Years ago, if you'd told Ursula Pari about the job she has today, she'd have insisted that you must be thinking of someone else.
As the 5 and 10 p.m. TV news anchor for KSAT, Pari is familiar to San Antonio viewers. Delivering the day's top news stories, she's articulate and confident, yet friendly and accessible. She's impeccably suited, her brunette hair styled to perfection with a complexion that stays flawless, even under the hot studio lights.
Nobody who knew Pari back in her hometown of Lafayette, La., would have pegged her for a job in television. Growing up, she was a rather plain tomboy who wasn't the least bit interested in doing anything she couldn't do in jeans and a T-shirt.
Attending Louisiana State University, she pursued a degree in broadcasting; her first reporting job after graduation was with a small affiliate station in Lafayette. Pari didn't feel like an especially talented reporter. She was self-conscious and shied away from attention. She also had a habit of freezing up on camera. When she moved on from that job, she remembers thinking that they must have been relieved to see her go. "I made a lot of mistakes," she recalls. "I missed deadlines, I froze up on camera — how could they have thought I was a good reporter?"
A couple of years later, Pari was reporting for another station when she had a chance meeting with a woman who was then working for her former employer. Pari made a self-deprecating comment about her reputation with station management there and got a surprising response. "She told me that everyone loved me there, that they talked about me as being the most tenacious reporter," Pari says. "I had no idea that's the reputation I had. I was focusing on what I did wrong at that job."
The experience helped Pari see herself through the eyes of others, and it boosted her confidence. By the mid-1990s, she'd reported for stations in several markets and was working in Austin when she learned that a station in San Antonio was interested in her, not as a reporter, but as a news anchor.
"KSAT was offering me a five-year contract. I'd never heard of that before," she says. "In this business you never expect to stay in one place very long. Five years seemed like an eternity." Pari sensed the undercurrent of such a commitment: For KSAT to offer this contract meant they had a lot of trust in her. For her to sign it meant that she felt the same way about them.
Pari had built a solid career as a reporter, but it was when she signed on with KSAT that she accepted the whole of what she was doing. "Up until that point, reporting was just a job I was trying to do. It was when I got the job here that I embraced the total commitment to broadcast journalism," she says.
Joining KSAT's news team in 1996, Pari underwent a metamorphosis. A reporter's "look" is more sensible than stylish, and for years, Pari had been comfortable without any focus or fuss on her outward appearance. "I was always a plain Jane, a real tomboy. I was never one to wear makeup, fancy clothes and
heels, and suddenly it was part of my daily routine," she says.
The real changes for Pari, however, were more than skin deep. She explains, "When you're one of the main anchors, you're expected to take a leadership role in the newsroom and in the community. You can't dabble in it. You have to be that leader." Pari's approach was simple: "When people asked me to do something, I said yes. I didn't think about it, try to figure it into my calendar, I just did it."
Nearly a dozen years later, Pari, at 45, clearly has transferred her reporter's talent into strengths as an anchor. Her tenacity still shines through. "I go at everything pretty hard, and I commit to a path," she says. "In broadcasting it's easy to give up on a story, or a job, because it's so hard."
She made the right move, she says, but she still likes to step back into reporting as often as she can. "I get a good rush of energy from reporting," she says. "It's the backbone of what we do, and it keeps me connected to the audience, which is worth its weight in gold."
Pari doesn't deny the pressure that accompanies the work she does. "This is a career that will use you up and spit you out," she says. Her advice to young women interested in broadcasting is simple: "If you really want to do this, things like pay and hours can't matter." She shrugs off the sort of superficial tabloid commentary that targets her looks or anything else that's not relevant to her job. "That's more of a side effect than a representation of what I do," she says matter-of-factly. "My first instinct might be to rush to see what people are saying, but really, I know that it's not important."
Pari describes her relationship with KSAT as "a good fit." She recently signed another five-year contract with the station, a sign that the feeling is mutual. Now, after more than 20 years in the business, she looks at her profession with a broader view. Old enough to remember the days when network affiliates created a sensation with viewers by bringing women into the news lineup as Weather Bunnies, Pari has watched women evolve in broadcasting.
"People used to think that a woman who wanted a job in TV news was ego-driven, looking for attention, with no regard for intellect or credibility," she says.
Back in the beginning, Pari had to confront that perception firsthand, with her own family. "It was a big deal in my family that I was a reporter," she remembers. "They thought it was a glam job, certainly not that I had something to offer as a journalist.
"Today, women like me are demanding parity. We are toe-to-toe with our male counterparts. I remember feeling insecure, like men had the advantage, and that no longer exists; it's a distant memory now. Women are moving into management and making decisions about what viewers will see."
KSAT is owned by The Washington Post Company, where one of the world's best-known women in journalism — Katharine Graham — was at the helm of the iconic newspaper for decades. Her leadership forever shattered notions of women in the media. "It was amazing to have worked for her," Pari says. She credits the organization for an environment where women don't spend their days dodging gender traps. "The glass ceiling has never been part of the culture. Women are promoted in this organization," she comments.
Pari has also seen the evolution of how the public defines news and how they want to receive it. "A long time ago, I went to a seminar where everyone was talking about how journalism was becoming infotainment," she says. "When shows like Entertainment Tonight went on the air, all the credible journalists were appalled that people thought this was journalism. That was back in the 1980s. Today, those programs
are part of the mainstream."
The current shift, of course, is the constant availability of online news and information. "People don't have to
wait until 5 or 10 p.m.," says Pari. "Our job today is to put out a really good newscast as long as people want to watch, but the way we do it now may not last forever."
She believes that the traditional TV newscast won't go away any time soon, but adds that the harder edge of traditional news has merged with viewers' taste for entertainment and the style of online media. "What you can't get online is the personality, the flow and pace of a newscast," she explains. "We have to make it pop, give viewers the experience."
Pari is also a mother of two young children; son Jackson is 6, and daughter Georgia is 2. Pari embraced motherhood the same way she goes after a news story — with passion and commitment.
"I can hardly picture who I was before I had kids," she laughs. "It's a distant memory." A lifelong animal lover, Pari jokes that when she was younger, she always thought that having children must be similar to having pets. "It's not!" she says. "It's like somebody scrapes out your insides and puts something completely different in there. Your heart changes. Your brain changes. The things you thought were important really aren't." Her job demands long, unusual hours at times, and Pari has to respond at the drop of a hat. For her, having a support network that's ready to help around the clock is a necessity. "It's my cross to bear," she explains. "But when you have small children, you're constantly maneuvering, adjusting and compromising."
When the long hours are getting to her kids, Pari gets a pretty strong signal: "My daughter will climb into bed with me when she hasn't seen much of me. That's my cue that she needs more of me."
As much as she prefers to keep her family's personal life separate from her professional life, those worlds came together for Pari at a crucial time. KSAT became a media sponsor for the local chapter of the American Heart Association at about the same time that Pari's son was born with pulmonary valve stenosis, a heart defect that obstructs blood flow from the heart to the lungs.
On top of the challenges of being a first-time mom, Pari was struggling to understand the complexities of her son's condition, and the AHA provided an abundance of support. At work, only a few people were aware of her son's condition and the significance of her involvement with the organization until she was asked to speak at a station- sponsored Association event. "In the course of my speech I talked about my son," she says. "People were floored — they had no idea."
When Pari's daughter was born with the same condition, she was better prepared for the challenges. "What are the odds that you'd have one child with this condition, let alone two?" she asks. Her daughter's condition is much less severe, and she has, in all likelihood, already outgrown the defect.
Her son had an angioplasty in 2007, and she expects that he will need a second operation when he's older. "His condition worsens as he grows," she explains. "The valve won't grow with the rest of his body. When he reaches his full growth, we'll do another angioplasty and hope that it holds."
Pari continues to be an active supporter of the American Heart Association, for her family, her employer and also for the community. "It really strikes a chord in this community," she says. "There is so much support here, but there is also so much need. Heart disease is rampant in San Antonio, especially amongst women," she says. "It's connected to so many other health problems, and I'll continue to do whatever I can to help."
Motherhood has also taught Pari the importance of finding time for herself. For her, that means getting away from the trappings of her professional life. She's ridden horses for as long as she can remember and was a competitive barrel racer as a teenager. "I was a card-carrying rodeo competitor," she says. "I can catch and tie down a goat in seconds. I'm still looking for a way to apply that skill in a real-life scenario."
Pari has become an avid polo player, which is a far cry from rodeo, but she's quick to explain that the different riding styles offer a balanced fitness routine. "Each style of riding works different muscle groups," she says. "You can also find me on the softball field, playing badly," she jokes.
"People often describe me as 'athletic,' which is a nice way of saying 'She's not feminine, she's a tomboy,'" Pari laughs. She's comfortable with the characterization, and out of all of the ways one might describe her, she keeps her focus on her job and family. "I care that I'm a good reporter and a good mom," she says. "Other than that, my hope is that people think I'm sincere."