CNBC’s Jane Wells talks with Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about her career, what she considers her most fascinating assignment and why she feels podcasts are the new frontier for journalism.
Jane Wells has a knack for finding humor in otherwise serious subjects. “Maybe it’s the way I was brought up—to not ever take myself or anyone else too seriously,” she says. “Human foibles are everywhere and I like to find them.”
Her weekly digital-only series, “Strange Success,” examines unorthodox small-business ideas and products and the strategies that help entrepreneurs grow their concept into lucrative enterprises. “I could do ‘Strange Success’ every day of the week,” Wells says. “We feature people who have developed weird products or services or tapped into some need and are making a fortune, such as the woman who created Poo-Pourri. She made $30 million last year just because she didn’t like the smell of her husband’s bathroom breaks.” Other segments feature a company called Tooshlights that has developed a first-of-its-kind public restroom lighting system that alerts patrons when a stall is available (red light means occupied; green light means empty) and a former IT consultant-turned-entrepreneur who, along with his wife, launched a successful “escape adventure” business in Dallas.
In her segment on ManServants, a San Francisco startup that hires out handsome “chivalrous gentlemen” at $125 an hour for nonsexual service, Wells is doted on by a manservant named Haden who compliments her incessantly and helps her through various tasks at work. “Most women don’t want male strippers,” says Wells. “They’d like a guy in a tux who throws rose petals at them and, wink-wink, serves them champagne and makes them feel special. It’s a much more fun and uncreepy way to enjoy yourself.”
She also writes the Funny Business blog for CNBC.com, covering whatever she considers “hilarious, strange, fishy, or ridiculous.”
But make no mistake about it, Wells also has a serious side. The Los Angeles-based business reporter regularly covers retail, agriculture and defense and reports on California’s economy, West Coast real estate and Las Vegas. She came from “Upfront Tonight,” the former lead program of CNBC’s evening block of nonfinancial programming, where she served as a senior correspondent. She joined the network in 1996, providing special coverage of the O.J. Simpson civil case for “Rivera Live.” Prior to joining CNBC, she was a correspondent for the Fox News Channel and Los Angeles reporter for NBC’s flagship TV station, WNBC, in New York. She has also held reporter positions with KTTV, Los Angeles; WTVJ, Miami; and KOB, Albuquerque, and has contributed international reports for CNN.
Wells has received numerous accolades during her career, including a Peabody Award and duPont Award for her role in the live coverage of the Rodney King Trial, and a Los Angeles Emmy Award for her investigative reporting (all in 1992); UPI, Press Club and Emmy Awards for feature reporting; three Florida Emmy Awards for news reporting; and the Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for team reporting.
She and Geraldo Rivera both had roles on the “Seinfeld” finale in 1998.
Opportunist: When did you realize you wanted a career in TV news?
Jane Wells: When I was in high school I didn’t know what I wanted to be or what I wanted to study in college. Then I heard Barbara Walters had just signed a $1-million-a-year contract to co-anchor ABC news with Harry Reasoner. I thought she’s being paid $1 million for talking to people and telling what’s going on in the world? Gee, everybody tells me their secrets—I’m a one-woman high school network of information already—I think I’ll do that! It wasn’t some great calling. [Laughs]
I’m a Los Angeles native—one of the few born and raised here. I decided to study journalism at USC and fell head-over-heels in love with the art of visual storytelling. My goal was to become a war correspondent in the Middle East—before Christiane Amanpour came on the scene. I had a fascination with the Middle East, but my career didn’t lead me there.
Opportunist: What do you consider your most fascinating assignments?
Jane Wells: Covering Mother Teresa’s funeral was the most fascinating. There’s a working mom story behind it. Princess Diana had just died. It was horrible. Her death was the No. 1 story, and Fox asked if I would go to London to cover her funeral. But my son was about to start kindergarten, so I decided to do the ‘deathbed’ test. I thought if I’m on my deathbed, do I want to be able to say I covered Princess Diana’s funeral or my son’s first day of kindergarten? As a guilt-ridden working mother, I took my son to his first day of kindergarten. Of course he has no memory of it. [Laughs] The next day Mother Teresa died and I said, ‘I want to go.’ For me, personally, it was an incredible experience. We went to the neighborhoods of Calcutta where Mother Teresa would try to minister to everybody—Muslims, Christians and Hindus, who all called her mother. I didn’t know what we were doing covering the news in a third world country, but I learned a lot. It was the most amazing story.
Opportunist: As someone who covered the O.J. Simpson trials, how do you feel about the new FX series ‘American Crime Story’ and its portrayal of the case?
Jane Wells: I love it. I thought it was going to be cheesy but it’s actually pretty good. For those of us who lived through it, it just strangely brings it all back. I was recently filling in on a local radio talk show and Marcia Clark came on to talk about it. Sarah Paulson is doing a good job playing Marcia. She was judged so harshly during the trial. I think the series gives sort of a sympathetic and empowering performance of what went on behind the scenes. A lot of people have criticized Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J. because, in their minds, he is too likeable. But O.J. was likeable. Cuba is perfect because if we find out tomorrow that Cuba is charged with murdering someone we would have the same reaction we did about O.J. It took everyone by surprise.
Opportunist: Ron Goldman’s family—his father, Fred, and sister, Kim—have said the show ignores his heroism.
Jane Wells: I have complete respect for the Goldmans. They never wavered or tried to exploit the situation. From the very beginning they said, ‘We want justice; this man killed Ron and we will never lose sight of that.’ I think their fear is that we forget Ron was part of the story. We are just a few episodes in. I am willing to wait and see where it goes.
Opportunist: What is the best career advice you ever received?
Jane Wells: When a news director told me I would never succeed and that I didn’t have what it took to become a reporter. That was all the motivation I needed to work hard. It’s backwards, but it’s the best. The advice I give is twofold. You have to really want it, and you have to be unafraid to go anywhere for the opportunity. I see so many students who don’t want to leave California or who expect to make a certain wage, but you have to want it bad enough that you’ll go to Butte and eat Top Ramen! [Laughs] When women ask me how I do it as a working mother, I tell them ‘one week at a time.’ You’re not going to be great at everything all the time. Don’t sweat it, and pick your battles. I don’t get this whole Sheryl Sandberg thing about ‘leaning in.’ I don’t mean to beat up on her, but some days you’re a great reporter and a terrible mom and other days you’re a great mom and an OK reporter—and occasionally a great wife.
Opportunist: Is there a particular aspect of your work that you enjoy the most?
Jane Wells: I love talking to people about growing things and building stuff—whether it’s corn or rockets or creating something called Tooshlights. America is filled with people who want to make something and make it be successful. These people are inspired and they are inspiring. It’s the best job in the world because you meet new people almost every day, and you learn something almost every day. It’s just one lifelong education, which I find very stimulating.
Opportunist: What was it like to be on the final episode of ‘Seinfeld,’ which many viewers still consider the funniest TV sitcom of all time?
Jane Wells: The story behind that is Larry David, co-creator of the series, had apparently been fixated on the O.J. trial. He decided to put the four main characters—Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer—on trial and wanted to create a ‘Rivera Live’ analysis. I was a reporter for Geraldo at the time. One day the producers called and asked, ‘Would you like to be on Seinfeld?’ It was my birthday and I thought I was being punked. [Laughs]
When I went to the set everyone stayed in individual trailers. Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Michael Richards and Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld all came out to say hi. I thought no one is going to believe this! [Laughs] I was sworn to secrecy. Larry said, ‘You’re a reporter but you can’t talk about this.’ I told Larry how people tell me stuff all the time that’s off the record—even during the O.J. trial—and he asked, ‘Like what?’ Of course I said, ‘Well, I can’t tell you that.” [Laughs] I did my lines and noticed Jerry and Larry off camera laughing, and I’m thinking Oh my goodness, Jerry Seinfeld thinks I’m funny!
Opportunist: How did your colleagues react to your budding film career?
Jane Wells: On the day the ‘Seinfeld’ finale was to air my assignment for Fox was covering the ‘Seinfeld’ finale! I was afraid if I said too much they were going to cut me out of the show. I was very conflicted. Back then we had pagers, so I asked a friend in New York with Geraldo to page me ‘111’ if I’m on and ‘000’ if I’m not. I’m out on the West Coast and all of a sudden I get ‘111’ on my pager. So I told my producer, ‘I just want you to know I’m in the final episode of ‘Seinfeld’ tonight.’ Then, three minutes later, Fox says, ‘alright you’re going to be live from Cedars-Sinai [Medical Center] because Frank Sinatra died.
Opportunist: What else do you hope to achieve in your career?
Jane Wells: Gosh, you always want to achieve something. I always want to be better. I don’t think I’m at my best yet. I think I could do better storytelling and better writing—I just need to find the right medium. Digital is the future. I would like to do a podcast. NPR’s Planet Money does an excellent podcast. I’m a fanatic about Sarah Koenig’s podcast show ‘Serial,’ which is kind of like ‘Making a Murderer.’ I have listened to both seasons. It’s conversational and raw and it takes the time to tell one story over time. It’s just really the new type of storytelling.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer, editor and journalist with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance, real estate and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides between Florida and Michigan. Follow Leslie on Twitter: @lescstone.
Follow Jane Wells on Twitter: @janewells
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