Why Pittsburgh’s iconic news anchor Sally Wiggin still considers herself a failure despite all her success

She spoke with The Incline on Monday after announcing her retirement.

Long-time WTAE news anchor Sally Wiggin announced her retirement live on the air Monday, Dec. 4, 2017.

Long-time WTAE news anchor Sally Wiggin announced her retirement live on the air Monday, Dec. 4, 2017.

SCREENGRAB VIA WTAE-TV
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While appreciative of both the audience and opportunities afforded to her in Pittsburgh, Sally Wiggin isn’t necessarily at ease.

“If you asked me if I succeeded, I’d say no because I never became the foreign correspondent I wanted to become and I didn’t try. I didn’t go farther than Pittsburgh, even though I made the choice to stay here. I feel like I failed. I didn’t fail Pittsburgh, but when people say, ‘You’ve accomplished so much,’ I say, ‘No, I haven’t. For 27 years I read words on a screen.’ ”

This is a theme in speaking with Wiggin. She is self-deprecating to a fault. Even her retirement announcement, made during a primetime lead-in for Monday’s Steelers game in Cincinnati, started with something akin to “Let’s not make a big deal of this.”

Her retirement will take effect in November of 2018.

It’s important to not let her self-effacement fool you, though. Wiggin is a woman who entered broadcast journalism at a time when fewer women did so. Far fewer of them went on to earn anchor’s chairs. She deflected slightly when asked about any obstacles, gender-related or otherwise, that she may have faced in her career.

“I feel that all of us at some point in our careers, both men and women, run into elements of both age and gender discrimination. Sometimes it’s overt and sometimes it’s not,” she said.

Wiggin, a native Michigander who arrived in Pittsburgh by way of Alabama, joined WTAE-TV in 1980 and in January 1981 became co-anchor of the weekend news. She held that position until November 1986, when she was named anchor on the weeknight newscasts. She accumulated a clip reel spanning decades as an anchor of the 11 p.m. news for 16 years and the 6 p.m. news for 22 years. Wiggin left the anchor desk in 2013 but stayed on with the station.

In Pittsburgh, she’s a household name and a familiar face to anyone with a TV. People here have grown up with her. They’ve grown old watching her, too.

“Sally is and will always be a Pittsburgh Icon,” WTAE President and General Manager Charles W. Wolfertz III said in a written statement. “We, and our viewers, have enjoyed and benefited greatly from the remarkable career of Sally Wiggin.”

That career was distinguished by awards like the George Foster Peabody Award, the regional Edward R. Murrow Award, a National Headliner Award and the Board of Governors Award for the Mid-Atlantic Emmys. Wiggin was even inducted into the Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

But in conversation, Wiggin is dismissive of her impact.

She’s also insanely quick, almost difficult to keep up with and certainly never underwhelming. She spoke with The Incline from Cincinnati in the minutes after making her announcement Monday.

In rapid fire, she identified Flight 93 as the standout story of her career: “We did a Chronicle on the 15th anniversary, and there was not a day that I went out there or went to Washington that I didn’t cry.”

Wiggin shared this advice for new journalism recruits: “If you’re going into broadcast journalism, don’t go into it because you want to be on TV or on camera, ‘cause then you’re doing it for all the wrong reasons. […] You go into journalism to help people either with your presence or with the stories you do.”

She continued: “I always thought if I didn’t help these non-profits and go to these events and help raise money and do these auctions that I was going to go to hell.”

She paused. “I still might go anyway ‘cause I get so angry at people on the road.” Wiggin’s road rage is, by her own account, a fairly significant issue.

Then she laughed. It’s something she does often in discussing her career, a way of conveying to you, the listener, that she doesn’t take all of this or, most importantly, herself too seriously.

Meanwhile, her career is inextricably linked with Pittsburgh, the city where she remained even as greener — or at least warmer — media pastures like Atlanta and Miami were calling.

She’s seen this city rebound, slowly and then suddenly, from the fallout of steel’s collapse. She’s seen it change and reimagine itself in ways still not entirely comprehensible.

“There’s a long way to go, and there’s the issue of gentrification,” Wiggin said. “I did not see the CNN piece Bourdain did, but I heard some people were upset. But you can’t makeover 20 years of devastation overnight, you just can’t. It takes time. But I think everyone is going in the right direction. I think we have some amazing minds here.”

Wiggin also confirmed that she’ll be staying put after retirement, which she’s quick to point out is still officially one year away. She’s staying here, in part, because Pittsburgh “has great doctors.” Now 65, she was  diagnosed with serious heart disease in her 40s. “One nurse said to me, ‘Aren’t you afraid? You’ve got a lot wrong with you.’ And I said, ‘Now that you mentioned it…’”

After retirement, she plans to work with grieving children and grieving families. (Wiggin’s own father died when she was 14.) She’ll also work with animals, which remain her first passion above all else.

But it’s hard not to sense that she’ll miss the job, even as the media landscape shifts away from the form she best recognizes. “It would be harder to start now,” she admitted. “I would not be good in this time because I’ve watched all of our people run around and do Facebook Lives, and I don’t even know how to hold the phone up right,” she said, confessing her love-hate relationship with social media.

Wiggin added: “I listened to my voice in a package we did recently and I found it to be tired. And then it occured to me: ‘Oh my God, Sally, you’re tired.’ Well, I’m not tired of [the job], but maybe I’m tired of doing [the job]. Does that make sense?”

Then she pivoted.

“But it’s not like I’m retiring tomorrow. I got at least three Chronicles left to do and if there’s a [Steelers] Super Bowl, I’ve only got two left to do. But I’ve got a full plate of stuff. I just don’t have to punch a clock now, and there’s a certain kind of liberation in that.”