Saturday, October 25, 2014

Exclusive Interview with Rashida Jones MSNBC Managing Editor

By Belinda Trotter James 

This is the story of a visionary who is living life on her terms, followed her dreams and actually landed her ideal dream job. Would you leave a wonderful job as a news director in Columbia, South Carolina to venture to the big apple, New York City to take on a position as an executive producer? Well, that's exactly what Rashida Jones did.  It's been over a year since she moved from South Carolina to New York  to work for MSNBC as the executive producer for some of the shows you see on air and managing editor on other projects.

You know the weather was brutal in New York last winter. That's no way to treat our newest resident. We laughed and she replied, "It was a tough winter, but I made it. I got through it.  I'm not mad at the change in weather; I love it. I came here from South Carolina where it doesn't get as cold. It's a big deal if it hits 40°."  The weather may take a little getting used to, but Rashida did agree that the shopping is out of this world. 

In a world where there are millions of strangers around you at all times it can be exciting yet scary to follow your dreams even if it means going to another city or state away from your family and friends.  "I came here for a job that I was really excited about. I really loved it and was looking forward to it.  It didn’t matter if this job was in London; the job itself is what drew me here and by the way; it just happens to be in the most fabulous city in the world. That was just an extra bonus.”   She laughed and continued, “It probably was less of an adjustment for me than it was for my children.  My children were born in Atlanta and lived in South Carolina. They have never lived in a large fast-paced city.  The adjustment for me was getting them adjusted.”  If you’re wondering how the kids are doing, they are doing great! In the short amount of time living in the big apple, they are already accustomed to being New Yorkers. They love it here; who wouldn't …its New York City! …The city that never sleeps. Kids never want to go to sleep anyway; therefore this city is perfect for them with a 24/7 cartoon network channel! 

MSNBC VP and executive director Yvette Miley said Rashida Jones is a visionary who understands strategy and how to lead a team to accomplish goals.  How do you lead a team in an era of social media?  "I think part of it is you have to build a team that you trust,” says Rashida.  “You have to work with people who you trust to make decisions. Part of what makes our newsroom successful is we set expectations and build a team of people who want to be a part of that.  I am a firm believer in creating an environment of people who want to work because when people want to work and they want to be part of an organization, they also want to be a part of it's success. One thing that has been pretty important to me is building a team and empowering that team to make decisions that follow along with our vision.  I think the other part is being very clear about what is that vision.  The team knows what it is we are trying to accomplish and communication is a big part of that. They say that people who work in communications are the worst communicators.  However, if people understand where we are going and why we are going there, it's easier for them to execute what it is that you want them to do.

Back in South Carolina Rashida had the toughest job in local television as a news director.   To the viewer it looks really simple however; behind the scenes is another story. "It's tough because you have to be all encompassing.  You must have your finger on every single thing that is happening,” explains Rashida.  “It's a big staff especially in the digital world where we are online 24 hours.  It creates a lot of vulnerability because you want to be first to report something. You want to be first to cover something, you want it to be exclusive and you want it to be unique, but there is also a responsibility of being responsible.  You’re in an environment where it is so competitive and you also have this desire to be first.   There is a lot at stake and there is a lot of risk in a role like that. If that newsroom succeeds or fails, it's because of your direction and your vision. I feel like there is more to lose, but there's also a lot of reward there as well. Seeing a newsroom that you built, created projects, were the lead and seeing a team not only take on those projects, but own those projects and execute them well was very rewarding."  The business of bringing a trustworthy news report is serious business.  The public depends on the newsroom delivering information that is on point.  People base their lives on decisions based on what is seen on the news.  It was definitely high stakes involved and Rashida loved every minute of it.  It was definitely a great experience for her to learn how to lead a team from the bottom to the top.

As a child Rashida saw herself as a writer. It wasn't until she got to college that she realized people actually wrote for television. When you see the news anchors delivering special reports on television, you don't realize there are 20 people behind them doing the research and making sure what they say is true.  "There are people who write the stories, do the research and put everything together,” explains Rashida. “I didn't even know that was an option. I went to Hampton University because I wanted to write. I knew when I was in third grade that I wanted a career as a writer.
Reporting the news is one thing however, how does one not get emotionally involved in the stories they may have to report to the viewers? Rashida explains, "It's hard. I mean you condition yourself to not get emotional and just report the news. There have been stories over the course of my career where as a mother, there may be a story with a child the same age as mine or had the same background or experience.

 However, you know as a journalist that your first job is to report the news to the public. You can take your moment to deal with it after the fact, but when you’re in that mode and something happens, we have a responsibility to our audience to report it responsibly.”  When Maya Angelou died, Rashida had to control her emotions because Ms. Angelou is someone that she followed through her childhood and through her adult years. “I would remember reciting some of her poems in talent shows and being very close to her words,” remembers Rashida.   “When the news broke that she passed away, you have that split-second to think to yourself,  ‘Oh wow. I can't believe this 
happened.’  Then you condition yourself to switch your brain to think how do you tell this story to your audience. Then when you're away from the office, you're off the clock and you have your alone time, again you condition yourself to deal with it.  It’s almost like a reflex thing at this point.”

When Rashida is not at the job, she is just like you and I.  She watches the news, she cries at the same things we see reported on the news, she laughs at the same things that a regular viewer would laugh at, but when you're in the hot seat and you're leading the coverage, you have to be emotionally focused on responsibly reporting the news for the audience.
There are a lot of 24-hour careers and this is one of them.  "I’m constantly plugged in,” say Rashida.  “We may have conference calls anytime of the day or night.  It could be a legal thing or breaking news. Even if I'm not involved in the breaking news, as a journalist if something big happens overnight, I am plugged in, watching what is happening and reaching out to my team to make sure that we are covering it.  You don't just turn something like that off and actually you don't want to. I don't know what I would do if I were on some remote island and didn't know what was happening. It could be fun, but on the other hand it is so out of character of what we do.  You can only be in this business if you are really passionate about it.   If that's the case, then you want to be plugged in all the time.” 

Rashida is feeling very good about her life at this time. She is a 30-year-old happy, healthy phenomenal woman with a dream job in her dream city and her children love it.  By the way, I did not ask her age.  She volunteered it and that shows she is a confident woman in her skin. "I feel like I’m in a position where I can be a role model to other people,” states Rashida.  “I feel like I'm at a point in my life where I am making a difference. I’m making a difference in shifting our news organization; making a difference for people who never even thought about being in a world like this or never knew it existed. I feel like I'm that example for people who are coming up and that is very important to me.
I bet there's a whole wealth of advice that Rashida could give to those who want to follow in her footsteps. She does a lot of speaking engagements with organizations and has a website for journalist who are going to be our next generation of dynamic reporters and news personalities. You can check it out at “For me it's a way to tell the Rashida that I knew 15 years ago wide-eyed and excited what she needs to know. I kind of wrote from that perspective. I wrote some of the things people have told me or that I wish I knew when I was starting off,” explains Rashida.  "I tell people that networking is the way to get in the door, but you have to be ready to work hard and you have to be ready to make sacrifices. This is not an easy field to work in; you have to really be passionate about it.  You may not make money in the beginning and may work the worst hours you can ever imagine, but it all works towards the greater good.  If you work hard, make connections and meet people who do what you want to do, continue to build connections and you will go somewhere.  It happens like that time and time again with people who are serious in wanting to succeed in this field. It’s about wanting to make a difference and wanting to do it for all the right reasons. People who sustain themselves in this field are passionate about story telling. They are passionate about getting into communities that are not represented well.  They are also passionate about educating people on what is going on in the world. You just cannot do this job without passion. 

Rashida definitely paid her dues.  She worked for a weather Channel for seven years. She was the director of programming there. She didn't go to school to learn about the weather however, that was the appeal when she came in to work for the station. “They were looking for people with a local newsroom background,” says Rashida.  They were very clear that they were not looking for weather girls.  It was a local station in Norfolk.  “They wanted someone who could bring the workflow and sensibility of a newsroom to the organization.  It didn't really run that way and so they purposely would look for people who knew nothing about weather, but knew about storytelling,” says Rashida.  “The goal was to take weather and science and make it understandable with people who didn't have a science background. The people who are watching the weather channel are not scientists or meteorologist; they are average people.  Therefore, the goal was to figure out how do we make this content relate to average people?”  I think the answer is clear… tell it in a simplistic story.

It is very interesting how tornadoes are formed and how powerful they are however, if the meteorologist speaks in a terminology that is meant for his scientific colleagues, then it is not interesting for the average viewer to watch. This is exactly what the goal was for the station’s viewership.  They wanted to make it interesting, fun and understandable for the average person watching the broadcast.
Now we know how Ms. Rashida “Passion” Jones can turn an ordinary newsroom into a productive, team-building machine where everyone gets to play a vital role and enjoy the sharing of the rewards as well.  You can check your local station to see the well-oiled machine of news reports on MSNBC.

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