"In journalism school, you never take a class on what to do when you're the focus of the story," Ann Curry says of recent buzz surrounding her 'Today' show departure.
It's "going to be a bit of a tough day," she told USA TODAY in a 40-minute phone interview Wednesday, sounding as though she were fighting back tears. "I'm going to have to tell our viewers. That's what makes me more emotional than anything. I don't want to leave them. I love them. And I will really miss them."
After a year as co-host, and days of fevered speculation about her future, Curry steps down today from the high-profile post held in the past by the likes of Jane Pauley and Katie Couric.
Instead, Curry's new multiyear contract with NBC has her leading a seven-person unit with a ticket to cover the world's biggest stories, from the civil uprising in Syria to the plight of the poor in America. She'll produce network specials and pieces for NBC Nightly News, Dateline, Rock Center- and Today- and she'll occasionally fill in as anchor on Nightly News and elsewhere.
While she describes her new job as one that any journalist would crave, she makes no secret that the very public process that pushed her out of the co-host chair amid rumor-fed headlines has left wounds.
"I don't know who has been behind the leaks, but no question they've hurt deeply," she says. She admits she would have liked more time to work things out as co-host, and she bristles a bit at the suggestion that she lacked "chemistry" with co-host Matt Lauer.
"You know, Matt and I have had great on-air chemistry for 14 years, been part of the No. 1 winning team for a history-making number of years," she says. "That said, I just finished my freshman year as co-host. In every single co-host's first year, there have been kinks to be worked out, and perhaps I deserve as much blame for that as anyone."
Does she think she was given enough time to work out those kinks? "No, I do not," she says flatly.
Would she have liked more time? "Oh, sure I would have," she says.
Curry rejects the notion she's responsible for the ratings slip that threatens Today's long dominance on morning TV, though last week New York Times writer Mike Hale wrote an article examining the idea it was "Ms. Curry's fault" because of a perceived lack of warmth and ease.
ABC's Good Morning America broke NBC's 16-year winning streak in April and has taken three additional weeks since then.
"I know I am not to blame for the ratings worries," Curry says. "And my bosses have said to me there are many factors involved. There is no doubt that the rating wars have become meaner and less focused on our responsibilities as journalists," though she says some at Today do "brilliant work."
"And the show is still No. 1 in terms of ratings," she quickly adds.
NBC News president Steve Capus makes a similar point in a separate interview.
"We had a many-year run in first place in total viewers, and it got snapped, but since then, every week in the past month we've started a new streak," he says. "This isn't about streaks; it's about consistent performance, and we want to continue to build the Today Show."
Still, there's no question a decline over the past year in ratings for Today- a huge profit center for the network - put in motion the changes that Curry is set to announce on the air this morning.
"There's nobody complacent around here," Capus says. "We're aggressive and we're going to continue to evolve the broadcast, and this is one of the moves, but it's not the only move in response to all of that." He declined to describe what other changes are ahead, including who will take Curry's place and when.
'Steve sat me down ...'
Curry, 55, says she was prepared to leave NBC, the network she joined more than two decades ago as a Chicago-based correspondent. "I walked into his office expecting to say goodbye," she says of Capus, describing herself as "deeply sad" about the turn of events. "Steve sat me down and told me I'm not done, and he convinced me there is far more to do." He offered to create a unit for her that would do the sort of reporting she likes best.
She will have a big title -Today show anchor-at-large and NBC News national/international correspondent - and a contract negotiated on her behalf by lawyer Robert Barnett that she says lasts "a significant amount of time," more than just a few years.
She declines to discuss her salary but says reports of $10 million or $20 million a year are wrong. "I can say that I'd love to earn that much," she says.
Asked for examples of the kinds of stories she'll pursue, her enthusiasm sparks.
"I would be trying to give voice to the citizens of Syria," she says. "I would be trying to understand and report what the women in Egypt are thinking and worrying about after the elections there. I would be spending time with the new poor in America, trying to understand how families will be making that shift with the economy we're facing."
Over the past year, she says, she has been frustrated by limits on her ability to travel and report such stories. She has made two major trips in that time: one to Sudan and the other to Somalia.
Capus calls the new job a better fit for Curry. But she is reluctant to endorse that idea: "I have called the co-host job at the Today Show my dream job, and I would be lying if I said it was easy to leave that job."
Even so, "in my secret heart of hearts, I see this as a thrilling opportunity. To have a ticket to every big story in the world - no small matter." She adds that she is "trying not to say it too loudly, because it's almost like the dream you didn't ever allow yourself to have because of the reality of network television today.
"My father used to say, 'Well, Ann, maybe the best thing you'll ever do, you haven't even thought of yet.' And as I think about this, maybe that time is now."
First, she will take some time off, report from the Olympics in London and finish some stories already in the works. Then, she'll find out if it's possible for her to sleep past the 3:30 a.m. alarm she has set since she became Today's news anchor in 1997.
Becoming the story
In recent days, she has had reporters calling her husband and paparazzi camped outside their home. "In journalism school, you never take a class on what to do when you're the focus of the story," she says with a sigh.
In recent days, too, she has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support on the Web and Twitter and at NBC, even as news reports dissected her tenure as co-host. That has stung, she says, calling much of the reporting untrue - "whether it comes to how much I'm making or whether I'm (being) paid to leave or whether I'm hated by my colleagues when I know I'm not. And I have never felt like a stepsister at the Today Show family, as some have described me. I've always felt close to the people here."
Pressed about her relationship with Lauer, she says: "Well, we've had a terrific relationship for all these years, and he's such a star. Obviously he's considered the golden boy of morning television. He's so good when you sit next to him; it's hard not to be helped by that. He's funny and glib, and he knows how the show works. It's been my honor in this last year to sit next to him."
There was such an influx of crewmembers coming into her office to offer supportive words and hugs that she had to shoo them out so she could do her work.
Her first commitment, she says, is to the viewers. "I come to work every day not wanting to drop the ball on them," she says. "I've tried very hard to be what they need - even in the crazy-colored highlighter-toned dresses I wear that you could probably see from outer space. I've worn them because I know every one of us needs a little brightness in the morning."
By Susan Page, USA TODAY