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Elie's Dawna Friesen pleasantly surprised to be named Global national news anchor

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It wasn't a call she was expecting, but Dawna Friesen certainly welcomed it when it came.

"When they called me, my initial thought was, 'Wow, that's fantastic," Friesen said of the out-of-the-blue offer from Global TV a few months back, while she was working in England as NBC's London-based correspondent, to discuss the possibility of becoming the Canadian network's next national-news anchor. "I was surprised that they would even think of me. And then we started talking, and seemed like a perfect fit."

Friesen, 46, who grew up on a farm near Elie, was inspired by the local newscasts she watched every night with her parents and eventually pursued a career in journalism that has taken her around the world to cover some of the biggest stories of the last decade, is very happy to be home.

"Home," in this context, means back in Canada, specifically Vancouver, where this Monday she assumes the position of anchor and executive editor of Global National, filling the vacancy created when Kevin Newman left the job last month.

But home, for Friesen, will really always be Manitoba, where she was born and raised, attended school (in Elie and, for Grade 12, John Taylor Collegiate, then on to Red River College's Creative Communications program) and launched her journalism career, first at the Portage Daily Graphic and then at TV stations in Brandon and Thunder Bay.

"I still have family and friends there, and we try to get back every summer," she said. "I used to come back in the winter, but I think I've gotten too soft for that."

After leaving Manitoba, Friesen worked as a national reporter for CTV News in Toronto, anchored newscasts on CTV's then-upstart all-news channel, CTV News 1 (where she shared anchor-desk duties with Lisa LaFlamme, who was recently named as successor-in-waiting to retirement-bound CTV anchor Lloyd Robertson), headed CTV's parliamentary bureau in Ottawa, and then served as a reporter and anchor for CBC-TV in Vancouver.

Friesen said being hired to anchor Global National is just the latest unexpected turn in a career that has been as surprising as it has been educational.

"I was very lucky to be offered the job by NBC; I didn't go seeking it out," she said. "My goal was never to work for one of the American networks. I had always wanted to work overseas, and thought it would happen eventually with either CBC or CTV, but then NBC made me this great offer to move to London.

"I thought it was amazing, but I also never thought I would finish my career at an American network. My original contract was for four years; I thought it would be four years overseas, I'd travel and learn a lot, it would be a great experience, and that would be it. But then it kept getting extended, and it ended up being 11 years."

Friesen said changes in her personal life -- specifically the arrival of a son, Lucas, five years ago while she and husband Tom Kennedy (CTV's London bureau chief) were living abroad -- had started her thinking about a return to Canada. And after spending part of last winter in Vancouver as part of NBC's Winter Olympics broadcast team, she was ready to jump when Global's offer arrived.

"(NBC) asked if I would like to cover the games, and I said, 'Absolutely,'" Friesen recalled. "And I was blown away by the whole atmosphere, the spirit and the enthusiasm. It was a great reminder of what's so wonderful about this country, and for this (Global) opportunity to come so quickly after that experience made it feel like the perfect fit."

As she makes the move into Global National's anchor chair, Friesen says she's fully aware of what predecessor Newman accomplished during his 10 years as frontman for what was viewed, when Global first considered the notion of a supper-hour national newscast, as a rather bold experiment.

"Kevin was the driving force on this show, along with a very strong team behind him," she explained. "They built something that has far exceeded most people's expectations, so I would be crazy to come in and say, 'We're going to make wholesale changes; here's what I think we should do.'

"On the contrary, I think my goal is to try to connect with Canadians the way Kevin did, and to keep the audience and grow the audience."

When she takes over Global National this Monday, Friesen will become this country's first full-time female network news anchor, a distinction she's very quick to downplay, citing such CBC stalwarts as Barbara Frum and Ann Medina as the women she considers to have been pioneers in TV news.

But when it comes to identifying her earliest journalistic inspiration, Friesen looks much closer to home.

"We only had one channel, really, so we watched the (local) CBC news," she recalled of her rural upbringing. "It was part of our daily routine to sit down and watch the six o'clock news every night. I would watch Garth Dawley read the news, and Murray Parker, the weather guy, and I think it was that daily dose of the news that really got me interested in this business. I thought it would be a fascinating career to get into."

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 18, 2010 C1

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