NBC 5’s Anchorman tells me who he thought he would be, who he is, and a little bit of how he got here.
They say prison can change a man. After an internship at Stillwater prison during his freshman year at Macalester College, Rob Stafford decided if he was going to inspire change in the world he would need to take a different path.
Today, many Chicagoans know Rob Stafford as the head anchorman at NBC 5, who comes into their homes on a nightly basis to relay stories happening in the city and the world. As a shy kid, Stafford never saw himself entering into the journalism field, least of all broadcast journalism.
Inspired by a young prison warden he had done a project on, in high school, Stafford decided he believed in rehabilitation and wanted to help people who had ended up in the prison system. Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota was the only choice for Stafford, as it was the one school that would allow him to do an internship in a prison as an incoming freshman. So Rob left his small hometown in New Hampshire and moved to Minnesota.
“Freshman year I interned at the Minnesota state prison at Stillwater…I got to work directly with inmates because it was the 70s and you had a lot more access then,” he explains. As an intern Stafford learned how to repair shoes from one man and how to weld from a man that had been imprisoned for murdering his wife. The experience Rob says was, “fascinating,” but he quickly learned that he had been idealistic in his youth and if he wanted to inspire change in the world, prison might not be his best route.
He began writing for the school paper and found journalism exciting. “I just love the process of getting out of an office, sort of an adventure and not being indoors and finding out information.” Stafford changed his major to journalism. From there he was encouraged by an anchor he had taken a class with at St. Thomas College, who felt Stafford “really had a knack” for broadcast. At the time many of the stories at his small town station took their stories from newspapers, who generally had more staff to cover stories.
A pivotal point in Stafford’s career came during his time at WFTV in Orlando, where he is credited with establishing the investigative unit. He states, “That’s really where I learned to be reporter.” When Stafford was put on the police beat, he immediately began covering crimes, the court circuit, and death penalty cases. The local police became a great source for him and lead to his self-proclaimed, “best story.”
There was a lack of security at a number of hotel chains throughout the Orlando area and a large number of room thefts were being reported. Stafford began looking into employees that might be involved as there was no evidence of forced entry into the rooms. He discovered through hidden cameras that maids were stealing. He and his team then followed the maids as a van took them back to prison. They were being hired on work release and he was able to tie them to some violent crimes. In interviewing a rapist who had been caught, Stafford inquired as to how he was able to gain access to the room, “Master key man, you just rent it from the maids.” Stafford and his crew were able to go under cover and purchase a key, leading to a change in the way hotel security was run.
Stafford relates this major accomplishment back to his experience at Stillwater as a college intern. He digs deeper into the situation with the maids because he believes that these women really do want to better themselves and he “really does believe in rehabilitation.” But he questions if “a convicted thief is the person you want to give a master key to.” Of course there have been many stories since then, “Sex Offender Shuffle” also at WFTV explored the cycle of abuse among foster children, but according to Stafford, the one that put him on the map is the hotel story. It led to an investigative position with Dateline, where he won an Edward R. Murrow Award for a piece on racial profiling, and his current position today.
Stafford reflects back on his time spent at Stillwater and how some people may say he wasted time doing that internship. He recognizes the value in the experience. As an investigative reporter he has conducted numerous prison interviews and his work with inmates as a college freshman has given him insight into how to engage with criminals and get the story. “I think my message to anyone, is that there is no wasted experience in your life. Everything you do, you get something from. And the key is finding something your passionate about.”