Career change brings former CNN reporter to Huntsville

Making it to the top is not any easy task and for many journalists, starting at the bottom is the only way to move up. Former CNN correspondant and new Dan Rather Chair of the Mass Communication Department Kelli Arena worked her way from being an intern at a new cable news station to becoming the News Editor for CNN and, eventually, the correspondent for the Department of Justice.

Arena went to college at Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, where she majored in film. In 1984, the summer before her senior year of college, Arena applied late for an internship.

“There was this little place called CNN that nobody knew about and that’s what was left,” Arena said.

CNN had just started out in 1980 and many people did not have cable television then, so Arena got “stuck” with the leftover internship.

She decided to stay with CNN for the rest of the year and after graduation, CNN offered her a job.

“I thought, ‘You know what? I’ll take this job for a couple of months,’ and 24 years later I was still there,” said Arena.

Arena started off as a production assistant in the business unit that covered markets and the economy, which Arena said she knew nothing about. CNN was then small enough that it had the capacity to really train and mentor its employees.

“They don’t train anymore because now when you come you have to know what you are doing,” Arena said. “CNN is the big time.”

Eventually, she went on to writing, weekend show producing, working on daily shows and eventually becoming a daily show producer. During that time, she produced a show called “Money Line” with Lou Dobbs. From there, Arena moved on to to news management where she oversaw a staff of more than 100 people around the world, and over a course of 8 years of working at CNN, she worked her way up to news editor. Arena went on the air in 1993 as an international business reporter and traveled to London where she started her on-air career.

By the time of her return to New York, Arena was engaged and she moved to Washington D.C. to live with her husband. In 2000, Arena became the Justice Correspondent for CNN, which covered the Department of Justice, terrorism, and the Supreme Court.

“After 9/11, 96 percent of what I did was terrorism related,” Arena said.

Arena is now at SHSU teaching an online writing course entitled News and Feature Reporting.

“The university was looking for someone who was in the industry and could provide some hands-on, immediate knowledge to students [for the chair position],” Arena said. “I am very serious about journalism as a necessary and important part of what happens in our society.”

Arena said that she knows that there is a lot of poor journalism out there and that she wanted to take the opportunity to impress upon people the importance of integrity and credibility in the journalism industry.

“I had people risk not only their jobs, but possible jail time by giving me the information that they gave me,” Arena said. “And the only reason they stuck their neck out for me was because of my reputation; that is the only thing you have to go on in this industry, your reputation.”

Journalism is not the easiest industry, she explained, it takes a lot of work and it is hard for people nowadays to get the training and experience she received as a new intern and employee.

“When I was at CNN, I was doing radio reports, regular CNN, sometimes CNN International and CNN Headline News and all at the same time,” Arena stated. “The new buzzword is multiplatform – understand it, own it, be it if you want a job in journalism.”

Arena said she is hoping to serve as a mentor to students in need of guidance by imparting values and mentoring not only her students but every student in need of advice.

“The economy is really doing a hatchet job on this industry and many talented reporters with a lot of experience are out of jobs as a result,” Arena said.

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