Julie Nelson is used to squeezing through windows—of time. Only hours before the KARE-11 newscaster goes live for the station’s 5 p.m. newscast, after devoting time to writing copy for the evening’s broadcast, filming promotions and finishing other prep work, she fits in an interview with Edina Magazine; this time, she’s the lead story. Even as minutes tick closer to 5 p.m., Nelson is gracious with her time as she shares her thoughts about balancing career and family, the state of Minnesota journalism and her commitment to Twin Cities’ youth.
After the weekday KARE-11 News at 6 wraps up, some viewers are feverishly getting dinner on or off the table, dipping into the homework kiddie pool or managing weeknight family schedules. Julie Nelson is right there with them.
During her break between co-anchoring the 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. newscasts, Nelson drives from the station’s Golden Valley studio to her Edina home, which the Eau Claire, Wis., native shares with her husband Kurt and their 12- and 13-year-old daughters. Julie and Kurt, sweethearts since junior high school, have just walked over the sometimes-precarious threshold of parenting teenagers—“and prayers are welcomed and encouraged,” Nelson says with a laugh.
Once home, she has only a few hours to squeeze in dinner, with a side of homework helper and as much family time as she can. “My dinner break is so nuts,” Nelson says. Evenings and managing the rest of the week are made easier with the help of others. “I do it with a husband who is very involved,” she says. The family also has the benefit of a longtime nanny, who is a kindergarten teacher by day. “Without her, I don’t know how we’d do it,” Nelson says. “I trust her very much.”
It’s not difficult to imagine that Nelson handles the home and work dynamic with ease, however. “Unflappable” is the word that comes to mind watching her on air. Off air, Nelson’s demeanor is genuine and compassionate, especially when speaking about her volunteer work.
But to some purple-blooded Minnesota sports fans, she might be construed as (gasp!) treasonous with a Packer pup living in her house. (Yes, Vikings fans, you read correctly.) “We have the cutest dog in Edina,” Nelson proclaims of the family’s white Labrador named Lambeau. But it makes sense, considering the couple met at a football game in Wisconsin. The duo has a history of bestowing unusual monikers on their family pets. Lambeau’s father was the late Captain Chaos, named in response to Nelson’s reaction to her husband bringing a dog into their home when their first daughter was only a year old and Nelson was pregnant with their second child. “You cannot bring a puppy into this house,” she recalls telling him. “You’ll just bring chaos into the house.”
While she typically doesn’t hit the NBC affiliate’s newsroom until 2 p.m. weekdays, Nelson’s newsgathering begins hours earlier, waking to check Twitter, scouring newspapers and, naturally, keeping an eye on the local and national television news programs. Harvesting information isn’t what it used to be with social media and other Internet resources joining the fray of traditional sources. “It’s changed a lot in the last 15 years,” Nelson says.
While information gathering has altered, so, too, has the way anchors present the news. Viewing audiences now know a whole lot more about the private lives of reporters and anchors. Who can imagine the venerable broadcasters of past generations posting selfies or profiling their colonoscopy exam on a nightly newscast? There was a time when broadcasters were tethered to the anchor desk. Today, it’s a different story, with on-air journalists often taking a seat on a couch and opening up to their audiences in ways that might make old-school journalists blanch.
“I think it’s one of the trickiest lines,” Nelson says. “I like to share a little about myself,” adding that audiences tune in to see the news of the day, “not to see me. The second you start to feel comfortable and sharing too much, you start turning people off,” she says. Nelson reveals more about herself on social media, but she puts her posts through a litmus test—will followers relate to whatever it is she’s sharing? There’s also the danger of taking her eye off the ball, which is reporting the news, not being the subject of it. This issue struck a bit close to home in February when Brian Williams, anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, was suspended for six months for not being completely truthful when he recounted that, in 2003, a helicopter he was riding in was hit by ground fire in Iraq.
“I think it’s a really sad example of a slippery slope,” Nelson says of the Williams situation, even as she gives credit to Williams for making it easier for anchors to loosen their collars, perhaps increasing their relatability with audiences. She calls that contribution a “justice to this industry.”
While Nelson might find the more relaxed newsroom refreshing, she is ever-mindful of keeping the on-air banter with fellow anchors in check. “You have to be respectful of the news of the day,” Nelson says. “[You] try to keep your head in the game. At the end of the day, we have a pretty serious job.”
Reporter with a Heart
At times, her serious job takes on serious issues, ones that have a lasting impact on viewers and on Nelson herself. Several years ago, she reported on cutting, a form of self-injury. “I hadn’t realized how prevalent it was or the reasons why people do it,” Nelson says. According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, cutting is part of the self-injury subculture. Mental Health America (MHA) estimates that about 2 million Americans—mostly teenagers and young adults—purposefully injure themselves. “Often, people say they hurt themselves to express emotional pain or feelings they can’t put into words,” the MHA notes. “It can be a way to have control over your body when you can’t control anything else in your life.”
While researching the story, Nelson interviewed teens who attended programs through TreeHouse, a faith-based non-profit organization that offers guidance to at-risk teens at eight Twin Cities locations. “To listen to them,” Nelson recalls, “it broke my heart to hear.” She was struck by what she learned. Where promise and hope for the future should have taken up residence, Nelson discovered teens whose hearts were filled with self-loathing and low self-worth. “That was one of the hardest stories I’ve done,” she says. “I was such a wreck by the time I left. I couldn’t believe almost every kid was cutting or trying to stop cutting. I wanted to stand up and scream, ‘Come home with me.’ ”
For nearly 10 years now, Nelson, now a TreeHouse board member, has volunteered with the organization, which last year helped 1,800 youth transform their lives by developing healthier home and peer relationships, and encouraging high school graduation. “Julie’s heart is so full of compassion,” says Jill Pautz, TreeHouse vice president of strategic development and marketing. “[You] see emotion in her eyes and hear it in her voice.”
Nelson has taken that emotion and put it into motion. She regularly serves as master of ceremonies for TreeHouse’s annual spring gala and fall luncheon, but her most significant contribution may be her ability to shine a light on the organization and the issues teens face on a tragically regular basis, including self-harm, bullying, suicide, depression and drug and alcohol abuse. “I’ve really learned a lot from them,” Nelson says. “It’s a great place to pour my energy and resources.” Pautz appreciates Nelson’s ability to connect with and inform the public. “If you don’t know there’s a problem, you don’t know how to solve it,” she says.
(Transplanted Packer fans, Julie Nelson and her husband Kurt hang out at home in Edina with the family's Labrador named Lambeau.)