Richard Essex: On Life as an Award-Winning Investigative Reporter
This month, we are pleased to feature Richard Essex, a Zionsville native whose family is no stranger to Boone County. Essex is a multiple-award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience in the news industry. Essex is currently a broadcast investigative reporter with WISH-TV Indianapolis, Indiana. He is a graduate of Indiana University and joined News 8 at WISH-TV as a reporter in January 2018. Essex has also worked in the Lexington, Kentucky and Raleigh, North Carolina markets and was with WTHR in Indianapolis for almost 10 years.
I spoke with Essex about his family’s ties to Boone County that go back almost as far as when the wagons rolled into town and about growing up in Zionsville, where he attended and graduated from Zionsville Community Schools in 1982. He shared that he is on the ZCHS Class of 1982’s 40th Reunion committee. He also shared what it’s been like investigating and reporting on countless impactful stories in the markets that he has covered throughout his career.
The Path to Becoming a Truth Seeker
Essex’s parents, Richard and Judith, served as proprietors of The Brick Street Inn in Zionsville. Judith is a former Zionsville Town councilperson and Essex’s great-grandfather was a minister in Whitestown, so the family has deep roots throughout the county.
When asked about his upbringing in Zionsville and the path that led him into journalism, Essex replied, “I had a paper route and delivered The Indianapolis News in my neighborhood while I was in elementary school. During that time, [President] Nixon was impeached, so there were people literally waiting at their doorstep for me to bring the paper. That’s when I realized how important it was that the news gets delivered every single day.”
Essex recalled another moment in his youth that would motivate him even further to explore the news industry.
“Somewhere between 1978 and 1981, we had a neighbor, Chuck Keenan, who moved to Zionsville from Boston,” Essex recalled. “He had been an FBI agent and was well known in Zionsville. He hadn’t been in town very long, and one morning, my dad and I were in the kitchen, and we saw a photographer running through the yard. Then a sound man came running through the yard. And then a couple of other people, followed by Geraldo Rivera, came running through our side yard. And well, you don’t see that [in Zionsville] every day.”
Essex added, “Geraldo and his team were here in town for three or four days, and it’s hard to remember exactly what the story was and how it involved Chuck, but that’s what really sparked the interest [in news] for me.”
Additionally, Essex shared his memories of Tom Carnegie, who was the voice of the Indianapolis 500 from 1946–2006 and was a resident of Zionsville.
“Tom was sports director for WRTV and had this big, booming voice,” Essex shared. “He would come in to McKamey’s [Village Pharmacy] in the morning, and everyone knew who he was. He had this kind of aura about him—this glow—which turned out later to be cigarettes and bourbon, but we were all so taken in by this guy, and you would turn on the news in the afternoon and there he was, or he was at the track [IMS], and he was around all these interesting people, and he brought many of them to Zionsville.”
Back in his day, ZCHS didn’t have a media department that taught radio, TV, etc. Essex shared that the district just didn’t offer that kind of exposure to the news industry, but he would read the Zionsville Times, the Indianapolis Star and the Lebanon Reporter. And even while attending IU, he shared that his pathway to journalism was unconventional.
“My [college] adviser told me that IU graduates more people every year in communications and journalism than the industry can absorb [at that time],” Essex said. “So, I have a degree in English literature. I got out of school and started working in and around the State House. In the mid-’80s, it was a tough time for anybody coming out of school. The job market was really bad, and the economy was rough.”
After a stint as a self-employed construction contractor and a chance conversation with his grandmother, Essex headed down to Florida, where he stayed in his grandmother’s winter home and ended up getting a job at a small AM radio station in Daytona. After six weeks, he was poached by a radio station out of Orlando and gained much more experience in that larger market.
Debuting in Broadcast TV
He made the jump to television in 1998 as a weekend weather anchor/reporter at KLAX in Alexandria, Louisiana.
As Essex was networking and looking to make the next leap, Essex hired a photographer to put together his first TV resume reel that he could distribute to broadcast media outlets in hopes that one would sign him on.
“We shot all these stand-ups and B-roll and some interviews, and then I gave him my script, and the photographer put everything together,” Essex shared. “When I wen to pick up the tape, he said, ‘You are so bad that I’m not going to charge you.’ He handed me the tape, and then I took it to a duplicator and made 100 copies and started sending them out. One of the first 12 that I sent resulted in me getting a call and hired as the weekend weatherman and general assignment reporter for KLAX in Alexandria, Louisiana. It was a scream—I was 34 years old starting my career in television.”
After about a year, Essex was poached by KTAL in Shreveport, Louisiana.
“It’s a little bit more of a competitive market, and I was still very much cutting my teeth, but I was finally working alongside people my own age in a more mature market,” Essex said. “It’s there that I learned the principles of broadcast storytelling.”
Essex moved back to Indiana, got married—which led to having two children—and was working for WTWO in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 2000. His next move to WTVQ in Lexington, Kentucky, is where he developed a thirst for investigative reporting.
“What drives me as a consumer investigative reporter is to see people in power taking advantage of people—taxpayers—misusing taxpayer money and abusing power,” Essex explained. “It doesn’t matter where you are, it’s happening, and you just have to keep going after it and keep asking hard questions.”
One of the stories that Essex broke while in Lexington involved an investigation on a pharmacy company that was shipping pharmaceuticals to their stores from a warehouse in West Virginia via trucks that were not temperature-controlled.
“It ended up being a year-and-a-half-long story,” Essex said. “It may not have changed the laws, but it made the pharmacy change the way they were delivering their products, and it made consumers aware. That’s when I really knew this is where I belonged and what I needed to do.”
Essex went on to work for WTHR in Indianapolis, where he covered breaking stories such as the Indiana State Fair stage collapse in 2011, the Richmond Hill explosion in 2012 and many other jolting news stories.
He returned to the Lexington market and then worked in the Raleigh, North Carolina market before returning to his Hoosier community in 2018, where he has been working as an investigative reporter for WISH-TV.
Reflective Thoughts on Local Journalism
Just as local elected officials and community leaders are important to any community’s foundation, local journalists are equally as influential and necessary to the balance of any functioning community. Essex reflected on his career and his personal experiences as a “watchdog” for the people.
“Being a reporter has opened doors that would’ve never been opened otherwise, and I certainly know people that I wouldn’t have met otherwise,” Essex contemplated. “When you walk into the statehouse with your photographer, all of a sudden the doors open that were once closed. Journalists have a tremendous amount of influence, and they have a tremendous amount of responsibility that comes with being a journalist. You try hard every single day to get things right with the understanding that what you’re writing and putting on television affects people’s lives. As a reporter, I’ve been deposed a couple of times and threatened many times, but I keep on pushing, and I have to keep asking the hard questions, and I can’t let ‘No comment’ be the end of the story—that’s where the story begins.”