During his long career at WWL-TV, journalist and anchor Eric Paulsen has seen politicians come and go, scandals and celebrations, tragedies and triumphs. While New Orleanians can still start their day waking up to Paulsen hosting the channel’s morning show, he recently retired from the noon anchor desk after 18 years to pursue special stories and reporting. New Orleans Magazine caught up with Paulsen to see what he’s been up to, his recent reporting trip to Cuba, what it’s like to be a journalist during a global pandemic and what advice he has to reporters who are just starting their own careers behind the microphone.
Q: Who or what inspired you to go into a career in journalism? The people who inspired me in journalism are several, all of them are not with us anymore. First had to be Walter Cronkite, and locally Phil Johnson and Bill Elder. All old school and all absolute professionals.
Q: What are your favorite kinds of stories to follow and craft reports about? Early in my career I loved getting scoops, stories that took a lot of digging by making contacts with politicians and business people. Later in my career, it’s been storytelling, whether it’s a business story, a famous musician or the story behind how a favorite restaurant got started. And with the coronavirus those stories became critical. We’ve worked very hard to tell that story out including the impact it’s had on thousands of workers and business owners across the region.
Q: What was the inspiration behind your recent trip to Cuba with the Trombone Shorty Foundation? Why did you want to follow along and why was it an important for New Orleans? It was a great chance to combine my love for music and follow a group of local musicians, Trombone Shorty, The Soul Rebels, Tank and the Bangas, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and Anders Osborne for a cultural exchange to a country that has been pretty much forbidden for most of my life. The trip was amazing and opened my eyes to so much. It’s one of the things I love about my job, I get to learn something new every day.
Q: What was your favorite memory from that trip? My favorite memory was the New Orleans Second Line meeting the Cuban Conga in Old Havana, it was amazing. The second [favorite memory] was the concert at the most beautiful rooftop outdoor restaurant with Anders Osborne and Cuba’s Carlos Varela (known as the Bob Dylan of Cuba). That night was magical.
Q: With a decades-long career in journalism, you have certainly seen your fair share of breaking news stories. What are one or two unusual moments that have made an impact on your career? Some of the biggest impacts on my career go way back. First was the devastating Continental Grain Elevator explosion back in 1977. I was the first reporter on the scene and I was totally overwhelmed. The carnage, the loss of life and talking to family members. I was young at the time and ill-prepared to deal with all that around Christmas time that year. I learned a lot about humanity and compassion. You had to cover a disaster but keep in mind all the people who lost loved ones on that terrible day. On a happier note, getting to know people like Tennessee Williams, Al Hirt, Pete Fountain and of course the legendary Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew. I’m still close to both Fats’ and Dave’s families.
Q: What advice do you have for young reporters looking to have a career in journalism? Do this if you really want to be a journalist, not simply someone who wants to be on TV. This business has changed a great deal over the years. The work is getting harder and the pay is getting lower. But the rewards if you are a curious person who wants to learn every day are immense. But it is not for the faint of heart.
Q: What has it been like to be a part of so many New Orleanians’ start to their day or lunchtime routine? The noon show was a juggernaut, it was a staple for many of our viewers. It was bittersweet when I gave it up last year, but it did free me up to do stories I really cared about in addition to the Eyewitness Morning News. Mornings are different from other new shows. It is more personal and you bond with the audience because you are on so long. That has been one of my greatest pleasures to be in peoples’ homes in a very friendly manner.
Born: I was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri.
Education: I went to University City High School in suburban St. Louis. It’s the same school that Tennessee Williams attended, as did Jeremy Davenport and Nelly, all in different years, of course. I went from there to getting a journalism degree from Southern Illinois University.
Favorite TV show: CBS Sunday Morning News and, for sheer entertainment, probably Showtime’s “Homeland.”
What I’m reading: Finishing up Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci and have just started the Eric Clapton autobiography.
Favorite restaurant: The one I’m eating at on any given day. There are way too many to pick out a favorite. I should mention, during the coronavirus we did try to support as many restaurants as we could. They are the lifeblood of this city, just like music.
True confession: I did not start out to be in broadcast news. I was going to be a veterinarian but got hooked on broadcasting in my third year of college and for me it was a good choice.