Hot List 2005: Dan Harris

Jul 18, 2005  •  Post A Comment

In a business known for encouraging oversized egos, ABC News correspondent Dan Harris has become known as much for his self-deprecating humor as for his evolution into one of ABC News’ most enterprising reporters and graceful writers.

“Dan Harris will tell you he was the least likely to succeed member of his high school class. I don’t believe him, but that’s what he will tell you,” said Tom Melville, the assistant news director at Boston-based New England Cable News. Mr. Melville attended Newton South High School in suburban Boston about a dozen years before Mr. Harris. “If you listen to him talk, he was a complete screw-up in high school. I’ve never known him as a screw-up.”

Then-“World News Tonight” executive producer Paul Slavin met Mr. Harris as the result of a mistake in a Harris story for weekend “World News.” Mr. Slavin so admired Mr. Harris’ attitude about correcting the story that “I put him on the [weeknight show].”

Mr. Slavin and Mr. Melville said they quickly came to know Mr. Harris as a young man with the right kind of ambition, boundless energy and curiosity, a way with words and a sure sense of what a story needs.

Mr. Harris described himself as “fashion-dyslexic. I keep like 17 ties in my office and I’m always running down to somebody with some fashion sense to ask which goes with the shirt I’m wearing.”

He has much more confidence about his reporting and writing, but said, “I like other people’s judgment. I do like the process of having somebody smarter than me go over my pieces. In some ways it protects you from making a really bad mistake, but also it makes you look good.”

These are traits he has honed on a short list of jobs since graduating with honors from Maine’s Colby College in 1993. He had already held a number of TV news internships but said he wavered between being a lawyer or a paralegal until a mentor at WGBH-TV asked, rhetorically, “Are you a moron? Go see if you can get a job in a small market.”

Clearly he was not a moron, though no one seemed impressed by the tape of a story he’d done during an internship in Washington. “I sent my tape out all over the country. I was rejected everywhere. Everywhere.”

Eventually he landed a job at WLBZ-TV in Bangor, Maine, where he was paid $5.50 an hour to work the studio camera and write scripts. “I had a good news director who taught me how to do that,” said Mr. Harris, referring to Judy Horan, now the president and general manager of the Gannett-owned NBC affiliate.

“I was 22, shaggy, still in the habit from college of wearing shoes without socks. I don’t know what she saw, but she let me go on the air. She even made me the morning cut-in anchor for the ‘Today’ show. We didn’t have our own morning show, but we did do the cut-ins. I came in at 4 in the morning. That was how I learned how to anchor. It was a great job,” Mr. Harris said.

Mr. Harris credits “irascible” photographers at WLBZ and Gannett-owned WCSH-TV in Portland, Maine, with teaching him how to tell a story for TV. The photographers would talk about what were their “best pictures and the most compelling ways to start and end the piece.”

Those conversations instilled in him the determination to work into a story whatever they left the scene talking about, even if it didn’t go directly to the main point of the story.

During his three years at NECN, Mr. Harris learned how to produce long-form reports and in-depth series “soup to nuts, start to finish. And he did a magnificent job,” Mr. Melville said.

His hiring by ABC News in March 2000 was, in more ways than one, fortuitous.

“They hired this 28-year-old kid who they thought might be funny as an overnight anchor and who had sort of dim hopes of ever turning into a correspondent, then all of a sudden, I just became one,” Mr. Harris said. “I like to anchor, but at my age, I think it’s most important, I’ve got to say this without sounding disingenuous, but it’s true, the most important thing is to earn my wings as a reporter.”

Mr. Harris has done that at Ground Zero and in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, to name a few assignments that kept him away from home base in New York for an average of eight months a year.

In a confessional moment, he said it wasn’t until he went on the 2004 presidential campaign trail and sought advice that he learned the secret to packing for anything-goes assignments. Colleague John Berman uttered the magic words: “Get a big suitcase.”

Mr. harris said, “I used to spend hours strategizing how to get everything in without ever thinking, literally, outside the box about getting a bigger suitcase.”

His schedule of late has allowed him to sit in as occasional anchor on “World News,” “Nightline” and “Good Morning America.”

He has also, at the prodding of Mr. Slavin, become one of ABC News’s most prolific and effective story pitchers.

“Dan will every day send to ‘World News’ and other broadcasts, ‘Here are the stories I can do today, 1, 2, 3, 4, which are pegged to or add value to today’s stories.’ So he is now thinking like the executive producer of that program to add value to what it is he does.”

Mr. Slavin for one thinks “There’s nothing Dan can’t do or grow to do.”

“It has been so far a process of being shocked that I have whatever job I have,” said Mr. Harris, who contends he never really has a career plan. “The industry is changing so much that it’s hard to set your eye on some sort of a goal because I don’t know that that job will exist by the time I’m a grown-up.”

Scouting Report

Title: ABC News correspondent

Date of birth: July 26, 1971

Place of birth: Washington

Big break: Mr. Harris was hired by ABC News in March 2000 to succeed Anderson Cooper as co-anchor of the cult-fave overnight program “World News Now.” But when Mr. Cooper, now with CNN, remained with ABC, Mr. Harris slipped into the role of network correspondent.

Who knew? Mr. Harris is an indie rock savant. “If it’s obscure British indie rock bands, he knows it,” said ABC News Senior VP Paul Slavin, whom Mr. Harris has turned on to such groups as the Foxy Morons.