Katie Couric had never been to Johnstown before Thursday.
But after spending a few days here and learning the community’s history, she got some insight into the resiliency of the people that could lead the city through one of the most challenging times in its history.
Though Johnstown famously survived three major floods, the torrent of economic and social issues now facing the city – and the townspeople’s response to those issues – were what attracted the journalist, who is a member of the Television Hall of Fame.
The 60-year-old Couric spent a quarter of a century on NBC’s “Today” show and more recently worked for CBS, ABC and Yahoo. She now runs her own production company.
A project for the National Geographic cable network brought her to Johnstown.
“I’m doing a six-hour documentary series on some of the problems facing the country,” Couric said in an exclusive interview with The Tribune-Democrat. “One of them is sort of anxiety among working-class people in this country, about jobs and automation, immigration, globalization
– all of those ‘ations’ that people are worried about.
“We came to Johnstown because it’s a very resilient town. There are a lot of people trying to pour new energy and come up with a more diverse economic base.”
Couric spent time at Greater Johnstown High School.
She and members of her camera crew were on the sidelines for the Trojans’ football game with Bishop McCort Catholic on Friday night.
“I think this is such a piece of Americana, to come to a high school football game like this, with the crowd, the bleachers full of enthusiastic supporters and fans and students,” she said between cheering big plays for the Trojans. “We wanted to get some local color, and I think this is about as colorful as you can get.”
Couric said she is excited to be able to do a “deep dive” into issues for the series, which will focus on a few small cities and towns. She plans to include Erie in the show, and she already has visited Fremont, Nebraska, and Storm Lake, Iowa.
“We’re really focusing on those cities – sort of the Rust Belt and the Midwest,” she said. “We’re taking those and using them as a microcosm of some of the challenges that not only these cities face, but a lot of the residents and workers.
“It all has to do with a changing demographic, (the) changing nature of work. We’re just trying to get a handle on it.
“This has been really interesting and really fun. The people here have been super nice.”
Couric did not reveal the name of the series – which will air in the spring – but said the project will look at the problems that each city is facing and how the people in those locations are attempting to overcome their challenges.
“Some of it is sort of economic trends that can’t be controlled,” she said. “But are there other ways on the local level that people can try to turn things around and not wait for the government to do it for them? Or for big corporations to do it either.”
While drug addiction is one of the biggest issues concerning many residents in the Johnstown area, it won’t be an overriding focus of the series.
“I think that’s emblematic of a lot of urban areas,” Couric said. “Obviously, the opioid epidemic is ubiquitous now.
“Not just in towns like this, but in suburbs and cities. It’s just a terrible situation.
“That’s something we’re talking about – the fact that the highest suicide rate is among white men 50 and over. How do we turn that despair and the changing face of work, how do you turn that around, and what can you do? I think Johns-town’s really trying to do that.”
Couric said she was scheduled to leave Johnstown on Saturday, but that her crew, which had been here ahead of her, doing advance work, will be returning to the Flood City in the future.
“I’ve been impressed by the ingenuity that I’ve seen here,” she said. “The fact that there are a lot of young people trying to make the city more attractive, that 30 small businesses have started here. That JWF and Bill (Polacek) are really taking to heart this notion of bringing people in as apprentices, giving them some on-the-job training and really investing in Johnstown’s future.
“It’s been a lot of fun.”