sara Messer, Eva Pilgrim, Kenneth Moton,

'Good Morning America,' Gamecock edition

Journalism graduates put the network in television

Kenneth Moton, Eva Pilgrim and Sarah Messer start out laughing and never really stop. But if you think the three University of South Carolina broadcast journalism alumni aren’t serious professionals, think again.

Moton and Pilgrim, both ’04 graduates, are news correspondents for ABC and familiar faces on Good Morning America, where Pilgrim also serves as a weekend anchor. Messer, ’06, is a producer for the popular morning show, which is why her laptop stays open throughout the interview, even as they’re all ribbing each other for being overachievers and perfectionists.

Maybe it’s how they cut the stress. Maybe it’s how they recenter between shows and cope with jet lag. Or maybe it’s just what happens when old college friends cross paths on the campus where their careers took shape nearly 20 years ago. 

There was a group of us that all thought, ‘We really want to try to do this for our life.’ So we all became very close.

Eva Pilgrim, '04 broadcast journalism, ABC news correspondent

And this is no ordinary week. The three former classmates are in Columbia for a “Rise and Shine” episode of GMA to be broadcast live from the Colonial Life Arena the next day. The idea behind the series is to broadcast from all 50 states and highlight what makes each state special. Thanks to Messer and the juggernaut that is Dawn Staley’s women’s basketball team, UofSC got to play host for the South Carolina episode on the eve of March Madness.

It's a big deal for three proud alumni who are excited to show off their alma mater, their city and their home state. But while there’s still plenty to do before showtime, sitting down together for a green room interview has them in a mood that’s equal parts banter and personal reflection.

“I did not have a normal college experience,” Messer says with a laugh. “I worked from 8 or 8:30 until the 6 o’clock news was over almost every Saturday and Sunday of my college career. And then during the week I helped produce [longtime WIS anchor] Judi Gatson. I was addicted to news.”

We were going for the hard news, anything that could go on a reel to get us our first job.

Kenneth Moton, '04 broadcast journalism, ABC news correspondent

She still is. All three of them are. But that’s the business: what Messer signed up for when she landed a job as web producer at WIS before she even graduated from high school; what Moton and Pilgrim signed up for when they took journalism instructor Rick Peterson’s immersive Senior Semester, a capstone course that requires students to spend upwards of eight hours a day producing content for Carolina News & Reporter.

“There was a group of us that all thought, ‘We really want to try to do this for our life,’ ” says Pilgrim. “So we all became very close: ‘I'll work on your story, you work on mine.’ We were always making deals with each other.”

And they weren’t chasing puff. They pursued the same stories as their peers in professional media — and with a competitive zeal that drove each of them to work harder and made all of them better.

“Oh, we were going for the hard news, anything that could go on a reel to get us our first job,” says Moton. “I remember the Iraq War was going on, so we were doing homecoming stories or ‘troops going to war.’ And Eva did a murder story, a man murdered his baby.”

Moton is referring to Pilgrim’s first eye-popper interview, when an assignment from Peterson led to an on-the-record confession by an 18-year-old Winnsboro man who had killed his own child. Moton, who worked for rival WLTX at the time, texted his classmate, hoping in vain to get the story on his station. Pilgrim shared it with WIS, where she worked alongside Messer. Ultimately, future NBC News anchor Craig Melvin, who was still at WIS at the time, ran the story that night.

I did not have a normal college experience ... I was addicted to news.

Sarah Messer, ’06 broadcast journalism, producer Good Morning America

To hear Pilgrim tell it, she was just a nervous cub reporter who stumbled into one heck of a story. To hear Moton tell it, that was his first real glimpse of Pilgrim’s exceptional gift as an interviewer.

“Eva has a way of connecting with people,” says Moton, who collaborated with her frequently during Senior Semester. “She has this knack for getting anyone to talk to her — literally a murder suspect will talk to her. That’s true to this day.”

Pilgrim brushes off the compliment but she’s quick to return it, acknowledging that she once dropped Moton’s name when pursuing a job at an affiliate on her way up. She also tips her hat to Messer, her standing Sunday night dinner date back in college, for continuing to offer sage advice.

“When you decide to do this, you're crazy, right? There's a bit of insanity to it,” says Pilgrim. “So you reach out to the people that you trust. I remember when I came to ABC I texted Sarah, ‘What should I know?’ And then when I got the job, Sarah was like, ‘Live close, you'll sleep more.' I didn't understand at the time what that meant. Now I totally understand what that means.”

In an industry that can grind down its talent, that level of support from friends in the same line of work is important, says Moton, whose own itinerary can prove just as hectic. It’s one more reason to stay in touch.

“I will root for Eva and Sarah every single day of the week,” he explains. “When I see Eva traveling the world, when she sees me traveling, doing stories, we’re always sending supportive texts and other things like that. Trust is a big, big thing, and I would trust Eva with my life because we started together so long ago.”

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