also hated live TV. I was great at filing weird little two-minute items, but felt physically ill the few times I had to do live crosses. And I’d realised I’d signed up to do a 30-minute live cross every fucking night. Jesus.
And Mark did what only Mark would do: He giggled, then he talked to me. For ages. I won’t go on about what we talked about, but during that conversation – he gave me an out. Despite me already signing up, he basically said, “If you want out, I’d rather you get out now than hate the next year of your life”.
I ended up doing the show and I am bloody glad I did, as I was super proud of it, learned a tonne, and got over my nerves. And it was all thanks to that conversation. Because as well as an escape route he also did what he constantly did over a decade for so, so many people: He put things in context, he was encouraging, and he giggled.
Catching up with Mark (for a cry, or a chat) was both terribly difficult and dreadfully easy. If you went through his PA, and got slotted in his diary, it was a nightmare. Because Mark worked his ass off, chances are you’d turn up for that meeting, and he’d be off fixing some disaster, or sticking up for the newsroom at some deranged boardroom meeting, or giving an encouraging talk at a journalism school (which is where I first met him).
But Mark would often have his door slightly ajar – and the thing was, if he was sitting in his office going through 300 unread messages he’d received that day, he wouldn’t mind you slipping in, sitting down, and having an impromptu chat.
Just before the 6pm news started would be the best time. We’d both sit, watch the lead story, and talk. And it didn’t have to be about anything in particular; he just liked to riff. And it wasn’t just with me – he riffed with so many reporters and producers. Because he cared.
He cared about news, because he cared about people. Because he understood that news was all about people: whether it was the people in the stories, or the people making them. Yes, he knew it was a numbers game, but this was secondary to the humans involved.
I have so much respect for Jennings. Observing from my lil’ corner of the newsroom, I had nothing but admiration for him. Throughout many changes on level two of TV3, he remained this one constant factor. While levels three and four panicked about marketing, numbers, and countless reality shows, Mark stood up for news. He backed his team.
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While bosses at TVNZ changed quicker than Nicolas Cage’s hairstyle, Jennings remained. He gave strange, awkward and wonderful speeches at countless farewells for other staff. Last year, he gave far too many. Now it’s him going, and I just worry about who will do his speech. I have a feeling some of the good staff will return for that night, and stand with the good ones that remain. They will tell some kickass stories, and someone will make a joke about Jennings’ old moustache.
Jennings will giggle a bit, and heaps of people will do some crying.
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