Not many people in New Orleans can say that they’ve blocked for a Super Bowl-winning quarterback and tackled important problems facing the city. Local sports geek, now investigative ace, Lee Zurik can claim both honors, as he’s now looking out for the city’s best interests instead of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, whom he protected as part of the offensive line while they both attended Isidore Newman School.
Zurik’s career as a news hound began about the same time he was blocking for Manning – when he was 15 years old and he started interning with the Sports Department at WWL-TV/Channel 4. His boss, then (and now) was Mike Hoss. After graduating from Syracuse University and spending time honing his skills in Greenville, Miss.; Montgomery, Ala.; and Baton Rouge, Zurik returned home to New Orleans and WWL-TV in 2001, when he became a sports anchor and reporter. In 2005, he switched gears and moved to the station’s News Department as a weekend anchor and reporter, known for his clear, concise reporting and bantering with bespectacled meteorologist Dawn Brown.
While Zurik still has a passion for sports, he caught the public’s attention with his investigative reports about the city’s mismanagement of departments and programs, including its communications system and, most recently, NOAH (New Orleans Affordable Housing). These have raised the ire of Mayor Ray Nagin – Nagin took offense to the realization that as a mayor, his daily schedule was considered public, and which Zurik so famously described on the news.
New Orleans has taken notice – even the city’s own satirical monthly, The New Orleans Levee, honored Zurik in its August 2008 issue with a fictional front page story about how Mayor Ray Nagin put up billboards – “Wanted by Mayor for Killing Recovery … Call Naginstoppers” – claiming that not only was Zurik hurting the city’s recovery, but that he was responsible for “everything.”
Well, I don’t think we can blame Zurik for everything, but I guess we can blame him for rooting out incompetence. Nothing wrong with that.
Birth name: Leon Mintz Zurik Age: 34 Profession: Weekend news anchor/reporter, WWL-TV/Channel 4 Born: New Orleans Resides: Uptown Family: Jennifer (Jenny), wife; Eleonore, daughter, who turns 1 this month Education: Isidore Newman High School; Bachelor of Arts in broadcast journalism from Syracuse University. Favorite book: The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell Favorite movie: I’m a huge James Bond movie fan (Sean Connery is my favorite James Bond), but I also like the Bourne Identity and Bourne Supremacy movies. Favorite TV show: 60 Minutes and Law & Order Favorite food: What’s not my favorite food? I like gumbo, dobergé cake, bread pudding, boiled crawfish, shrimp … Favorite restaurant: I don’t have any favorite; it [depends on] different tiers: high-end I like Antoine’s – a New Orleans classic – and Restaurant August. For simpler food: You can’t beat Popeye’s fried chicken (especially during Mardi Gras) and a Domilise’s shrimp poor boy. Favorite vacation spot: Utah, where I like to go skiing. It’s a nice stress release. I don’t even bring a cell phone when I go skiing and I’m attached to it when I’m here.
Your biography on the WWL-TV Web site describes you as the quintessential New Orleanian. How long has your family been in New Orleans? My family goes back in New Orleans a couple generations, as does my wife’s. (We didn’t know each other growing up – even though we both went to Newman – I’m five years older.)
The Web site also describes you as interning at the station at the tender age of 15. Were you one of those lucky people who always had a clear idea what they always wanted to do with their lives? Yes. I’m a freak. I grew up following the news and wanting to do sports. So I started as an intern in the sports department at WWL-TV working for Mike Hoss. You can say that I grew up at the station.
What advice do you have for people who want to become TV reporters or anchors? First, be persistent. It’s a competitive field. You can’t sit back – it won’t come to you. Second, keep in touch with people who can help. It was my contacts that helped me get where I am. It really is who you know. Finally, and I think this is underrated, is work on your writing skills – become a good writer. Most reporters do their own writing.
What shouldn’t you do to get a job at a TV station? Come in thinking you know it all. It’s interesting – I’ve seen people do it, and the one thing that puts people in their place is when a hurricane hits. Because it’s stressful, long hours. Whether you have family or property here, it’s tough mentally and physically.
How do you come up with your stories? It’s a mix: Some are self-generated, some from a tip from a source. A lot of times you get a tip that may not be the exact story but somehow leads to it.
The NOAH story was a tip and it just snowballed and grew to be a lot bigger than I think anyone imagined.
What’s been the most important story so far that you’ve broken – or one that people will remember you by? I think right now it’s the NOAH story. It’s still somewhat fresh and it hasn’t all played out yet. It certainly is an important story.
Because your family has a long-standing place in the community, you take these stories seriously. One thing about the sound bite – the one of Nagin saying that Zurik is hurting New Orleans’ recovery – it was an interesting quote to me, just because I’m not the reporter who’s here for two years, then gets a better job in another place or anything like that. My family is entrenched in this city – my wife and I, our goal is to stay here and to raise a family, so anything I do is to benefit this city – because it would only be a better place for me to live.
Sometimes we have to air bad things to make it better. No city is perfect, like no person is perfect. So, you and Mayor Nagin – what would happen if you two ran into each other casually? I haven’t really seen him outside of work, up close. I don’t have anything personal against him. I’m just doing my job. He’s doing his job, how he feels he needs to do it. If I saw him, I would be cordial.
So what is your prediction for the New Orleans Saints this year? Do you want me to talk with my heart or my head? Hopefully, 9-7, going to the playoffs. Hopefully.
If you weren’t a reporter, what would you be? That’s a good question. Part of me likes the teaching aspect, but if it were in sports I would be a football coach.
Do you always wear a suit on air? Or a combination of a suit jacket and casual pants or shorts? I usually wear a suit – not always.
How tall are you? 6-foot-3-inches
You and Dawn Brown – siblings in a past life? Probably!
True Confession: When I watch Curious George every morning with my daughter, we dance together to the song.