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October 18, 2016

Uncommon Interview: Rebecca Jarvis '03, ABC Correspondent and Apprentice Contestant

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This summer I had the opportunity to sit down with Rebecca Jarvis (A.B. ’03), who wrote for The Maroon during her time at UChicago and is now, over a decade later, one of the most distinguished financial journalists in the country. In addition to hosting her own online show, Real Biz with Rebecca Jarvis, she is the chief business, technology, and economics correspondent for ABC News. She came in second on The Apprentice at age 23. Rebecca explained how she ended up where she is today (mostly a UChicago education and an undying work ethic), gave some advice for aspiring journalists, and told me what it was like to work with Donald Trump.

CHICAGO MAROON (CM): Tell me a little bit about yourself.

Rebecca Jarvis (RJ): I graduated in 2003. I studied Law, Letters, and Society, and I did four years—moved there from Minnesota—and then went into investment banking. 

CM: Why’d you leave investment banking? 

RJ: I left investment banking because I knew in my gut that I wanted to be a journalist. I was in Chicago at the time in investment banking and I was working on this transaction, writing a memo about why a company should invest in the company we were selling. And I really wanted to instead [be] the  New York Times  reporter writing the article about why the transaction wasn’t a great idea, or—I really wanted to be on the other side of it. I wanted to be the journalist telling the story. And I felt like I just had to pursue it, otherwise I would always wonder—I would always wonder what if

So I left investment banking, and started pitching all of the editors in Chicago, which is something my mom—who is also a journalist—recommended I do. She said that the one thing every editor wants is story ideas and if you have story ideas based on your background, make their job easier for them. So that’s what I did. Well I wouldn’t say I made their job easier, but I went with lots of ideas. So I just literally called around to every business editor in Chicago who would take a call from me and said, “Would you be willing to meet me for coffee? I’d love to hear about your work… and I have these ideas for you,” and my mom’s advice to me was: “Tell them your ideas, see how they react, and if they say they might be interested in you writing for them, great. If they’re a little iffy, offer to write for them for free, but not at first.”

CM: Did you start out in print journalism and then go to broadcasting?

RJ: I started out writing for  Crain’s Chicago Business , and a magazine that’s no longer around called  Business 2.0 

When I was in college,  Business 2.0  had offered me an internship but I ended up taking instead an offer in London with Citi. So I circled back around with the people who had offered me the internship in college and said, “I would love to write for you—freelance, whatever,” and I pitched them some ideas and started writing freelance for them and also pitched a number of ideas to  Crain’s  and started writing for them. 

One of the very first articles, this was 2005, I had pitched to  Crain’s  was—when I was in investment banking I had seen all of these companies taking on more and more debt—and so the article was all about why companies were taking on so much debt and how banks were allowing companies to take on more and more debt that was known as covenant-free or covenant-light, meaning they didn’t have restrictions on them and they could really—they were able to borrow more money than ever before and they were able to do it without having to live up to standards that had been in place years before. 

In 2005 it was kind of the beginning of the—people can argue about when the actual beginning of the housing bubble was, and the debt bubble—but really, the Great Recession was caused in large part by people in all facets taking on too much debt. The housing crisis is the biggest part of it that we all know. There was just way too much leverage in the system. 

CM: Sounds like you had some pretty good foresight there. 

RJ: I’m not saying I called the financial crisis, but I called the financial crisis. No, I’m totally kidding. 

CM: You said your mom is a journalist as well?

RJ: Yes, when I was growing up and in college she worked for the  Minnesota Pioneer Press , and then later, when I moved to New York, just as I was moving to New York, she got hired by the  Chicago Tribune  to come and be their personal finance column. So she works at the  Chicago Tribune  now. 

CM: Did you know from your mom that you wanted to be a journalist? What made you start writing for The Maroon when you were at UChicago?

RJ: For me, the number one thing that has always driven and motivated journalism for me has been this pursuit of the truth and the ability to ask any question of any person—an insatiable curiosity—and the ability as a journalist to go out and talk to anyone. 

You have cover. There are very few jobs where you can pick up your phone and, you might not get an answer on the other end, but there are very few jobs where you can call up anyone in the world and ask them a question. And journalism allows you to do that. 

I love that about my job. At its best, you are calling the most interesting people—not necessarily the most famous or the most known—but you’re able to call or meet incredible interesting people or travel to very interesting people and ask them what they think about the world and hear their stories. That’s one kind of journalism that I love in sort of more of the feature reporting. And the other part that I love is the investigative part when something doesn’t make sense. 

CM: Are you still writing? I know you have a show online, right? 

RJ: My job now: I’m the chief business, technology, and economics correspondent for ABC News, which means I report for Good Morning America, World News Tonight, Nightline, 20/20, This Week, and then I also have my own show, which is  Real Biz with Rebecca Jarvis , which is on ABCNews.com and on Apple TV and on YouTube. So I write every story I do, top-to-bottom for ABC News, and I’m also producing and coming up with all of the content as well. 

CM: So when do you sleep? Sounds like you’re pretty busy. 

RJ: We just did this story earlier this week about how your productivity starts to decline after 50 hours of work per week. And there was an op-ed in I think  The Washington Post  about how all these people who are talking about waking up at four in the morning and going without sleep are just terrible examples of what it takes to get ahead. 

I have very mixed feelings about that because for me, I honestly really can’t see how I would have gotten to where I am right now if I had done anything but push myself to my utmost limits—and sometimes push myself even farther—than I probably physically should have. I just don’t think it would be possible. 

I raised this question in an interview not that long ago with Arianna Huffington, who talks about the importance of sleep. I raised this point with her because I always struggle with these topics right now that are so much in the zeitgeist about personal wellness and taking care of yourself. 

And it is important to take care of yourself—you do have your physical limits—but I liken it a little bit to an Olympian. Olympians exercise for hours a day. They eat, breathe, sleep whatever it is that they are training for, and most of them start when they’re really young. A lot of people could look at that and say, “That’s not the life I would want.” But for them, they’re Olympic athletes and they have to do that. There’s no shortcut to getting there. And I think that there are ways to impose more balance on your life, and I have definitely tried to impose more balance on my life now that I’m 34 years old versus when I was 24 years old. But, in my personal experience, you have to go above and beyond in order to get the big, big opportunities. 

CM: Spoken like a true UChicago student. 

RJ: Well, the University of Chicago certainly is like that too. People will probably read this before midterms, but once those come around, you start to realize that if you’re not working really hard right up until those final moments before your tests or papers, you know, it’s probably not going to work out so well. 

CM: I can definitely attest to that. Going back to your time at UChicago, what was your role on The Maroon

RJ: I was a staff writer. I wrote a lot of things for News. I wrote a lot as an undergrad at the University of Chicago. 

You know, people will ask what they should study. And I think it’s completely fine to not study journalism. In fact, in my experience, having courses that were heavy in writing but not necessarily journalistic per se helped. 

As a Law, Letters, and Society major, I was in a lot of Dennis Hutchinson’s classes. And he is someone that almost became a journalist at one point in his life, and I think that a lot of the skills I picked up from his coursework help me a lot now as a journalist. So I would say: Look, there’s not a journalism major at the University of Chicago, but that’s not a bad thing. That’s actually potentially a good thing because you can differentiate yourself. 

You can study English, you can also study history or economics, or Law, or some sort of science and—guess what?—become an expert in one of those fields and a newsroom is going to want you even more, assuming that you can write, than if you’re just another journalism kid. 

Not to say that those people don’t succeed and excel in newsrooms (ABC News is filled with people who studied journalism, as have been every place that I’ve worked), but when you can put your hand up in a moment of breaking news or you can say when there’s no one else in the building who has that specific set of knowledge or background—when you can say, “Hey, I can help,” they’re going to go to you for that help. 

I think the world—especially journalism—has really evolved and changed, especially in the 11 years I’ve been doing this. The hierarchy still exists. You have to have certain experience to do certain jobs, but it doesn’t exist to the degree that it even did when I started. So if you’re young and hungry and motivated, you can really get in there and do a lot of things that you’re probably hoping to do as a journalist. You’re not just getting coffee for people. In fact, there’s no budget for coffee anymore, so you’re not getting coffee. 

CM: I’ve been told, and found, that hands-on experience is much more important than formal training when it comes to journalism. 

RJ: The hands-on experience is really important, and I do think that there are certain things—learning standards is the one truly beneficial thing people could get out of going to journalism school. I say that having never gone to journalism school, but from what I hear, just learning how to fact-check a story and what’s necessary—to know that before you get into a newsroom certainly helps. But I think the main skills that you really need: you need to know how to write, and nowadays you probably need to know how to write quickly. You need to know how to ask questions and be incredibly curious and inquisitive, and you need to be really willing to work hard for little pay—which is the way it works now too. 

CM: I know you were on  The Apprentice , so I have to ask you about that experience. 

RJ: Of course you do. When I was writing for  Crain’s  in Chicago, I was 23 years old and on a lark I went to the audition for  The Apprentice  at NBC. In the back of my mind I really didn’t see it as something I would ultimately do. I thought I would write some story about what it’s like behind the scenes to do this kind of thing and what an audition for  The Apprentice  is. Then after a couple rounds of auditioning I ended up getting on the show and had actually a lot of really serious conversations with my parents at the time about whether or not I should do it. Because I was really concerned about what it would mean. Would it undermine the things I had worked so hard to do? And what I mean by that is: when you go on reality TV, it’s up to the producers on reality TV who you are. You can control who you are to some extent because you are who you are, but the editing and the decisions that are made to make something dramatic can change. That’s the kind of danger I’m always apprehensive about: putting my words into someone else’s hands, allowing someone else to tell my story. That’s something that I’ve always been concerned about and that’s ironic because I’m a journalist and that’s kind of what we do. 

I was worried, and I thought a lot about it, but I ultimately decided to do it. I was 23 and I was like,  what’s the worst thing that can happen?  When you’re 23 you can blame whatever happens on youth.

I broke my ankle three days into filming and was on crutches the entire time. It was not the most pleasant experience because of that in part but I made it through. People say, “Well what did you learn from it?” and I think, for me, I learned that the world is really big, and it’s interesting to see that audiences see the truth. You don’t have to tell people what’s happening; audiences can see what’s happening. And that was a big learning experience for me when it was all said and done. 

CM: And you were the runner-up, correct?

RJ: Yeah.

CM: In the long-run, are you happy that you didn’t end up winning?

RJ: Absolutely I’m happy! All this stuff is so weird, obviously, because of everything that’s happening in the world now, but right after the show wrapped up, I did this interview with Larry King. It was Larry King and Donald Trump and the other person from the show. During the commercial break I was alone in the studio with Larry King and the other two were via satellite. He said, “This is the best thing that ever happened to you. Mark my words. Coming in second is the best thing that ever happened to you.” 

And frankly, the show gave me a forum to be who I was, and for people to see that, and put me in touch and in contact with people who it would have taken much more heavy lifting probably and a lot longer time. I don’t regret doing it, but first of all, I didn’t ever think about it as a stepping stone. I thought, I’m doing this on a lark, it could be something fun. I could have some great stories as a result of this—that’s how I went into it. 

Coming out of it (and I’ve talked to a couple of other people who were in similar positions to mine), there are some great opportunities that may or may not come along, but once you get in those opportunities, you have to really work hard, which is what I did when I went to CNBC afterwards. I cared more about how the other employees saw me and wanted to work really hard to earn their trust and respect and wanted them to know I deserved to be there and wasn’t just the girl from reality TV. And 11 years in hindsight to that full experience, I realize there was probably a lot of skepticism from the other journalists at the time, and I’m really grateful I had the great experience early on that I did, because there could have been a lot more hazing. 

CM: Fond memories of Donald Trump, or not so much?

RJ: First off, let me say this: We had limited interaction. But in my interactions with him he literally came across exactly on air when you would watch the show back as he came across in person. So with my experience, it was: what you see is what you get. And there were two major questions that people would ask me when I would travel and when I came back from the show. People would ask me, “Is his hair real?” because that was a thing for a really long time, and they would ask me about his book,  The Art of the Deal , and what we learned from him.

CM: So you didn’t get to know him on a personal level?

RJ: For me, it was a positive experience. I didn’t have any negative interactions with him that I can recall. It was 11 years ago, but also, the biggest difference is that the content of our interactions was very different than the content that you now see of him. 

I mean, never once did politics come up as far as I can remember. We didn’t talk about the Iraq War. We talked about whether or not you did what Microsoft wanted you to do on a task. Or whether or not the tagline you came up with was the right tagline, or whether or not you sold enough widgets or whatever it was we were selling on a particular task. 

CM: We just had this letter from Dean Ellison go out to first-years about free speech (which I’m sure you’ve read about), and I think it will be one of the things that stands out in my mind down the road when I think about my generation at UChicago. So I’m wondering what you feel defined your time at UChicago?

RJ: One of the most defining things of my experience was Dennis Hutchinson’s First Amendment law course. I think a lot about that class now still and I think the bottom line for me is the idea that you essentially have to protect all speech in order to protect the things that are most important to you. Because if you start going around and selectively saying, “Well this speech doesn’t work” or “this speech I’m not comfortable with,” someday when times change and opinions change, it’s going to be your thoughts. It’s going to be what you have to say that will be outlawed—if you go the opposite direction is my point. I think for me it’s such an important point; it was a very pivotal course for me while I was in school, and it’s still an incredibly important course for me now and I think about it a lot. 

Something that I thought a lot about when that note came out was that there were a lot of discussions in University of Chicago classes that made me uncomfortable—that were viewpoints that I had never heard before—and I’m so glad I heard them. And I’m so glad I heard them at the University of Chicago where there was respect for everybody. And I think that the experience that I had as a college student would have been dramatically different if I or anyone else was in a position to shut down a conversation. Because there were some things that were said in classes—and I still remember people in class being like, “That’s crazy!” but you know what? The discussion went on. And there was a conversation. And it was, I think, an important one. And who knows? The people on the other side of it, who a lot of people thought were crazy, might have learned something too.

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