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Nia Phillips '08: Finding a Spotlight Behind the Scenes

Every weekday, millions of people sip coffee and tune in to Good Morning America, joining Robin Roberts, George Stephanopoulos and Michael Strahan for the latest headlines.

But the TV audience doesn't see people like Nia Phillips, who spent much of the night gathering and producing the news.

In the daily adrenaline rush that is TV journalism, Phillips, an associate producer on the ABC show, has worked on stories ranging from the devastation of Hurricane Matthew to the twists and turns of the presidential campaign. She has shaped features on Maddie Ziegler, the teen star on the reality show Dance Moms, and the new Lemonade album by Beyoncé. Whether she's writing scripts or working with on-air correspondents, Phillips takes a story and makes it shine.

"All of the magic happens at night," she said.

During some late-breaking stories, the 26-year-old has been known to pull an all-nighter, the deadline pressure mounting as the sun comes up. Even when it means coming home to her New York City apartment as her neighbors head to work, she's thrilled to be in the thick of the news gathering.

"Sometimes your material comes in 5 a.m.," she said. "It can be stressful, but when you see what you worked on in TV, all of the stress goes away."

For Phillips, becoming a producer at Good Morning America is a dream job, and she got there by way of a surprisingly straight path – after graduating from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she landed an internship at ABC. Th at internship led to job as a production associate at Good Morning America in 2014. She was promoted to associate producer in August of 2016.

"Nia Phillips is an amazing example of how hard work and a creative mind can take you far. She hit the ground running as an intern – and now, she's an associate producer. GMA is lucky to have her on the team," said Seth Fenton, chief of tape content and production at Good Morning America.

As for success in the highly competitive news business, Phillips was a natural. The native of Penn Hills was an early, avid reader full of curiosity. "She was reading books at age 3," said her mother, Kimberly. Th roughout her 13 years at Shady Side Academy, her teachers helped her to refine these innate traits into research and writing talents. "She was very fortunate to have the opportunity to go to Shady Side, where they nurtured her from an early age," Kimberly said.

Throughout her Shady Side Academy education, her writing skills improved under the guidance of English teachers such as Martha Banwell, Elizabeth Garvey and Sherri Hallgren. "Th e school produced really strong writers and stressed the importance of research," Phillips said. She also played flute in the band, and competed on the cross country, basketball and softball teams – a love of athletics that carries over to her affinity for sports writing.

Her time at Shady Side also expanded her world view. As a junior, she was named a Parkin Fellow, an award that funds global service work. She traveled across the world to Fiji, to a poor village where she helped build houses, volunteered at a school and worked on environmental initiatives. "I was in a little dot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean," she said. "It was an awesome opportunity." When she came home, she organized a book drive and mailed them to the Fiji school where she had volunteered.

"She came back a changed woman. She wanted to make an impact on the world at large. She has always been a role model," said her brother Rashaad '12, who worked in Ghana as a Parkin Fellow four years later.

Her first taste of journalism came from her Senior School English papers and her work at Shady Side News. She always considered going into the field, but she took the opportunity to explore various disciplines at Wellesley, the prestigious women's college located outside of Boston.

The minute she arrived on the picturesque campus outside of Boston, Phillips felt at home – the red brick buildings reminded her of Shady Side. She was inspired to be at the school that produced broadcast legends such as Diane Sawyer, an ABC co-worker, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Madeleine Albright, to name just a few. "Wellesley women are always part of leadership roles. That is a legacy I am part of."

A political science and Spanish major, Phillips toyed with the idea of doing something in public service or politics such as a press secretary job. But she always came back to her passion for storytelling through journalism.

In summer 2011, while a student at Wellesley, she took an internship at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where she worked on the multimedia desk. "It was awesome, being at my hometown paper, on the video side of the news, adapting to new media."

After Wellesley, she went to the prestigious Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. On her first day, she introduced herself to her classmates. No one else in the room was from Pittsburgh.

When asked about her goals, she already knew exactly what she wanted to do. "I want to work in morning news at Good Morning America." Little did she know at the time that she would achieve such a lofty goal so quickly.

Studying in the broadcast track, she and her classmates balanced class work with the hands-on training of creating their own broadcasts. After graduating in 2013, she landed a job as editorial producer of Major League Baseball Advanced Media, writing content and posting videos of live baseball, football and basketball games. At the same time, she got her foot in the door at Good Morning America as an intern.

Phillips credits some of her growth as a producer to the mentoring and advice from other producers and on-air talent. "It's a great place to learn," she said. In particular, she has beenthrilled to meet and talk to Robin Roberts, a GMA co-anchor.

"Robin Roberts is a big inspiration for her," said her brother Rashaad.

Usually behind the camera, Phillips had a more visible role during the dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. In an elegant ceremony at the Kennedy Center, she walked the red carpet as she interviewed celebrities such as Jesse Williams, an actor on Grey's Anatomy, and Janelle Monáe, a singer-songwriter. Then she mingled in a crowd that included President and Michelle Obama, and Oprah.

Being part of the celebration of the African American museum was deeply moving for her. "It was like I was part of
history," she said. "It was overwhelming. " The piece will air in 2017.

Though she wouldn't rule out more on-air work if the opportunity presents itself, she loves being behind the camera. "Producing is the area I love. A lot of it is storytelling." Her journalism career also allows her to talk to a variety of people she would never encounter otherwise.

Instead of a routine job, she shows up at the ABC headquarters in Manhattan every evening to tackle a new challenge – a grisly police story one day, a light pop culture feature the next.

The first story she produced alone was on the death of Eric Garner, the African American man who died after police in New York City put him in a chokehold – an event that sparked widespread protests.

It was a baptism by fire, doing a package on this polarizing event. "Welcome to the news business," she recalls thinking to herself. But she rose to the challenge.

She also works on softer news stories, such as the piece she produced on Michelle Obama's fashion choices over the last eight years, including the rose-gold Versace gown she wore to her last state dinner.

Being a journalist allows Phillips to meet famous people as well as give a voice to people who are not usually heard. Her stories are broadcast across the nation and beyond. "With the Internet and social media, the whole world can read them," she said.

Phillips has even had assignments that allow her to tap into her special interest in sports. When LeBron James brought home an NBA championship to an ecstatic Cleveland, she covered it. A series of stories came her way about 'Deflategate,' the football controversy and legal saga that centered on allegations that the New England Patriots had tampered with footballs.

When they pass her desk full of black and gold sports memorabilia, including a Terrible Towel draped across it, her GMA co-workers take the chance to rib her about her Pittsburgh fanaticism.

She also suggests Pittsburgh stories and angles, such as the Dance Moms feature. "She is always pitching Pittsburgh," her mother said. "She is always fighting for her hometown."

With daily texts or phone calls, Phillips tells her mother what she is working on, and her devoted fan club of church members, friends and relatives back in Pittsburgh try to catch the segments on TV.

Phillips stays in touch with her brother Rashaad daily. Despite a four-year age gap, they are best friends – so close that people sometimes confuse them for twins. "We've never been in competition. She's always willing to help, reading over my applications and essays," he said. "She always wants to see the best in me."

The emails and texts Rashaad gets in the middle of the night give him a sense of what his sister's hectic schedule is like. Arriving at 6 p.m., she doesn't get off until 2 or 4 a.m., or even later.

"Her job requires her to be up almost 24-7. I don't think I could do that. She is always motivated to keep going. She sees the bigger picture of her goals. She sees the media as important for educating other people. That motivates her to push through, no matter how much work it involves."

Phillips said she has gotten used to the sleep-deprived life of a broadcast journalist.

"You're 'on' 24 hours a day, in a sense. You have to always be tuned in. You come early and you stay late." But that's okay by her. Day or night, Nia Phillips is happy to be at her dream job.

by Cristina Rouvalis | Photography provided by Nia Phillips
Published in the Winter 2016-2017 issue of Shady Side Academy Magazine