Journalist Karen Sims was a calm and collected presence on New Zealand screens in the 80s, as a news and current affairs presenter and interviewer.
As a child, Sims dreamt of becoming a veterinary surgeon, but school began to lose its attraction in the sixth form. Her father encouraged her to look at journalism as a career. In 1970 she was accepted by The Auckland Star as a cadet reporter. Sims did three years at the paper, covering a variety of rounds — including police and sports — and wrote features for the daily television page. During regular visits to the NZBC studios, it was suggested that she apply for a broadcasting job. She started in radio, before moving over to the television newsroom.
She later reflected in a Listener interview on the grounding that newspaper work had given her. “When I look around at television journalists, I think that the best are in fact the ones who’ve had good, hard training on a newspaper. You can get into trouble and make all your mistakes there, rather than doing it in front of everyone on television.”
Even with her training, the visual medium initially came as a shock. “I was more or less thrown in the deep end, apart from being taught to use a tape recorder … First I had the shock of hearing my own voice, all those ‘ums’! Then, that was followed up by seeing myself pictured on TV — another shock!” Although things got easier, in 1984 she told The Listener “I’ve been trying for years just to learn to be me on camera”.
With the launch of second channel South Pacific Television in 1975, Sims went to work on the nightly News on Ten. She and her colleagues were determined to make an impression for the new channel, and Sims would later recall a zeal that she hadn’t seen on a news programme since.
Despite those efforts, News at Ten lasted just a year. It was cancelled at the end of 1976, as part of a rationalisation of news and current affairs resources across the two channels. There was some reward when it won a Feltex Television Award for best current affairs programme. Sims moved on to Perspective, making half-hour documentaries alongside varied directors (most often Malcolm Hall).
In 1978 she took a year’s leave and went travelling. While working for Luxembourg radio and television, she interviewed former American president Richard Nixon who “still believed he was Mr Biggie. He spoke in lofty, exalted tones — the words he would still use if he was President”.
At the end of 1980, Sims was invited to front twice weekly current affairs show Eyewitness. In early 1981, she also took over presenting duties on international news compilation World Watch. She was still a working journalist, and told the The NZ Herald she was in a perfect niche. Her only frustration was the expectation that she was merely reading lines written by others. She was determined to be judged as a journalist, not a personality.
In December she married former Eyewitness journalist Neil Roberts (who she’d first met in the Auckland Star newsroom in the early 70s). Roberts had recently departed TVNZ in controversial circumstances. In 1983, as he forged a freelance career, he and Sims formed Neil Roberts and Karen Sims Limited. A year later they separated, and the company evolved into production house Communicado.
In 1982, Eyewitness became Eyewitness News: a live 45 minute show, broadcast five nights a week on TV2 at 9pm. Sims shared the hosting role with David Beatson. She told the Herald that she missed the more in-depth nature of the twice weekly show; but she was excited by the immediacy of the new programme, and emerged as a formidable studio interviewer. Eyewitness News was at the centre of the turbulent political landscape of the early 80s; some of the era’s biggest stories unfolded in front of its cameras.
In mid-1984, Sims stepped down from presenting, and went back on the road as an Eyewitness News reporter. She told the Herald “I think it was a good decision to go back and brush up on journalism...Fronting is still an important priority but it does tend to tie you to the studio – I did feel constrained by that.”
In 1988 Sims gave birth to twin boys, but soon returned to her old job compiling and presenting international stories for World Watch’s successor Foreign Correspondent. The show saw her winning a Listener award for best presenter. The Holmes era had arrived, and the style and tone of television had moved on appreciably from the early 80s.
Diana Wichtel profiled Sims for The Listener and observed, ”You can’t help but notice how firmly her style has resisted the changing fashions of television presenting. No mugging and winking, no editorial backchat. Her patrician gaze, the tentative smile ... make Judy and Richard, Penelope and Jim, not to mention Paul Holmes look like they have been beamed in by satellite feed from Disneyland”.
Sims left TVNZ at the end of 1989. She was keen to do something different, but the broadcaster wanted to keep her on Foreign Correspondent. Instead, she decided “it was time to take a deep breath and step outside for a while…”
In March 1993 she made another foray into the print media, when she replaced Lindsay Dawson as editor of Next magazine, but she departed in May of the following year. The same year she was reporter and presenter for The Traders, a series about NZ exporters. The show was produced by the late Marcia Russell, who Sims counts as a personal hero: "she blazed a magnificent trail for women in journalism".
Sims returned to television news and current affairs in January 2005, as a producer on Paul Holmes' short-lived eponymous show on Prime TV; she later worked on TVNZ’s political current affairs show Agenda.
Profile written by Michael Higgins
Diana Alpers, ‘Possibly Perfect’ – The Listener, 6 October 1984
Audrey Gordon, ‘Karen, David help news ratings climb’ – The NZ Women’s Weekly, 21 June 1982
Audrey Gordon, ‘Karen and Neil to marry in December’ – The NZ Women’s Weekly, 14 September 1981
Leigh Parker, ‘Karen Sims back on TV’ – The NZ Women’s Weekly, 1 July 1991
Robyn Scott, ‘The Gainsborough lady’ – The Auckland Star, 2 April 1981
Diana Wichtel, ‘Karen Sims’ (Interview) – The Listener, 5 August 1989
Unknown Writer, ’Presenter misses seeing herself’ (Interview) – The NZ Herald, 11 March 1982