At a time when most people would do pretty much anything to get on television—and stay there—Brian Conybeare walked away from what was arguably Westchester’s highest-profile media job as anchor of News 12’s Evening Edition last summer to be the front man for the much-delayed and controversial project to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was an out-of-the-blue move that surprised many, and one that prompted several news reports that speculated Governor Andrew Cuomo had hired Conybeare to tap into his built-in popularity with local residents to shore up support for the $4 billion initiative.
So, was it career suicide or a calculated risk for the longtime journalist?
“I probably gave it less thought than you might imagine,” says Conybeare of his decision to give up journalism and cross over into public relations. Seated in the conference room of the nondescript office he shares with a few staffers in Tarrytown, the 50-year-old Eastchester resident is in full PR-mode in his role as special advisor to the governor for the New Tappan Zee Bridge Project. With his distinctive silver hair in a stylish buzz cut and a noticeably slimmer physique than had during his anchorman days (he’s kept off the 15 pounds he lost last summer when he was hospitalized for a serious ear infection), Conybeare gives off the vibe of a polished, ambitious executive as he recounts how he landed his current job.
“I wasn’t looking to leave. I loved my job at News 12,” says Conybeare of his 16-plus years spent at the cable news station, where he ascended the ranks from beat reporter to the top spot as weeknight news anchor. To hear him tell it, it was a series of events in which everything fell into place, rather than Conybeare’s desire for a new opportunity, that set the stage for this unexpected chapter in his career.
In June 2012, Conybeare, as News 12’s anchor, was hosting a town meeting attended by State officials and almost 500 people, all with various opinions on the future of the Tappan Zee Bridge. Some of them were angry and “it could have been a bad scene,” he recalls of the various factions who showed up to voice their concerns. “There were construction workers holding up signs that read, ‘Build the Bridge Now,’ homeowners who were very concerned about the noise, and environmentalists who were concerned [about their own] issues. But it went very, very well.” When it was over, “all the folks who were there said, ‘Thank you—it felt like we finally got some answers. This is what we needed.’”
This did not go unnoticed by Governor Cuomo’s staffers. “The governor’s press aides and [Secretary to the governor] Larry Schwartz, who is now my boss, were there. The next week, one of the press folks reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, that worked and we’d like to replicate that concept. Would you or someone like you that you know do this?’ My original answer was ‘I’m not interested, but I’ll see if I can find someone for you,’” recalls Conybeare. “A couple more phone calls happened. I actually said to them the person who is most qualified to do that job is probably me and I’m not really interested. The guy on the other end of the line said, ‘The governor wants to call you. He thinks you’re the right guy for the job.’”
Whatever Governor Cuomo said to Conybeare in July of last year was enough to get him to change his mind. (His reported $160,000 yearly salary could have been an enticement.) “We had a long discussion of his ideas and my ideas. He’s a very persuasive guy, and I thought, ‘How often does a governor of Andrew Cuomo’s stature reach out to you and ask you to come and help him out on a multi-billion dollar project to build one of the largest infrastructure projects in New York State history?’ It felt like the opportunity of a lifetime. [I figured,] this is not going to happen to me again, so I went for it.”
Conybeare’s wife, Janna, recalls the couple was on vacation with their four children at the Jersey Shore when her husband received a flurry of texts from Governor Cuomo’s office that he let go unanswered. “Brian is great at disconnecting when he’s not at work,” she says. “I said, ‘Maybe you should respond.’” After several texts were exchanged, Conybeare came down with the raging ear infection that landed him in a New Jersey hospital where he spent much of the time on the phone with the governor and Schwartz. “I was sitting there with my head in my hands saying, ‘This is so not appropriate,’” laughs Janna.
Conybeare, who sounded out several confidants in and out of the media on his decision to cross over from journalism to public relations, says his wife offered her “wholehearted support” of his career change because she, too, thought it was a “wonderful opportunity.”
The avowed family man, whose favorite place in Westchester for both family dinners and date nights is Piper’s Kilt, a casual burger joint in Eastchester (“We’re not fancy people”), says one of the biggest risks he took in leaving News 12 was giving up his great work schedule. “For the last several years, I had great hours—9:30 to 6:30 Monday to Friday. You just don’t get those hours working in television. I have a wife and four children, two dogs, two bunny rabbits, and Grandma lives with us, so it was a risk to give that up.”
His hours with his new job have been a bit more inconsistent. “I host a lot of community meetings and many of them are in the evening,” says Conybeare. “Early on, I was out at those meetings two or three times a week, and it’s starting up again. My wife is a really good sport.”
“He is working a lot more, and, if I was in a different place in my life, it might not work as well, but he wanted to do this and I said, ‘I got this,’” says Janna, a former associate producer for MSNBC and Fox News who is now a stay-at-home mom and yoga instructor. “It’s hard for the kids [ages 4 to 11], but they get why he’s doing it, and, when he’s home with them, he’s all in. No matter what he’s doing at home or at work, he gives 110 percent.”
Conybeare, who grew up in a family of lawyers in Benton Harbor, a small town on Lake Michigan, met Janna Gaffney in 1995, when they both worked at News 12. It was hardly love at first sight. “I thought he was an uptight person and didn’t particularly like being around him,” recalls his wife, who was a producer at the station at that time. “It was three years before I thought twice about him.”
Once she discovered Conybeare’s ability to “distance himself” from his job as a newsman and “be himself,” says Janna, they started dating in 1998. A year later, they married and briefly moved to New York City, but returned to Westchester 11 years ago. “We love it here,” she says. “It has everything we need.”
Her husband concurs. “It’s the perfect place to raise a family,” says Conybeare, who credits his wife with keeping everything on an even keel. “She likes to say she’s ‘producing’ our family. She is an amazing mother and allows me to get out and do what I need to do,” says the dutiful husband.
The former newsman turned fledgling public relations man sees himself as an information officer: “If somebody asks me a question about the Bridge and I can’t answer it, I write it down and go right to the experts to get the answer.” His daily itinerary consists largely of interacting with lawmakers (although he is not personally in touch with the governor regularly, “we interact when we need to”), local business owners, residents, and the media, rather than being the “face” of the project. “I go out there and give them the best answers I can,” says Conybeare. But the “anchorman-effect” he brings to the bridge project is not lost on him. “People know me. I’ve been very public in my career and that helps,” he says.
“For whatever reason, people trust me and that is something I’m finding as I go out there. Even the folks who are anxious or worried about this project, once you spend some time with them and listen to their concerns, their anxiety goes down. You build a little trust and keep working with them. That’s been a big part of my job.”
Conybeare’s departure from television news just happened to coincide with the onset of one of the busiest news cycles in recent memory, with Westchester being hit by the worst storms in nearly 100 years and 2012 elections filling the airwaves 24/7. Didn’t he miss the excitement of covering the news? “The short answer is not really. I don’t miss it as much as you might think,” he says. “My job at News 12 was very stressful. It was busy all day, every day, and, to a certain extent, it was almost a relief.” Conybeare laughs before continuing. A relief “not to have to cover the elections and Sandy and everything else that came along with that. It was a crazy year. I have enough on my plate that I haven’t missed it.”
Considering that Conybeare spent close to two decades working in news, did his reaction surprise him? “Yes, absolutely. That was my life for 20-plus years. I was a reporter, but, honestly, I still feel like a reporter—I’m trying to be as fair as I can and get the information and be as honest as I can. To me, it’s very similar.”
If it seems odd to compare helming a daily televised newscast with a job that consists largely of giving talks to civic groups of every persuasion about a bridge, Conybeare doesn’t see it that way. “People ask me, ‘Is it different?’ and my answer is, ‘It’s very similar,’” he insists. “In my old job, I learned as much as I could about as many things as I could and hopefully presented the information in a coherent manner. Now, I’m learning as much as I can about one thing and presenting it in a coherent manner, or at least trying to. All the legal ins and outs, the environmental issues—I find all of it fascinating. That’s one of the things I liked about being a journalist—I learned something new every day.”
Conybeare admits he’s been on a steep learning curve. “I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’m not an engineer, so I had a lot to learn about bridge-building. It’s a complicated process. This is a $4 billion project with a dozen different state and federal agencies and all kinds of rules, restrictions, and federal procurement laws. It’s fascinating,” he says. “The very first day, I had six meetings. The first one was at 8 am with business leaders in Westchester to say, ‘Here’s our plan. Please support us.’”
By his own estimation, since joining the governor’s staff last July, Conybeare has racked up at least 94 town meetings with all kinds of groups ranging from local chambers of commerce to senior centers to village town halls. Clearly, it’s the one aspect of his new job that seems to mirror his life as a newsman and he loves it. “I like getting out and speaking in front of groups. Some people are terrified of that, but I love it.”
While he’s wholeheartedly embraced his new job (“Change is good—at some point you have to shake it up a bit”), he is keeping his options open for the future. “That closed door between public relations and the news media isn’t what it used to be. It used to be a strong line in the sand you couldn’t cross,” but that’s not the case anymore, he says. “Look at the George Stephanopouloses of the world. He goes from working at the White House to ABC News. I do think you can go back and forth in today’s media world.”
At least he hopes so. Conybeare’s current position within the Cuomo administration is a five-year appointment. “I’m here to help with the Bridge project and the calendar is five years and two and half months for construction,” he says. “Does it last six years?” Maybe. With “absolutely no interest whatsoever in ever running for political office,” the former newsman admits he isn’t done with television. “I would like to keep all of my options open, but at some point I would like to go back to television.” Today, though, he is off to the JCC in Rockland County to give the governor’s pitch on the new Bridge. “I’m not really focused on the future. I’m just trying to do this job as best as I can.”
Bestselling author and former Scarsdale resident Diane Clehane writes for many national outlets including mediabistro.com. Her favorite bridge is the Piscataqua River Bridge, which she and her family cross every summer to get to their vacation cottage in Maine.