One of the most recognizable voices in Arizona for more than two decades, Mike Watkiss is known not only for his excellent story-telling but also for telling stories that matter, ones that change lives in very real ways. That is his legacy as he says goodbye to Arizona’s Family, the newsroom he has called home since 1996.
A grizzled old-school reporter, Watkiss relied less on the computer research that has become an integral part of much reporting today and more on face-to-face conversations with the people in his stories -- the ones in the thick of the action, whatever action it was.
He has been on the front lines of countless headline-grabbing stories, not only here in Arizona, but all over the country and even the world.
His series of pieces on polygamy in America, stories that collectively became known as The Polygamy Diaries, were ahead of their time.
The Polygamy Diaries
He let America in on a nasty little secret – many secrets -- about polygamist prophet Warren Jeffs, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and the abuse of women and children who were a part of the church and followers of Jeffs.
Considered some of his best work, The Polygamy Diaries centered on an ongoing issue that planted itself in his head and refused to let go. In return, he refused to let go of the story, knowing with every fiber of being that it needed to be told and he was the one to tell it.
You might say it was a story he was destined to tell.
"The practice of polygamy is sort of in my DNA," he wrote on azfamily.com in 2016. "I was born and raised in Salt Lake City and, at the age of 8, I was baptized into the Mormon church.
"Like a lot of people whose families' roots go deep in the Mormon faith, I have ancestors who practiced polygamy. I have also spent much of my nearly 40-year career as a reporter doing stories about the practice of polygamy in America."
It wasn’t a one-and-done story – not in Watkiss’ hands. And it was more than a series.
[SLIDESHOW: Watkiss through the years]
It was a story he came back to over and over. Because people needed to know what was happening in the twin polygamous towns of Colorado City, AZ and Hilldale, UT. And Watkiss needed to tell them.
The story required more – deserved more – than a two- or three-minute segment in a newscast.
Watkiss put together a documentary in 2004. He did not just do the reporting for "Colorado City and the Underground Railroad," he produced it.
While Watkiss has never been in the business for the accolades, the doc earned him a regional Emmy Award and a regional Edward R. Murrow Award.
But the story wasn’t finished with him. And he certainly wasn’t finished with it.
"Over the years, I believe these stories have helped shine a spotlight on this long-standing human rights crisis within the borders of our own country," he wrote in a blog on Arizona’s Family in January 2016. It was right before the civil rights trial in which the twin polygamous towns of Colorado City, AZ and Hilldale, Utah were deemed guilty of prejudice against non-believers.
Watkiss was there from the beginning and followed the trial to its conclusion.
"I’ve always admired and respected your work," former 3TV reporter Claudia Rivero posted, along with the photo on her Facebook page. "There are too many amazing stories to pick just one, but your work in Colorado City, giving those children a voice, speaks for itself. The entire country and probably the world know that story because of YOU."
In a business where the only constant is change, Watkiss is one of a handful of Phoenix journalists to have a long tenure in one newsroom.
His started when KTVK’s news managers -- then-news director Phil Alvidrez and former assistant news director Dennis O’Neill -- were "looking for a top-notch reporter" in 1996.
"We'd first seen a young Mike Watkiss reporting in Salt Lake City years before," Alvidrez said. "A decade came and went. We lost touch. Mike spent that time honing his skills as a correspondent on the syndicated show, A Current Affair. When we reconnected, he was field producing for Hard Copy, getting a camera shoved in his face by a reluctant interviewee. Dennis just happened to see that, came in the next day and said, ‘I think we found our guy.’"
Alvidrez said that's not only his first Watkiss story -- there would be many more to come -- but also his favorite.
The rest is history.
"The thing that is different about Watkiss is that he’s not afraid," O’Neill said. "He doesn’t worry about asking anybody a question."
Fearless is right. Watkiss did whatever was needed to get the story, even if it meant putting himself in harm’s way, which he did – more than a few times.
"… I’ve been shot at. I’ve been punched. I’ve been threatened and I have worked my way onto the ‘enemies lists’ of some very powerful people …," he wrote in a recent Facebook post.
"He is a true icon in this business," former 3TV reporter Crystal Cruz wrote on her Facebook page.
[VIDEO: Mike Watkiss standout stories]
"I really feel at the top of my sort of resume, I’m just a storyteller," Watkiss said.
There’s no "just" about it. A born storyteller who has always had a passionate love affair with words, Watkiss has been a mentor to many in the Arizona’s Family newsroom. His colleagues have always been appreciative, to say the least, of his work.
"I like to throw myself into the stories," he said. "I’ve never really been able to watch from afar."My story [each day] is the most important story … to somebody. I owe it them to make it important to me."I will always marvel how you wrote and presented your stories," 3 On Your Side producer Warren Trent wrote on his Facebook page.
"He gives 100 percent every day, no matter how big or small the story is," photojournalist Todd Martin said.
Anybody who has seen Watkiss on the air knows that while some stories were bigger than others, there were no "small" ones in his mind. Whatever the story, he would tell it and tell it well.
Ready to "march into the gates of hell"
A consummate professional in what might seem like an unconventional package – his standard work uniform was a T-shirt (usually black), jeans and biker boots – the minute you heard that deep gravelly drawl, you knew you were in for a good story.
"There’s nobody who paints the picture more beautifully than Mike Watkiss with the way he talks," "Good Morning Arizona" anchor Javier Soto said.
That work uniform – his trademark look – was deliberate.
"I thought, you know what, I’m gonna start dressing so I can march into the gates of hell and be comfortable about it because they may ask me to do that," he said.
They did and he did. Not in a suit and tie.
(APP USERS:Click here for photo
Just serious enough, but not too serious
A man with a huge personality (that’s an understatement), Watkiss was imminently approachable.
"[He’s] just this overpowering personality just walking around the newsroom," Arizona’s Family photojournalist James Apalategui, who has shared many an adventure with Watkiss, said. "You think he could be a little intimidating but he’s not. … He gives everybody a hug. Shakes your hand, gives you a hug. He’s such an open and friendly kind of guy."
Watkiss has a healthy respect for kindness and civility, even in most tense of situations.
While he was serious about every story he did, Watkiss never took himself too seriously.
Case in point? Weather.
"He’ll be doing a live shot out of Flagstaff, and here’s this serious reporter but he’ll be the first guy to get down and do a snow angel – and do it better than everyone," "Good Morning Arizona" anchor Scott Pasmore said.
[WATCH: In his element out in the elements]
And remember that "overpowering personality just walking around the newsroom"? The walking was not always on his feet. Watkiss was known to do the more-than-occasional handstand.
Approaching every story with respect -- whether it was a light-hearted animal piece, surveying the aftermath of a monsoon storm, or reporting on a tragedy that affected him personally, like the death of 3TV photojournalist and frequent "partner in crime" Jim Cox when 3TV’s news helicopter crashed in 2007 – Watkiss has always been keenly aware that his stories are not his alone.
"I’ve worked with some of the greatest shooters in the world," he said. "It’s easy to do good work when you’re surrounded by good people."
Those who have been in the field with Watkiss speak just as highly of him.
"I’ll tell you, he’s the hardest-working person I’ve ever worked for," Martin explained. "He values his photographer probably more than I’ve ever experienced with another reporter."
When he was on the job, the story always came first. Even on the worst day of his professional career, July 27, 2007. The day the news choppers from 3TV and ABC 15 collided in mid-air over central Phoenix. He lost not just colleagues that day but friends. It's a loss he still feels today.
But that day, 11 years ago now, his job was to tell the people of Arizona what had happened. And that's exactly what he did, along with all of this 3TV family, pushing down his own grief so he could do justice to the story and, more importantly, to his friends.
(APP USERS:Click here for photo from The Arizona Republic/azcentral
Without a doubt an old-school, hard-core journalist, there is something just below the surface that comes out in every story. Heart.
"He has a crusty exterior, but a super soft interior," Martin said.
Heart and soul
That soft interior is one of the reasons Watkiss is moving on from the grind of daily news.
"I’ve seen one too many murders, gone to one too many grisly crime scenes," he said.
It takes a toll.
Watkiss told me about a man who called him several years ago and asked him if he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
"After 40 years of covering murder and mayhem, I confess, I found it to be a rather provocative question," he posted on Facebook after we talked. "I’ve covered enough murders to fill up a big city cemetery. I’ve prowled around more crime scenes than most cops and I’ve played a role in more courtroom dramas than Perry Mason, Matlock and the cast of Law and Order combined."
Through it all, he gave each story everything he had.
"My story [each day] is the most important story … to somebody," he said. "I owe it them to make it important to me."So you start with something bad and so often people rise to the occasion. That’s the beauty of the story. … That’s what I cover.He has always valued the trust placed in him, remembering that it is fragile.
"It takes years to build and can be lost in a moment," he said.
As for the people whose stories he told, Watkiss said he was grateful for what he called their "hospitality" in "allowing" him into their lives.
For Watkiss, a tragic event is not the story. The true story is in how people respond to that tragedy.
"The human response is frequently very noble and uplifting and inspiring," he explained. "So you start with something bad and so often people rise to the occasion. That’s the beauty of the story. … That’s what I cover."
People often criticize reporters, considering them vultures that prey on people at their worst moments.
Speaking with members Parents of Murdered Children, a group to which nobody wants to belong, Watkiss said he learned just how necessary those "uncomfortable" encounters are.
"It was my duty, my due diligence, to give them the option to share their story," he said. "They could tell me, ‘Go to hell,’ and that was fine, their choice."
While those stories, murder and mayhem, are the meat and potatoes of local TV news, it’s the unexpected stories that Watkiss loved most.
Finding the unexpected stories
In his early days in Salt Lake City, he came across a man and his son in a homemade covered wagon on the side of a freeway. He stopped to talk to them and learned that they were living in that wagon, having deliberately gone off the grid. They were making their way across America.
"[The dad said,] ‘The only thing we leave behind is our footprint,'" Watkiss recalled. That stuck with him; even after all these years, the story is still one of his favorites.
(APP USERS:Click here for photo
It’s no secret that journalism in America has come under fire in recent years, openly vilified at the highest level. Despite that – more accurately because of that – Watkiss believes we need good journalists more than ever.
"Journalism has been tribalized into two political camps and it doesn’t serve the public or the greater good," he said. "The industry is in flux right now."
His advice to those just getting into this business?
"The pursuit of truth is a noble goal," he said. "Being honest is a day-to-day expectation."
In his mind, it’s all about honesty and integrity.
"My saintly mother always said, ‘Michael, leave ‘em while they’re laughing.’"
So that’s what he’s doing.
"I still give ‘em the best I can," he said. "I don’t want to wear out my welcome."
His time in the newsroom, however, is nothing he would trade.
"I found a way to get paid to have adventures and tell stories," he said, smirk in his voice. "I’ve enjoyed the adrenalin rush of this job. … In many ways, I feel like the luckiest guy in the world at the end of this run."
END OF AN ERA: Mike Watkiss, with photojournalist James Apalategui by his side, did his last live shot for 3TV's "Good Evening Arizona" on Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018. (APP USERS:Click here for photo)
The third act
A self-described "hyperactive kid," it’s no surprise that Watkiss is already working on what he calls his "third act."
What does that look like? Well, there’s the book he’s been working on for years, the stories behind the stories he’s covered.
"I have no delusion that anybody is going to find this stuff interesting," he said.
Sitting in a jail cell with the Night Stalker. Ambushing Elizabeth Taylor on an airplane. How could that not be interesting?
That book – his career in a nutshell -- is also the source material for a screenplay Watkiss is working on with his son.
As for screen time, Watkiss has that covered, too. He’s wrapped roles on three – yes, three – movies. And he hopes to do more. (You might remember him from his first movie role in a little film called "Dumb and Dumber.")
"I just want to know my lines and hit my marks," he said.
Watkiss caps off his career in local TV news with one of the most prestigious honors for which only a few candidates are selected each year – inclusion in the Silver Circle of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
The award honors journalists who have been in TV news for at least 25 years and have a significant background in public service; these journalists also have been mentors to colleagues.
Speaking from personal experience, Watkiss has certainly been that.
Watkiss will be inducted at the Rocky Mountain Emmy Awards ceremony in October.
When all is said and done, there's one thing (many, really) Watkiss said he will miss the most. The people with whom he's worked.
The feeling is entirely mutual.
Back to you.I found a way to get paid to have adventures and tell stories. In many ways, I feel like the luckiest guy in the world at the end of this run.
FAMILY AFFAIR: Watkiss' wife (right) and daughter joined him for his last live shot on 3TV's "Good Evening Arizona." (APP USERS:Click here for photo
The man. The myth. The Arizona's Family legend. (APP USERS:Click here for photo
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