Welcome to our interview series in partnership with Empowered Women, a nonprofit advocating for women to live a fulfilled life as they define it. We’ve teamed up to interview inspiring women who are forging their own paths and living what it means to be an empowered woman. Join us as we meet a new woman each month.
When the Independent Journal Review hired Michelle Jaconi to serve as vice president and executive editor in 2015, it signaled to the media world its dedication to bringing serious newsroom chops to its millennial-serving news outlet. A smart decision on their part. Jaconi—who spent years working at NBC with Tim Russert, was an executive producer for CNN, and led the breaking news unit—has managed to excel in the world of serious journalism while keeping up with the ever-evolving communication styles of a digital generation.
She’s also managed to have three kids along the way, who she says help improve her work rather than hinder it. Perhaps most impressive of all, Jaconi manages to stay positive in the eye of the storm that is covering this election season. It’s my great pleasure to introduce you to the force of nature that is Michelle Jaconi.
Mary Rose Somarriba: Working in a major newsroom like CNN must have been a remarkable experience. What are the lessons from that time that have stuck with you?
Michelle Jaconi: I think that especially at a place like CNN where it was in almost constant crisis, because you're going from where you have to wrestle what is truly important and what matters very quickly, good character is very important. You want the people around you to have good judgment and be calm under pressure. That's not something people look for in the interview process, but it's very important.
CNN was an incredibly exhilarating place to work, and I love my time there—a lot of creativity. What was striking to me was how much impact you could have at an individual level, and how important it was to have that strong character judgment and integrity to the people around you, because the impact was big, and you want to make sure everyone around you sticks to good judgment.
MRS: How would you say that’s cultivated?
MJ: Tone comes from the top. Whether you’re a small organization or big organization, it’s the same thing; a CEO at a news organization has incredible ability with his or her own personality to direct the tone and integrity of their organization. You need a culture cultivated in that C-suite that is one worthy of working for.
MRS: How do you see news changing with the trends of millennials?
MJ: We're now living in a digital and visual era; in last couple years you have Instagram, emojis—everything is visual, and that is the biggest revolution. Of course brevity is the one everyone is focusing on, but the use of the visual is everywhere and amazing. With visual storytelling, we’re reminded there's so many layers in a photograph.
When the social revolution happened everyone was afraid of the brevity. It's so tricky to be precise, and it's even more tricky to be balanced, precise, and brief. But a photograph can do all three. It's a fascinating, amazing time and I think that there's some things about the younger generation's communication style we can learn from.
MRS: From your time working at CNN and IJR and onward, what advice would you give to a woman hoping to enter the news journalism field?
MJ: I think one thing I would say is that having both male and female perspectives is very important; in a field as fast moving as media, having a diversity of people to look to is helpful. I learn the most from people who are different from me, so I always seek out people who have opposite skill sets and a different worldview. My biggest mentor in life was Tim Russert, who was obviously very different from me, but in core ways, we’re incredibly similar.
As far as advice, I'm a big believer in show not tell; it's a producer's mantra but it's also my personal mantra. I remember that day The Atlantic came out with its "can women have it all” cover story; and I came into CNN that day and rounded the office. By the time I reached my personal office, there was a line of women waiting to talk to me about it. They were all women I hadn’t met before, from different parts of CNN, and a lot of them didn't have families yet. They all approached me and said, “is this true; is this true?”
The women who can have it all do not have time to talk about how they do it. For one, I would never want to put myself up as an example to emulate because it's a Jenga game every day, but I also get joy and energy from my Jenga game, whereas other people couldn't or wouldn't want it, so I believe everyone is their own puzzle. Don't just look at one type of role model, because there's a lot of help from looking at things that you don't want to be. Such as: I saw this person at that job they became like x, how do I avoid that; what choices can I make to make better decisions with my own time. The way you spend your own time is one of the most important life decisions and you don't think about it though right? What diet counselors say is you watch what you eat, you'd be surprised, and it's the same with your time.
MRS: How do your family and personal life affect your work life?
MJ: Having a family makes me a better journalist; it makes me write different questions, and it makes me a great manager. I'm not putting this on anyone else, but nobody should be apologetic that they have a personal life, because if you’re working in journalism and don't have a life you'll be incredibly bad at being sympathetic with your audience. It’s incredibly important to have diversity in your newsroom and boardrooms.
One day I had a great contribution to an anchorman’s wording that I wouldn’t have had if I wasn’t fortunate enough to drop my kids off at school that day. The whole experience was the best ad for family values I've ever heard. If I had been staring at my computer all day, I would have missed the real-world conversation at the school parking lot, and I would have missed a greater understanding of what average people are talking about, and how to speak to it in the media. And it’s that understanding that helps me in my job. I would be lacking that if I used a car service everyday, and didn’t encounter the everyday human beings I’m expected to have pulse on.
And chocolate helps, too.
MRS: In the wake of the fall of Roger Ailes from Fox News, there’s been much talk about sexual harassment for women in newsroom environments. Is there a harassment culture in some newsrooms, and how would you recommend women navigate it?
MJ: You know, I've been blessed in my career. I do think that’s there. You can choose who you work for, you can tell a lot in an interview. And I think, frankly, that respect should be a normal thing in any profession. Right now I don't know if the media field is unique; right now I think the media is being really scrutinized, and I hope other industries are as scrutinized.
MRS: What was an obstacle you encountered as a woman in the workplace?
MJ: It wasn’t so much of an obstacle as a fear of mine. As a woman, when it was time for me to start my family, I was very nervous to tell my boss. It was very nerve wracking even though I had a long track record of reliability. And he actually chastised me for being nervous about it. He said, “haven't I told you there there's nothing more important in life?” He valued family and reminded me work wasn’t everything. But then the second time I was pregnant, it was during the 2008 election cycle, and I got nervous again about telling him. I winced because I knew the baby was due a week after the election—worst timing ever. I remember Tim Russert said to me, "don't ever let this place prevent you from doing what really matters in life." Of course he passed away two weeks after that conversation, and it's just chilling. That was just such a true mantra of his.
I think that especially as women, we can be so work-focused and performance-focused that we need that pillar and reminder of what's important. Whether a mentor in church or a family member or work colleague, it’s important to be reminded: it is possible to do it all but you need to have input from all these different people to reach the decision-making part of your brain. And if you're not listening, it's really easy to be swept up in one isolated part of yourself.
MRS: And I heard that to this day you drive a pickup truck. What went into that decision?
MJ: Yes, and I will say when I was giving advice to an executive producer on how I “turn off” work when I go back to my family life at home, I told her I bought a pickup truck. Because the second you sit in one, you're transported, and you're in a different frame of mind.
My husband had a pickup truck and when I sat in it one day, it reminded me of family and country music. I’m from Southern California originally, and the California truck culture evokes beaches, picnics, simple times. So I got my own, and it grounds me. And people smile at you, too. It’s cool.
MRS: Tell me about your role in the latest campaign for Kendall Jenner to bring out the vote.
MJ: She was really fascinating. I love that one of the wonderful things about politics is that it is open to anyone. And I've always wanted more people of any stripe to get involved because it reminds people that every vote is equal.
Kendall Jenner actually reached out to Rock the Vote on her eighteenth birthday a while back. She did a video and, it turns out, a lot of people don't know as simple thing as how to register to vote, and it helped bring awareness. When I talk about voting to people driving a taxi I’m in, and so on, they say, “how do I do that?” So this campaign was aimed at people who hadn't registered yet. The most recent video featured Jenner posing as Rosie the Riveter. Just a short 15-second bit, so beautiful, the music, so bright—it seemed to say, let's cut through this noise and get you a little more curious to click through and register. The average person has at least 150 friends on their social sphere, so the multiplication of that is really neat, and it puts people where they want to make impact.
MRS: How do you stay positive covering the elections?
MJ: I’m not sure I view this election as so negative! At an event with Empowered Women in June, I said, “I love this election,” and everyone looked at me like I was a heretic because so many other people have found it draining. I am forever humbled and awed by the breadth of our country, and I think there was a trend in our media to predict rather than listen. And what I love is I think this campaign has flipped that, reminding everyone that there is a possibility that a person you're sitting [with] does not think like you do. This is important, especially for journalists who are supposed to use their analytical abilities on themselves. It's hard to convince America that it's bigger than their little area; as a journalist, your job is to listen.
How do I stay positive? I have a million examples of how short life is, and I think your attitude is one of the areas you have control over. I definitely get a lot of joy from my children. Completely. That helps me. And the attitude that every day is a gift.
Illustration By: Sam Kerr