Take Five with Sara Just ’88

sara just
Sara Just ’88 is the executive producer and SVP of PBS NewsHour, where she leads the editorial and production team for the nightly broadcast and its online products. Previously, she spent 25 years at ABC News, where she was most recently the Washington deputy bureau chief and senior producer for Good Morning America. She led ABCNews.com’s political coverage for two presidential campaigns and supervised the development of political online products and partnerships. Just spent 17 years at ABC’s Nightline, with Ted Koppel, working on a variety of award-winning foreign, domestic and political stories. A recipient of 13 Emmy Awards, two duPont Silver Batons, three Peabody Awards, a Gracie Award and more, she lives in Maryland with her husband and two sons.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I went to a small all-girl’s school for eight years, with only 46 in my graduating class. So, coming to Columbia, especially the recently coeducational College, was eye-opening for me in all kinds of ways. I remember being surprised when I first saw boys taking notes in a class. I wasn’t used to knowing boys as fellow students.

I was intimidated by the sophistication of so many of my classmates, especially the ones who grew up in New York City. They seemed to know everything and even though I was from a suburb outside of Boston, not exactly the hinterlands, I felt naïve and unprepared. Those students seemed to know the finer points of Tibetan politics, Fellini films and where to find a quality bagel.

I knew I wanted to pursue journalism and made a bee line for the Spectator offices. I had visited the Spec offices during my overnight visit to campus as an accepted student. I had that “these are my people” feeling right away.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

One of my main memories is of the yellow wall telephone we had in the common hallway of our Carman suite. It had a long extension cord that could be pulled all the way into each room, and even into the closet if one needed extra privacy. My suitemates and I were frequently arguing about whose turn it was to use the phone and for how long. These are conflicts that today’s cellphone-generation students do not face. But primarily I remember the camaraderie of the friends on the floor, the laughter at the end of the hallway in the television room or spilling out of one another’s suites.

What class do you most remember and why?

I was very lucky and drew a spot in Wallace Gray GSAS’58’s Lit Hum class my first year. He was brilliant and engaging and also seemingly impatient with anyone whom he surmised had not done the reading thoroughly. I lived in fear of being caught flat-footed in his class. Once I prepared remarks for the class discussion on a small piece of paper that I folded like origami and placed in my pocket. In class I began to unfold it and Gray stopped me. ‘Just speak,’ he said. It was a lesson I think a lot about now. You can do a lot of homework and preparation but when you really want people to hear you and join you in a conversation, don’t read from notes.

One more: My senior year I had the chance to audit Fred Friendly’s class at the J-School. It was an experience like no other. He was a commanding presence with an infectious love of journalism and its standards. He confronted students with provocative questions as he demanded that they think through real-life newsroom situations. He brought in extraordinary guest speakers. The lengthy, weekly seminar time flew by, as all of us in the class knew we were in the presence of a great thinker and a legend in the business.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

Doesn’t everyone love the Steps on a beautiful day? I loved hanging out there with friends, as others joined and departed, all of us enjoying the conversation and especially the view at the crossroads of this vast, vibrant community. But I also consider one of my favorite Columbia spots to be a table at Tom’s, at about 2 a.m., after putting the Spec to bed.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

I was very committed to Spectator and I wouldn’t change that for the world. I learned a lot about journalism and made deep, lasting friendships. But I let that passion dictate my academic choices a bit too much. I picked my classes often with an eye on what time the class met, so that I could sleep in after a late night of Spectator production. I would love the opportunity for a do-over, or a parallel life, really, so that I could drink in all that Columbia offered and set aside my desire to pursue journalism for a while.