As if one job in television news isn’t enough, Jonathan Greenberger now has two–the executive producer of This Week with George Stephanopoulos recently got promoted to vice president and bureau chief of the Washington, D.C. office of ABC News.
And he is only 31 years old, by the way. The secret to his success?
Well, Greenberger is known as a smart, innovative, and hard-working news junkie, but a lack of fear just might be another key to his ascent at ABC News. As you’ll read below, Greenberger, who has come up through the ranks of the news organization in the last decade, hasn’t been afraid to make detours along the way, going where his interests have taken him rather than desperately clinging to each rung on the career ladder.
Here, Greenberger takes Co.Create through his path while sharing advice for those who want to work in television news.
Greenberger will be the first to tell you that you can make a living doing something you actually enjoy, though he admits that it took some prodding for him to see the light–more on that in a bit.
Backing up well over a decade, Greenberger exhibited a passion for media in high school. He was editor of his high school newspaper, and he did a month-long internship during his senior year at WBNS-10TV, a CBS affiliate in Columbus, Ohio.
Still, Greenberger didn’t seriously consider a career in media. In fact, after high school, he went on to study economics at Washington University in St. Louis, and despite serving as editor of his college newspaper and interning at ABC News’ political unit in Washington between his junior and senior years of college (see a pattern here?), Greenberger did what sensible econ majors do during senior year–he interviewed for jobs with investment banks and consulting firms.
Then his mother called him one day and said, “You know, you can actually choose to do something professionally that you enjoy,” and Greenberger had what he describes as one of those light bulb moments. “I don’t know why, but that hadn’t really clicked for me before,” he muses, “but it was good advice.”
Just days after graduation, Greenberger was back at ABC News, working as the assistant to George Stephanopoulos.
Any young person might understandably be intimidated in their first job, but Greenberger didn’t hesitate to share his opinions with Washington insider Stephanopoulos when it came to what should be covered on This Week.
“George was recently talking to me about this and kind of laughing about it,” Greenberger says, continuing, “When I started out as his assistant, about three weeks in, I just decided to walk into his office and say, ‘You know, I think we should really be doing this this weekend.’ It was some story idea. Not that this is a hierarchical place because it is really not, but I didn’t really know any better, and I was just willing to go there.”
Thankfully, Greenberger’s enthusiasm–as well as his ideas–were appreciated. Early on, he established himself as more than a mere employee but someone who cared about and had a stake in the success of the show.
Greenberger held all sorts of posts in his first four years working on This Week, doing everything from research to producing. “One piece of advice that I give to people when they’re walking in the door is to just try as much as you can. Just raise your hand and volunteer,” Greenberger says, pointing out, “Television is unique in that there are so many different jobs.”
Greenberger thrived at ABC News for four years and had a great future at the network, but he left to attend Stanford Law. He is from a family of lawyers, and clearly, there was still a part of him that wasn’t fully committed to the idea of a career in media at that point even though he loved the work.
After two-and-a-half years at Stanford, Greenberger took a year off and went back to ABC News to work on The Week as a senior producer, knowing he would return to Stanford to finish his degree. “I had no pressure because I thought, ‘This is just kind of an interlude. I’m going to go back to law school, and I’ll go be a lawyer. I can kind of have fun. I’m not going for the next big thing. I don’t have to position myself. I’m really just doing a job and enjoying it, and I’m going to do the best that I can,’ ” Greenberger says, noting, “It was very liberating to have that kind of freedom.”
When the year-long stint at The Week concluded, Greenberger returned to Stanford to finish his education and lined up a job at a big law firm before he graduated. “I had no expectations of returning [to ABC News] this third time,” he says. But then Robin Sproul, ABC News Washington bureau chief at the time, and Stephanopoulos called him, and, well, Greenberger couldn’t say no when they offered him the job of executive producer of This Week.
Law school was not a waste of time, by the way. “Law school teaches you to be a really critical thinker about the world and to look at what’s being said and what’s not being said and how those things fit together, and I think that those critical thinking skills will always serve me well,” Greenberger says. “It’s those soft skills but really important skills that I draw on every single day.”
Now that he is in charge, Greenberger isn’t afraid to experiment with how This Week is produced, and he encourages his staff to do so, too. “The only thing I ask of them is that each Sunday be better than the previous one,” Greenberger says. “So part of the challenge is being willing to try things and to put on a guest even if you’re not quite sure if it’s going to work.”
If something doesn’t work, then you learn from it, Greenberger reasons. “You figure out what could have made it better. I think of it as a cumulative thing. You try this here, you try this there, and you learn over time as you see what works and what didn’t work.”
Case in point: When Greenberger first became executive producer of This Week in 2013, he believed that the show had to be 100% live. In his mind, the show would lack energy if any of it was pre-taped, and viewers would feel the difference. But Greenberger ultimately decided to go against conventional wisdom in Sunday-morning television and slowly introduced pre-taped interviews to the program. The result: “Probably 40% of the show is taped pieces, and I would never have expected that,” he admits. “It really was not what I expected to find out. But, again, it was iterative, week by week, an incremental thing. You try a little bit of it, and you see how it works.”
“I’m a firm believer in being willing to fail creatively. That’s how you learn,” Greenberger stresses. “You have to take reasonable risks because that leads to innovation. That’s what the industry we are in is all about, especially right now in 2014. It’s about innovating and pushing forward to the future. It’s being comfortable with getting it wrong but also really believing in learning from when you get it wrong and doing the postmortem and doing the difficult work to really figure out, ‘How do we make that better? How do we learn from that?’ ”
Greenberger has gotten quite an education from Stephanopoulos and talks about learning everything from how to approach important policy issues to how to make television over the years they have worked together.
To this day, Greenberger feeds off of Stephanopoulos’s intellect and energy, noting that he strives to keep up with his anchor, which can only make him better at his job. “He is as critical a thinker as anybody you’ll ever encounter, and it’s almost like being back in law school to have a conversation with him,” Greenberger says. “He is always pushing you to think, ‘Well, have we considered this angle? And what about this?’ ”
Ben Sherwood, who was up until recently president of ABC News (he will assume the titles of co-chairman of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney/ABC Television Group in early 2015), has also been an inspiration to Greenberger. “He is able to do both the really big picture, that big picture vision stuff, but he also cares so much about the details, and I knew that I couldn’t get anything past Ben Sherwood on the air,” Greenberger reflects. “If I had a typo in the lower third, everybody could miss it, but I knew I would get that call–even if it was a holiday weekend–from Ben Sherwood. He drives people to do their best. He’s a role model to me in how I can drive others to do their best.”