After Nearly Four Decades On-Air at Channel 4, Colleen Marshall is in a League of Her Own

The NBC4 journalist has credibility, longevity and no desire to retire from television, even in an uncertain media landscape.

Molly Willow
Columbus Monthly
Colleen Marshall in the Channel 4 studios in February. Marshall joined WCMH as a general assignment reporter in 1984 and has been a steady presence at the station.

Colleen Marshall keeps gummy bears in her desk drawer, just in case.

On a typical day, the longtime Channel 4 anchorwoman arrives at the station by 2:30 p.m. and doesn’t leave until after the late news, pushing midnight. She has a steady rotation of carryout dinner orders from restaurants near the station on Olentangy River Road. Lots of salads. (She is a woman on television, after all.) On Thursdays between newscasts, she records The Spectrum, the longest-running political news show in Central Ohio. Sometimes, with no breaks between writing, editing, interviewing, reporting and delivering the news means Lunchables for dinner. Or gummy bears.

For her entire career, including 38 years with WCMH-TV (NBC4), Marshall’s life has taken place between newscasts. Today, as the stature of local television news and traditional media has eroded due to people finding news elsewhere—or not bothering to look for it at all—Marshall’s dedication to her craft has not. At 66 years old, an age when many are exploring pickleball or Florida, she shows no signs of slowing down. On air each weeknight for the 6, 7 and 11 o’clock news, she’s missed a lot of sunsets and family dinners, but no one could say she’s missed out. “I still love this job. I’m still challenged by the stories that I can work on and the people I can interview. There’s always something I can do that I’ve never done before,” she says.

Marshall is among the best-known and most-respected journalists in Columbus today, partly due to attrition as print journalists continue to face layoffs and existential dread. But to reduce her career to her remarkable longevity would ignore her journalistic chops. Michael Fiorile had a view of Marshall for 25 years in his various leadership roles with the Dispatch Printing Co. and Dispatch Broadcast Group, former owners of NBC4 rival WBNS-10TV. He says Marshall’s reputation is beyond reproach. “She’s a terrific anchor, and the station is lucky to have been able to keep her as long as they have.”

She’s won countless awards, covered political conventions and the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attack from New York City, interviewed President Barack Obama (twice) and even talked notorious curmudgeon David Letterman into an interview while visiting his show with Jack Hanna. Her recent investigative series “Culture of Cover-Up,” which examined the abuse of hundreds of students at Ohio State University by Dr. Richard Strauss, earned her a 2020 National Gracie Award from the Alliance for Women in Media Foundation for hard news feature and helped give voice to many of his victims. Her reporting also caught the eye of the team working on HBO’s George Clooney-produced documentary on the scandal; she’s scheduled to be interviewed for it.

You may also recall hearing something about Marshall being a lawyer—she is. She earned her law degree from Capital University in 2004, attending classes before going to the station each day. While anchoring, she practiced law for 16 years, working from 8:30 a.m. to midnight, first at Porter Wright and then four years of family law with Massucci Law Group, before scaling back. “I always had an interest in the law,” she says of her decision to earn her degree. “I also thought, quite honestly, I was getting to the age when I was going to be too old to be on the air.

“I was 44.”

And now: “I think I’m the oldest woman on the air in Ohio. It’s not a point of pride, but it is what it is.”

She has more than three years left on her contract and no retirement plans.

Marshall conducts a Zoom interview for a story in the NBC4 newsroom.

➽ When Marshall joined WCMH as a general assignment reporter in 1984, the national NBC nightly news was drawing an 11.1 rating, according to Pew Research Center. Thirty years later, it was barely half that at 6.2, a decline seen across all broadcast networks. Locally, from 2007 to 2016, the average audience for late-night newscasts declined 31 percent, according to Pew’s “State of the News Media.” (In 2016, Media General sold WCMH and its other stations to Nexstar Media Group, the largest local TV news company in the country.) Revenue during that time has remained relatively strong, in part due to retransmission fees—the fees paid by cable and satellite systems to carry local channels—and boosts from advertising during election years. In late February, Nexstar, a public company based in Irving, Texas, reported record-setting revenue of $1.49 billion in the fourth quarter of 2022, with net income of $178 million, driven by strong political advertising, $266 million, during the midterm elections.

In 2020, as people were stuck inside and looking for information about the pandemic and presidential election, they went back to their TV sets: Evening news viewership increased 4 percent. Marshall had already been solo anchoring following the 2019 stroke of her “buddy,” longtime WCMH anchor Mike Jackson, when the world began to shut down. The station wanted someone trusted and familiar on-air. Marshall reported to work every day, part of a skeleton crew.

Ever the advocate for truth, Marshall remains frustrated by the way the pandemic was politicized. “I will never understand how we allowed this medical crisis to become a political point. Why can’t we try to take care of each other?

A headshot of Marshall from 1984, her first year at NBC4

“This is the Trump effect, when you have the president of the United States saying, ‘It’s going to just go away,’ and not wearing a mask and not advocating for protocols. It just set us on this dangerous path.” (A November 2020 Washington Post story cataloged 40 times then-President Trump said COVID-19 would go away.)

She bristles at anyone who might perceive bias in use of facts. See: her moment of virality in January, when a clip of Marshall fact-checking Ohio Right to Life president Mike Gonidakis in real time on The Spectrum racked up more than 40,000 views on Twitter.

She points to MSNBC and Fox News, which both have a mix of news and opinion programming that can be hard to distinguish. “Their evening programming is really entertainment. It’s controversial, slanted, biased information, but they’re sitting on a news desk, and they have graphics that look like news graphics and they look like news anchors. So that is being put out into the universe. And people believe it as if it’s legitimate news, and it confuses them.

“I think local news tries so hard to not be biased and to not have an agenda when we go on the air, but we’re painted with that very broad brush.”

Eddith Dashiell, director of Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, thinks about this a lot. In lamenting a need for information literacy, she refers to her students. “I think their definition of news is: information that interests me. Not information that they need to know or information in the public good.”

“TV is still very important, because opinion leaders watch TV,” Curtin says in an interview. “For my money, there’s two places that matter: TV and online—not disparaging [print] newspapers, because what gets traffic is news stories.”

NBC4 anchors Cabot Rea and Colleen Marshall congratulate each other after a broadcast in 2011.

This weighs on Mike Curtin. He retired in 2011 after 38 years with The Columbus Dispatch, as reporter, editor and eventually associate publisher. In a 2019 speech at Kenyon College titled “The Fall of Newspapers and the Rise of Fake News,” the newspaperman gave a research-heavy requiem—citing those Nielsen numbers mentioned earlier in this story—for the medium he had loved since he was an 11-year-old with a Citizen-Journal paper route. He examined the “profound shifts in the business model for news, and the effects these shifts are having on our need for basic facts necessary for the functioning of a self-governing society.”

Despite teaching a class about the future of media, Dashiell readily admits it’s hard to predict. “Good journalism is good journalism. That’s what we try to focus on, because we don’t know what the platforms are going to be five years from now.”

Her students still want to be on camera, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to traditional formats. “There’s still a demand to want to be on television, but they define television differently. That camera may not necessarily be in a TV news studio; it might be their living room,” she says.

Marshall laughs with her former co-anchor Mike Jackson in 2004.

➽ Marshall started at WCMH when she was 28 and had already been working in newsrooms since college. Her version of work-life balance sounds nuts to today’s graduates. “Young people get into this business, and they say, ‘Oh, I have to work holidays? I have to work nights? I have to work weekends?’ They are going somewhere else with probably more money and a better lifestyle,” Marshall says.

The local news lifestyle is a doozy. In 1992, Marshall was initially conflicted about accepting the weekday anchor job when it was offered because her children were kindergarten-aged. Her husband, Gary, was a news photographer at the station at the time. He told her they’d make it work and somehow, they did.

For five years, Gary would work from 4 a.m. to noon and Colleen would handle mornings at home in the summer. Then during the school year, the late longtime anchor Doug Adair offered up his dinner hour so Colleen would have time for the trip back home to Hilliard for bedtime. “I would go home, I would work on homework, I would do baths, I would get their projects ready, I would tuck them in. And then I would come back to work.”

When Adair retired in 1994, Cabot Rea joined Marshall at the anchor desk, but he also had young kids, so the anchors traded off going home to parent between newscasts. In 1997, Gary retired from the station and started renovating houses, on his own schedule.

When Rea retired in 2015 at age 60, Mike Jackson replaced him at the anchor desk, and Marshall clicked with her longtime co-worker. “He was as close as I’ve ever had to having a work brother,” Marshall says. “Cabot and I also got along really well, but Mike and I were really close. He used to call me his ‘work boo.’”

Jackson was still dealing with the effects of his stroke when he was diagnosed with cancer; late last year, he announced that he had lost his ability to speak. In February, he was receiving hospice care. “He was a presence in this room,” Marshall recalls, getting choked up. “I’m so hyper and all over the place, and he was always calm.”

Colleen Marshall likes to put her nervous energy to work. “She says yes to everything,” jokes Kerry Charles, who was hired in 2020 to replace Jackson. “I think, frankly, Colleen does more than she tells us sometimes,” agrees her boss, general manager Ken Freedman.

Gov. John Kasich answers questions from Marshall during a Columbus Metropolitan Club luncheon in 2018.

Among the organizations she works with are the Area Agency on Aging and the Mid-Ohio Food Collective, for which the station runs an annual fundraiser. She was on the board of the Columbus Metropolitan Club for more than a decade. On April 27, she’ll be honored at the YWCA Women of Achievement luncheon for all of the above: volunteer, lawyer, journalist, advocate.

Vince McGrail, executive director and CEO of the Central Ohio chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, was among those who wrote a recommendation letter for Marshall. “Colleen is doing more to drive awareness of this disease than anyone in Central Ohio,” he says.

Marshall speaks openly and frequently about her mother’s Alzheimer’s journey. “I always share this story: We did not know what to do when my mom got sick. … The Alzheimer’s Association, every step of the way, told me what to expect, told us what to do, how to make it easier, how to talk to her. So I will always support the Alzheimer’s Association.

“Also, I’m afraid I’m going to get Alzheimer’s. Aren’t we all?”

Such openness is a Marshall hallmark. “I want to be the person that I am, whether I’m on the air or off the air.”

McGrail sees this each year at the organization’s annual fundraiser, Walk to End Alzheimer’s, taking place in Columbus this year on Sept. 24 at Columbus Commons, where Marshall is always a presence. “It’s amazing on Walk day, the people who want to thank her and get a selfie. … She’s a news celebrity, people know her, but they’re thanking her for what she does for this cause,” he says.

Marshall won four of her eight Emmys for her health program “I Want To Go Home: A Journey Through Alzheimer’s,” which documented her mother’s decade-long struggle with the disease.

“Anything we ask of her, she says yes,” McGrail says. “She knows everybody: members of Congress, former members of Congress, heads of hospitals. She lives this; it’s not just something she does for appearances on the air.”

A stack of McGrail’s business cards sits on the edge of her desk, ready to be shared.

Marshall discusses stories with reporter Eric Halperin in the NBC4 newsroom.

➽ Such investment in the community among longtime anchors or reporters is a big benefit to a station, Fiorile says. Local TV news viewership is often driven by lead-in programming, but also by habit. People learn to trust familiar faces and keep coming back … at least that’s how it used to work. Today, people don’t necessarily seek out news in the same places. Pointing to shrinking print circulation, Fiorile sees the same in broadcast, but notes its inherent advantage over print: It’s still basically free.

Acknowledging the “tremendous upheaval and fragmentation and choice” in today’s media landscape, omnipresence is part of Freedman’s current approach at Channel 4, the only local station that has a 4 p.m. newscast. Eight years ago, Freedman says, WCMH had 35 hours of content per week. This year, it has 60. “Part of our strategy is, we know you’re probably not going to watch every one of our newscasts, although we’d love it if you did, but we’re going to be on at a time that’s hopefully convenient for our viewers’ lives,” he says.

“I still believe in what we do, and I believe in the future of local journalism. It’s changing, and we have to change with it. We have to be flexible and agile; we experiment with livestreaming and social media stories. It’s a challenge, but we still have got a trusted brand.”

➽ Colleen Marshall is at the heart of NBC4’s brand. Still. Even though she’s been eligible for Social Security for more than four years. Her birthdays used to bother her, but loss helped shape her perspective. “One year I was complaining about my birthday, and then I thought, my God, Mike Bowersock would have loved this.”

Bowersock was a reporter and anchor for WCMH from 1989 to 1994, then again from 2004 to 2016. He died after a fall down stairs in 2016 at the age of 56. “It really changed the way I looked at my birthday,” she says.

Like most things, Marshall now has a sense of humor about her age. “We tell stories of people, and we call them elderly. I’ve told everybody in the newsroom: No one is ‘elderly’ until they’re 10 years older than whatever age I happen to be,” she says with her full-throated laugh.

When Marshall celebrated 35 years at the station three years ago, her colleagues made her a poster to celebrate. It featured her different hair styles throughout the years, all on a continuum of her natural brown, with various permutations of bangs and layering. Now, she says, her dyed roots are snow white. Her father and grandfather both had white hair by their 30s, but she’s not ready to follow in their follicles.

Over the years, she’s become accustomed to the occasional viewer thinking her looks are fair game. “You can’t believe the stuff [I get], like: ‘I liked your hair better darker,’ that kind of stuff.

“Really?” she pauses, indignant. “Could you send me a picture of yourself? I would love to evaluate how things look for you.”

In February, The New York Times wrote about longtime Canadian broadcaster Lisa LaFlamme, whose national newscast at CTV had been one of the most watched in the country before she was “unceremoniously dismissed” last summer—after she let her hair go gray during the pandemic, as countless women did. Her firing set off “debates across Canada about sexism, ageism and going gray.”

Dashiell underscores that double standards still exist for women on-air today. “These same men started out young and now they’re on the news with pot bellies, gray hair or thinning hair. They don’t take or are not expected to take the same measures as women,” she says.

Marshall, naturally, laughs about it. “Doug Adair had white hair and nobody blinked. Nobody was going to ask him to dye his hair.”

She sighs: “Men get distinguished, women become hags.”

Marshall has been shrugging off expectations her whole career. She recalls having to fight to be assigned real news stories in her early days at Channel 4. Despite her reporting background in radio in Pittsburgh, the WCMH news director at the time kept giving her “daycare, fluffy pieces.”

“He said, ‘We like the girls—the girls— to cover softer news.’ I had to fight to prove women can cover hard news stories,” Marshall says.

She never looked back.

Marshall and co-anchor Kerry Charles share a laugh between news segments in the WCMH studios.

Next, the avowed dog lover wants to go after puppy mills. “Did you know,” she says incredulously, “that Ohio is the second-worst state in the nation for puppies?” She cites data and reports off the top of her head, including a Humane Society list of puppy mills that shows 16 out of the worst 100 are in Ohio. “I’m gonna start looking into it all,” she says with the determination of, well, a dog with a bone.

Over the years, she and Gary have rescued 15 senior dogs; most recently they adopted a bonded pair that had spent all of their roughly six years of life in cages at a puppy mill. The male is so fearful, he has to be carried on walks. “I look at these two, and I think they had such capacity to be good pets. … I know that they’ll probably never be normal, but we’re going to make them as comfortable and happy as we can possibly make them.”

Colleen and Gary’s children are in their mid-30s. Garrett is a lawyer at Porter Wright, and Shannon lives in Nashville and is an HR manager for the company that owns the Grand Ole Opry. Neither has kids. Marshall the newswoman carefully keeps her opinions to herself, saying only: “I’m hoping that at some point I will be a grandmother.”

Regardless, she is not ready, or capable, of sitting at home. “I don’t think I will ever fully retire; I’d go insane,” she says. She mulls the idea of teaching, or providing media training for executives, maybe pro bono work for battered women who are going through divorces or landlord-tenant work. She isn’t sure what a life outside newscasts might look like one day.

“My boss always says, ‘We’re not going to let you retire.’ But I think when I’m 69, they’re going to be ready to kick me out the door,” she jokes. “And there will be other people lined up who want to sit in my chair. So I don’t know.” 

This story is from the April 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly and the Spring 2023 issue of Columbus CEO.