Tom Jennings, '85

Profile: Infamous O.J. trial spurred career shift to documentaries; Emmy and Peabody awards followed

Tom Jennings, ’85, discovered journalism at Kent State.  But his experience as a reporter in the infamous O.J. Simpson trial sparked a career shift into documentary filmmaking and international acclaim.

Jennings reflected on his career while attending the 59th Monte Carlo Television Festival in Monaco earlier this summer, where his latest documentary “APOLLO : Missions To The Moon” screened. The film premiered July 7 on the National Geographic Channel.

“I would have never met the Prince of Monaco, or even gone there and certainly never had a film shown there, without what I had learned at Kent State,” Jennings said.

From covering the O.J. Simpson trial for the Santa Monica Outlook to writing and directing shows for the History Channel and National Geographic Channel, Jennings’ career credentials sparkle. His company, 1895 Films, has produced a highlight reel of award-winning documentaries and TV movies, including a George Foster Peabody Award in 2012 for “MLK: The Assassination Tapes” and an Emmy in 2017 in News & Documentary for “Challenger Disaster: Lost Tapes.”

But Jennings arrived at Kent State in the fall of 1979 with aerospace and airplanes on his mind.

“I didn’t enter with the vision of being a reporter. I thought I wanted to design airplanes … I was an aerospace engineer.” But he also was a good writer, so he said his roommate suggested he try working for the Kent Stater. 

Jennings went on to be named editor of the Kent Stater twice and was the School’s first winner in the national Hearst Journalism Awards program, with a 1985 third place in writing.

While working for the Kent Stater, Jennings worked with Richard Smith on the editorial staff for several years.

“He was always enjoyable to work with. Even when there was a lot of pressure, things were crazy or were on deadline, everything was always easier because he never seemed to get worked up,” Smith said. “And he always had that great sense of humor, and not just for me but for everyone.”

After graduating from Kent State, Jennings launched his journalism career and earned bylines in media organizations such as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press and The Washington Post.

He eventually moved to the west coast and worked at a number of publications in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas, one of which was the Santa Monica Outlook where he was asked to cover the 1994-1995 O.J. Simpson trial. Even though it was a big opportunity for Jennings, something didn’t feel quite right.

“I sat in the courtroom part of the time, and while it was kind of exciting for the first few weeks, after a while the whole ‘camp O.J.’, which is what they called the media camped outside of the criminal courts building, just seemed to get away from what I really wanted to be involved with,” Jennings said.

So he applied to a production company seeking writers. While the company was initially hesitant due to his lack of experience in broadcast writing, Jennings said “the journalism skills that I had, translated really well” to the company’s needs.

From that start in 1996, after covering the O.J. Simpson trial, he grew his craft and went on to write, direct or produce more than 180 documentaries and TV movies. 

He kept in touch with his Stater colleague Smith along the way.

“I remember so many times when my phone would ring at like three or four in the morning and it would be Tom,” Smith said. “And he would be calling and saying ‘Hey, I’m calling from the Roman catacombs,’ or, ‘Hey, I’m calling from the edge of a volcano in Asia.’ And it was always a little surreal.”

It all began at Kent State.

“Now, we’re making things like the Apollo film and I’m sitting in Monaco with the Prince of Monaco, watching 90 minutes of my movie, unreal,” Jennings said. “And it’s all because [of] that first step from all those years ago when I got my first job, so it’s kind of all connected.” The Kent State link continued in 2018 when Jennings visited JMC for the first time in a decade, connecting with both student journalists and filmmakers.

POSTED: Wednesday, September 25, 2019 - 11:39am
UPDATED: Thursday, July 9, 2020 - 2:54pm
WRITTEN BY:
Rachel Karas, ‘21