Becoming the First: Serese Cole Forges AheadFeb 25, 2021 10:43AM ● By Katy Spratte Joyce
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
When Cole was a sophomore in high school, her English teacher encouraged her to join the school newspaper. Her first article was about a writing center, not a thrilling subject matter, but it enchanted the budding journalist nonetheless. During the remainder of her years at Hickman Mills High School, she enjoyed tackling subjects that made her peers talk. She also served as an editor of the paper in her senior year.
That experience led her to attend Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. Cole said, “I wanted to attend a historically black college with a good journalism program, and they also happened to pay for my tuition with a big scholarship.” After years of being one of the only students of color in her elementary and high schools, she was ready to experience being the majority.
She graduated with honors with a journalism degree, initially focusing on print, then on broadcast. That led Cole to her first professional job in Wilmington, North Carolina. There, she tackled hard news stories and fine-tuned her skills, especially reporting. She remembers feeling devastation when covering her first hurricane. Equally devastating was Cole’s first time reporting on a murder. The victim was a 16-year-old boy, and she was tasked with interviewing the parents. Leading with her natural empathy, Cole scored a discussion with them a few days later. She said discovering how to approach people for an interview in times of emotion was one of her biggest lessons learned during her year in North Carolina.
A serendipitous offer from a hometown station moved Cole back to the Midwest. Those years in Kansas City included the final two years she spent with her sister Beth, who was suffering from breast cancer. Three years earlier, then-29-year-old Beth was told she had five years to live, a fact Beth only told her husband. “Even then, she was being a big sister and protecting me,” Cole said. Beth died almost exactly five years after being diagnosed. Cole said this experience influenced her to help raise awareness of breast cancer, especially in young African American women, and to encourage women to be fierce advocates for their own health. She now sits on the Susan G. Komen advisory board in Omaha.
Cole had set a professional goal to be an anchor. She first achieved that goal with a position at KOLN/KGIN in Lincoln, where she was the city’s first African American anchor. She spent the next decade in Lincoln, where she met and married her husband, Todd. Their two sons, Jordan and Tyler, were born in the state capital. In fact, Todd proposed to her on live TV. She started as a morning show anchor, and eventually worked the prime evening time slot.
With two young children and a hectic schedule, the anchor began to re-think her priorities. “Lincoln was big for my career, but I truly believe in God’s timing,” Cole said. One son was about to start kindergarten, her husband was from Omaha and commuted there daily, and the couple had family in Nebraska’s biggest city. Cole took a position on a morning show at WOWT, which left plenty of time for Zumba workouts, attending her sons’ sports games, and enjoying the sunshine on walks in her La Vista neighborhood. Professionally, it was a great fit and smooth transition, as her general manager in Lincoln was married to the WOWT counterpoint. She calls that change one of the best decisions she made.
Cole spent eight years with WOWT, until contract negotiations unexpectedly went south. She said the station offered her a contract, then reneged and went in a different direction. They offered the fan favorite (one of her viewers even named her daughter after the anchor) a lesser contract and position. While she considered this offer, she declined. As she told Omaha Magazine, “In my heart of hearts, I just knew I could not do it. I knew I was better than the demotion.”
A week after her last signoff on WOWT, Omaha’s two other major stations, KETV and KMTV, reached out and said they could not believe she was available. She ended up landing at KMTV as part of a revamp of the morning show and KMTV’s first all-female on-air talent team (with Jennifer Griswald, Courtney Johns, and Maya Saenz).
KMTV Vice President and General Manager Larry Forsgren said, “We are excited to have Serese on the KMTV team. The viewers truly connect to her, and she has a great connection with them through her many followers on social media. Having Serese Cole and Jenny Griswold gives us the most authentically passionate morning news team in Omaha.” He added, “When looking for new [anchors] the goal is to hire the most talented person you can. We do not adhere to the old stereotypes that you must have a male and a female on your team.”
Cole looks forward to her work each day, especially connecting with viewers. “People welcome me into their homes, so I’m happy to let them into mine” she said with a smile.
Visit 3newsnow.com for more information.
This article was printed in the March/April 2021 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.