Lately, news anchors have felt the need to get out from behind the desk and hit the road for some real, down-and-dirty, shoe-leather reporting.
“I am sort of operating in the reverse,” says CNN's Zain Verjee. “I've been a main anchor on a main show on CNNI for six years, and now I am going to be a correspondent in Washington for whatever I get assigned.”
Since 2000, Verjee has anchored CNN International's Your World Today with Jim Clancy from At­lanta. Now, as a full-time correspondent for CNN early-evening news program, The Situation Room, the native Kenyan hopes to bring the news of the world to U.S. viewers.
“When I spotted her doing some anchoring on CNN International, I pushed hard to get her on my show,” say Situation Room host Wolf Blitzer.
While still remaining a CNNI anchor, Verjee, who is 32, served in a “correspondent-like” capacity on The Situation Room when the show debuted last August.
“She has a huge future in this business,” Blitzer says. “The camera loves her, obviously, and the viewers love her.”
CNN/U.S. President Jon Klein seconds that. “Zain is inquisitive, disarmingly charming, and viewers really connect with her. ”
Verjee's career in journalism began in the late 1990s, when she was pursuing a master's degree in environmental studies. While in Nairobi, working on her thesis about refugee women and management of natural resources, she started filing radio reports on HIV/AIDS and soon took a news and weather job at a radio station.
The thesis was put on hold. Then, in 1998, came the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, around the corner from the station. Her reporting led to stringing for the BBC.
After a stint on Kenyan television, she put in a cold call to CNN. Rena Golden, senior VP of CNN International, does not usually interview cold-callers. “I hadn't intended to hire her,” Golden says. “But she must have called 10 times. She just wowed me.”
Verjee officially joined The Situation Room a few weeks ago. She'll cover domestic stories, but her strong suit is in the international arena.
“As a Kenyan who's lived in America,” Klein says, “she brings our viewers a fresh perspective on issues like the war in the Darfur region of Sudan, the First Lady's trip to Liberia, as well as issues affecting the Arab and Muslim world.”
From the beginning, Verjee admired Blitzer's uncommon focus on international stories. “There's not necessarily an interest in those kinds of stories because they cost more money,” she says.
“They're more dangerous, and it's not necessarily good for ratings. Our show has done more because Wolf has been open to it,” she adds. “We did a 3½-minute story [an epic in the cable news business] on Darfur refugees in Chad.”
She confesses to some homesickness. Still, Verjee is in the U.S. to stay. “I like this environment. It is stimulating. I am forced every day to be a little bit better,” she says. “As soon as I get comfortable, the bar is raised a little bit.”