Tom Jennings, '85

Profile: Alumnus Navigates Shift From Print to Documentary Film, Wins Emmy

TOM JENNINGS, ’85, a Peabody and Emmy Award-winning journalist, won the first Hearst Award, known as the “Pulitzer Prize of collegiate journalism,” for Kent State. However, he almost didn’t graduate in the journalism program.


Jennings started college on a general studies track, but found his way to, as it was called at the time, the Daily Kent Stater. He knew next to nothing about journalistic writing, but after hard work with the editor, his first story made it to the front page. He was hooked.


“That wonderfully fateful day when I walked into that Stater office… I literally was just trying to find my way with what I wanted to do, not necessarily for my life, but I definitely was looking for something to give me direction,” he said.


The Hearst-Award-winning piece was an editorial about the need for Kent State to properly memorialize the May 4, 1970, shootings — the first of many awards for Jennings. He has won the George Foster Peabody Award, the CINE Golden Eagle Award, the New York Film Festival Gold and Silver Medal and an Emmy for Outstanding Research. The Emmy, which he won in 2017, was for the film “Challenger Disaster: Lost Tapes” on National Geographic, in collaboration with Katherine Williams and David Tillman.


“Those skills that I learned (at Kent State University) long ago paid off,” he said.


Jennings made the switch from traditional journalism to cable and documentary mid-career. Much of his work as a producer, director and writer centers on the idea of “lost tapes” – documentaries based around rare footage, audio and the like, compiled into one film. Each focuses on a historical figure or event, such as Malcolm X, O.J. Simpson or Pearl Harbor.


Despite his accomplishments, Jennings hasn’t forgotten his Kent State roots. He is pleased to see the way May 4, 1970, is commemorated in the May 4 Visitors Center of Taylor Hall — a wing that once housed the Daily Kent Stater newsroom.


“That recognition that I wrote about what needed to be done, whatever small part in reminding people way back when, I’m certainly grateful to see… May 4th, the tragedy that it was, being recognized in such a remarkable way,” Jennings said.


(Adapted from an article published in August 2018)

POSTED: Saturday, August 18, 2018 - 1:00pm
UPDATED: Tuesday, June 25, 2019 - 2:25pm
Megan Ayscue, '19