Waking up with Jason DeRusha

A look behind the scenes with the hardest-working man in Minnesota media

"Not too long ago I remember being on panels where I was the new young kid," DeRusha begins. "I've been here 10 years and now I'm the old man."

At 38, DeRusha has a résumé that reads like that of a journalist twice his age. Notably, it includes five Regional Emmy awards and 15 nominations, as well as the title of president of the local chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Minneapolis proclaimed September 21, 2009, to be "Jason DeRusha Day" and, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, Mayor R.T. Rybak highlighted several of DeRusha's more notable accomplishments, including "dressing up like a light bulb for the Holidazzle parade."

DeRusha joined WCCO in 2003, bringing a younger face and flashier style than the station was accustomed to.

Tony Nelson
DeRusha hard at work on a food segment with authors Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois
Tony Nelson
DeRusha hard at work on a food segment with authors Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois

"People looked at me like I had to be an idiot," DeRusha says.

It wasn't long before he'd internalized the weird looks and started wondering: "Maybe I don't deserve to be here. Do I know what I'm doing?"

Don Shelby, a veteran anchor with two Peabody awards to his name, remembers pulling DeRusha aside not long after his arrival to pass along advice he'd gotten from his mentor, Dave Moore. Shelby recognized the strength of the young man's personality, but didn't want to see him overlay it with a superficial sense of authority.

"No one can see the truth of a human being like a television audience," Shelby remembers telling DeRusha. "You can lie, you can fake, you can act — but the first thing the audience sees is you're lying, faking, and acting."

DeRusha's breakthrough came on August 1, 2007. With only his cell phone, he provided viewers with the first images of the collapsed 35W bridge.

"The scene is pretty unbelievable," DeRusha said, his voice cracking at the sight of victims being helped from the wreckage. "Police everywhere and thick plumes of black smoke going up into the air [from] this vehicle fire here on the end of the bridge."

DeRusha was able to narrate in this fashion for several minutes before his cell phone cut out. Reception was spotty the rest of the night — for the entire Twin Cities — as the sudden crash of calls overwhelmed service. It taught him the value of having an alternate means of communication. When he got home the next morning, at 2 a.m., he signed up for Twitter.

That winter, while working on a story about people who are allergic to Christmas trees, DeRusha solicited his followers for leads and got a single reply. One was all it took. Whereas other reporters were slow to see the value of social media, DeRusha embraced it. In turn, the community embraced him.

"He's done an excellent job at making himself almost Minnesotan," says Amy Carlson Gustafson, an arts and entertainment reporter for the Pioneer Press who has written about DeRusha over the years. "He applies that mentality to whatever job he's working on."

The following year, he would bring his social media fluency to full flower when he took over the Good Question franchise. His partnership with the segment's co-creator, photojournalist Joe Berglove, was an exercise in contrasts.

"I'm sort of this born-bred Minnesota outdoor hunting, fishing guy, and he's sort of this metrosexual city kid," Berglove says. "But we have a ball when we're together."

Berglove's hand-held camerawork was better suited for Jason's more casual approach, allowing DeRusha to make even the most mundane of topics entertaining.

In one segment that later won an Emmy for weather reporting, the camera dances around an emaciated snowman as DeRusha says, "Friends of the snowman tell me his murder came as a shock."

In another, DeRusha can be seen running through downtown Minneapolis, his voice quavering as he yells, "Citizen's arrest!"

Of course, the tomfoolery was interspersed with serious news reports. The chances were just as great that you'd tune in to see him calmly interview a researcher about poverty in the suburbs. But what seemed to resonate with people most were the absurd bits.

"It's giving you a little bit of dessert with your vegetables," explains WCCO news director Mike Caputa.

Back at the U of M, DeRusha is finally ready to address the elephants in the room: No, he's not the perfectly coiffed anchor. And yes, he's very active on social media.

"But the truth is, we're still hiring people who know how to write, people who break through the camera, break through the screen, connect with viewers, people who are willing to bust their ass and work hard," DeRusha tells the young journalists. "And that hasn't changed in 15 years."

Neither has the pay.

"But you do it not for the money," DeRusha says, warming up for a signature punchline. "You do it because you love what you do. And if you don't love it — go be an accountant."

The waxy black floor of the studio set is bathed in light that creates a mirror image of whatever stands above it. Two DeRushas can be seen approaching the anchor chair, each stepping on the other's soles.

During a break in the noon show rehearsal, he leans over and asks his co-anchor, Jamie Yuccas, a loaded question: "Do you, on a plane, ever look around and see if you'd be the headline if the plane goes down?"

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