By Laura Matusheski, University of Delaware sophomore and intern for the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication
APRIL 22, 2020—For Blue Hen Matt O’Donnell, Friday, March 13 began like any normal work day: Wake up at 2:20 a.m. (without hitting the snooze button) to report the morning scoop on 6 ABC Action News at 5:00 a.m. As the day went on, however, the Philadelphia news anchor realized the day was far from typical. By this time, the COVID-19 outbreak was no longer an issue of concern across a few countries, but an alarming global pandemic. Local and national news scrambled to keep their millions of viewers informed. Behind the scenes, television news stations had to make tough decisions on how to take health precautions as well as how to proceed staying on the air.
In the weeks that followed, with many of his colleagues working from home, O’Donnell became the “designated survivor” of his news team. After self-quarantining for one week, he returned to the studio to report alongside weekday meteorologist David Murphy.
As coronavirus news jumped from the news ticker at the bottom of the screen to the headlines, O’Donnell’s anchoring workload increased drastically. He also found it harder to communicate with his co-host, Tamala Edwards, while she reported from home via broadcast. Despite all these changes, both big and small, O’Donnell presses on. “When a big story breaks, people rely on us for information and we give it to them. My job is to tell people things they didn’t know before.”
On the other side of his reporting, O’Donnell writes, produces, and hosts his own podcast, The True Philadelphia Podcast. Interviewing one-on-one with “true” Philadelphians, he takes a closer look at hot-button topics impacting the lives of those who live in Philly as well as surrounding areas. In his latest podcasts surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak, he consults ER doctor Dr. Susan Weiss and Philadelphia Archbishop Nelson Perez about the ins and outs of the disease as well as how it has affected close-knit communities so far. O’Donnell’s primary goal is not only to inform people, unlike television news: “I want this conversation to be interesting tomorrow, a month from now, a year from now, and beyond.” he said, “I want to talk about subjects that are relevant no matter what time it is, or how much fear people have in a current moment.” He wants his listeners to also think practically about the world around them. The True Philadelphia Podcast is streamed on YouTube, Google Play and Apple Podcasts.
As graduating seniors at the University of Delaware and around the world grapple with the unforeseen changes, O’Donnell recalls his own experiences at UD. Being an English major with a concentration in journalism and a minor in political science, he always knew he wanted to go into the news industry. Writing at the campus newspaper, The Review, as well as working with UD’s WVUD radio station (91.3 FM) propelled his career. Just days after his graduation, O’Donnell left Delaware to pursue a new career in New York that eventually led to his big break on Action News, where he has been ever since. He empathizes with both seniors in high school and in college, saying that he would not have been where he is today without his limitless opportunities. He calls college graduates “a generation of people who are truly going to succeed.”
During the COVID-19 quarantine, he is making music with his former bandmate. He wants people to know that it’s okay to turn off the television for a while and that there may be a silver lining to all of this. “[COVID-19] may be the biggest story we cover in our lives. It allowed us to find a reserve of adrenaline we didn’t know we had to deal with the emotional impact.” In reference to his motivation, he says, “Every day we endure this is one day closer until the end of it.”
O’Donnell lives in the Philadelphia suburbs with his wife, two children and his dog, Bailey. He graduated from the University of Delaware in 1994 and now serves as a member of the advisory council for the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication.