Nick Valencia: The face of CNN’s breaking news, NAHJ leader, and new dad

Sitting in Centennial Park, staring at a billboard of Anderson Cooper, Nick Valencia was overwhelmed by the realization that he was making his dreams come true. As CNN’s newest TeleprompTer, Valencia was filled with hope, excitement and an overwhelming sensation of gratitude.  

Above: Fully recognized as a CNN reporter, Nick Valencia takes time out to take photos with visitors at CNN Headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo supplied by Valencia.

By Hannah Lester, reporter, SizingUpTheSouth.com

Fast forward 13 years and Nick Valencia is now the Vice President of The National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) and pursuing his dream full-time as a national reporter for CNN, and regularly appears on HLN, CNN International and CNN en Espanol. He also writes for CNN.com.

You see his face on TV in the midst of a hurricane or on scene at the latest American tragedy. Valencia finds himself in the hub of danger, intrigue and on the heels of the next big story.  

This life, however, was not exactly what Valencia envisioned for himself. As a young Latino teenager, Valencia saw himself pursuing sports and dreaming of being a sports broadcaster on ESPN. He had no intentions of going into the fast-paced world that now demands his attention and efforts.  

But his trip to Spain changed everything, and a study abroad opportunity challenged him in ways he was completely unprepared for.  

“Living in Spain, 20 years old, traveling around Europe, I realized there’s no way I can dedicate my life to sports when there’s so much happening in the world,” Valencia said.  

He worked as a local bartender while in Spain and met individuals of all different attitudes and backgrounds. For a wide-eyed, young journalist, the world turned into a big place of opportunities. When he returned home, his plans were met by support from his collegiate advisers and professors, who saw in him the pull toward news journalism before Valencia himself had even realized.

“My advisers at USC [University of Southern California] had the foresight; I was going to go into news even though I was passionate about sports,” Valencia said. “They had me reading the news as a news anchor for the college TV station.” 

After graduation, Valencia set his dreams and was determined to bring them to reality. As the first in his family to graduate college, he was already pursuing distinction. To get started, Valencia took a path less traveled and began work as a TelePrompTer at CNN. He said the job was a low peg on the totem pole, but he worked under great journalists and absorbed all he could in the following months.  

“When you’re a young journalist and you’re trying to make your dreams come true, you tend to step on a lot of toes, and there’s a lot of big feet at CNN,” Valencia said.  

Eventually he knew it was time to show his producers that he had what it takes to be a broadcast journalist. Taking a huge leap, Valencia said he defaulted on his rent, gathered $1000 saved in cash, and a packed a backpack and left for the country of Uganda in east Africa. When he arrived in Uganda he did what he intended to do: reporting extensively on the return of Indian immigrants after they were expelled from the country decades earlier.

After this trip and his coverage, his dedication and risk-taking caught the attention of CNN leadership and Valencia was given a real shot at broadcast journalism for a major news organization.  

From the left: Nick Valencia covers weather-related disasters including a snow storm in Fairfax, Virginia, Hurricane Harvey in Rockport, Texas, and reporting at CNN Atlanta’s newsroom on an overseas terrorists attack. Photo supplied by Valencia.

Early in his career, he has been taken through a Mexican cartel bar in Tijuana, faced drug violence in Ciudad Juarez, toured a women’s detention center in Alabama and reported on drug infested Los Angeles. Valencia reported for four years Mexico’s drug war for CNN.com and was the first journalist to report about the use of social media by citizens caught in the middle of violence.

“I feel so lucky,” Valencia said. “I mean, I don’t ever take it for granted. It’s a blessing obviously. I feel blessed to be in this position. I feel as though, I always felt like I could do it, and I don’t know how to describe it, but I’ve always felt like I’m meant to do this and nothing else … journalism is a calling for a lot of us in this field.” 

Thirteen years later, Valencia works long hours, jumps at the chance of a big story and frequently puts himself into dangerous situations. He understands that journalism is not without its risks, and Valencia has faced plenty. 

“It’s kind of like, you are a machine,” Valencia said. “You’re there to inform, to separate yourself from the story, you’re there to inform. It’s usually when I come back that it all hits me. ‘That was insane, I was just in Hurricane Maria, I was outside of the Pulse nightclub right after the shooting.’ It’s hard to put it into words, when you’re in the moment you don’t think about it, you just know you have a job to do.” 

Valencia said for him and his colleagues, it’s important to compartmentalize in breaking news situations. He said that they go into a situation with compassion but have to realize that this is not their pain, it is someone else’s, and they are there to produce the news.

While journalists do not purposefully put themselves directly into a dangerous situation, it is understood that job has to be done. Valencia said he has been in a situation where he was urging others to evacuate while he heads into a town set to be hit by a hurricane. On the other hand, Valencia said he has crossed the border of Mexico legally only to turn around out of fear that he and a friend were being followed.  

At times, Valencia said he’s arrived on scene to find that he is there before first responders. In one case, people on the scene borrowed his first aid kit.  

Valencia suits up in Hazmat gear while covering Ebola training in Anniston, Alabama, for CNN. Photo supplied by Valencia.

Working as a CNN national reporter has taken him throughout the country and around the world, because the news doesn’t have specific destinations, and it never stops. Valencia said he learned that ethics are different in other countries, which can hinder or make a story more difficult. He has been burned by sources with false information, who don’t care about him or his story, as well as understanding that he had to keep his guard up because in other countries … danger could be anywhere or just around the corner, he said.

Valencia was part of CNN’s Peabody Award-winning teams for their work on the coverage of the 2008 U.S. Presidential election, the 2010 Gulf oil spill, and 2011 Arab Spring. In 2013 Valencia won a NAHJ inaugural award, “Si Se Puede Excellence in Leadership Award.” In addition, he was acknowledged as one of the Most Influential 2013 Young Latino Journalists in America by the Huffington Post. Valencia is also a prolific media user and was named one of the “Top 50 Latinos” to follow on Twitter in 2012. Locally, he has twice been nominated by The Atlanta Press Club as “Broadcast TV Reporter of the Year.”

Six months ago, however, Valencia’s life changed drastically. He became a father. Now, with a little girl waiting at home for him, journalism has become different than it once was before.  

“I put my family first, they’re the most important thing in life,” Valencia said. “ … I don’t ever want to put my wife in a situation where she is having to be a single parent or my daughter grows up without a father. Those are real things I think about. My perspective has certainly changed. I’m forever grateful for the life, the beautiful, beautiful life that I have.” 

Valencia said that his colleagues told him that his priorities might change as he continues to work in broadcast journalism. For instance, with his recognizable grasp for Latino issues in the U.S., Valencia was elected as the 2019 Vice President, Broadcast, of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ). Yet this is not his first experience in that kind of leadership. He previously served as Atlanta’s local chapter president. He said his local experience affected the way he serves in his national position.

Valencia said he envisions a more financially strong [national] organization that trains members on a variety of levels. He said he sees this as a key component for the national level position.  

“I would like to strengthen our local chapters,” Valencia said. “What we do at a local level is deeply impactful at the national level.” 

Providing support for undocumented Hispanic journalists is also a major goal for this professional Latino journalist.

“I am most proud of representing my community,” Valencia said. “Being a Latino on CNN and knowing what that means to CNN. There might be someone in the middle of America that watches me that sees somebody that looks like him that has curly hair.” 

Valencia said he was once approached by a young girl and her family. The girl was too shy to speak but her parents spoke up: “She watches you every day. She’s too shy to tell you but will you take a picture with her?” 

“That to me is remarkable,” Valencia said. “That’s not something that I just … I don’t take it lightly. I know that every time I step in front of the camera, I’m representing my community.”

Hannah Lester is the 2019 SPJ Region 3 spring intern and reporter for SizingUpTheSouth.com. She will be graduating from Auburn University this spring with a major in journalism. hannah.lester.spj@gmail.com

Editor’s Note: Nick Valencia will be keynote speaker at the Society of Professional Journalists – Region 3, Savannah State University JMC “Trauma & Stress: while working in journalism” on March 9, 2019, at the Coastal Georgia Center in Savannah, Georgia. For more information, link HERE.