CNBC Reporter Kayla Tausche talks with the Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about her experiences covering some of this year’s hottest business news stories.
Kayla Tausche joined CNBC in January 2011 as a general assignment reporter covering corporate finance and deals for CNBC’s Business Day programming. Since joining the network, she has covered a wide range of stories including the Occupy Wall Street movement, the News Corp phone-hacking scandal, the bankruptcy of MF Global and, most recently, the much anticipated Facebook IPO.
Opportunist: How did you get into journalism?
Kayla: In a somewhat roundabout way. I was always interested in diplomacy and foreign policy, and I had a hankering for working abroad. One of my college professors encouraged me to take some journalism classes and I decided to pursue it as a career path. I had spent a summer at Bloomberg News—dabbling in financial topics—and I liked it, but when I entered the job market the recession was starting so I decided to stick with journalism.
What happened when I graduated was sort of a funny story. I was talking with an investment bank that imploded about a trading job but it fell through. I moved to New York City anyway, and I sent my resume to all the big cornerstone newspapers in New York. One evening, while I was out to dinner, The New York Times called me. It was back when they still had the infamous 111-111-1111 phone number, so I recognized it instantly and stepped away to take the call. I was so excited that I asked “how many writing samples shall I bring?” Then the reporter on the line said, “We are writing a story about unemployed people in New York and I wanted to interview you.” [Laughs]
I eventually went to Brussels and worked for the Associated Press. My job was to cover European Union policy as well as the euro. I went to a division of the Financial Times in London and worked as the assistant editor for a small newsletter called DealReporter, and focused on writing about deals, mergers and acquisitions and sort of cut my teeth there.
Opportunist: Did you enjoy living and working in London?
Kayla: Yes. It was such an adventure. I learned a lot while managing a team of 12 journalists and helping them figure out which stories were the best ones to cover, and I certainly got a news sense about what was important and what people wanted to hear about. The economic picture was not quite as gloomy at the time, but there was a sense that large tectonic plates were moving. The nice thing about London is you know the language—and the daytrips you would make to Chicago or Boston [as a journalist living and working in the states] suddenly became trips to Paris and Rome. [Laughs]
Opportunist: How did you end up on TV at CNBC?
Kayla: I first came to CNBC while living in New York and covering the deal where Kraft Foods was in the process of buying Cadbury for about $20 billion. CNBC called my editor or someone in PR at the newswire and asked if a reporter could come on as a guest. I was very young, and it’s amazing how your nerves sort of go away when you’re covering something that closely. Your job is to live inside that story and make your way through that maze.
I was also a guest on “Squawk Box” in Asia. They started having me on as a commentator to talk about the European economy. CNBC and I were in contact so much that it made sense, naturally, to join them permanently in 2011.
I didn’t do very well in my broadcasting classes at UNC. In fact, my lowest grade was in TV broadcasting, so it was funny when I got hired at CNBC. The irony was not lost on me. [Laughs] As a joke, I forwarded the news to my former broadcast journalism professor—and I got the last laugh.
Opportunist: What was his response?
Kayla: His initial reaction was, it’s not April Fool’s day so this must be true!
To have the energy you need to do TV as a career, you have to care about what you’re talking about. The hours are long. A story can snowball for months at a time. If you’re not passionate about what you’re covering, it’s going to be hard to wake up in the morning. My interest in business got me here. If I had gone through local news and covered the police beat, that would not have gotten me up in the morning. I have been very lucky because I have had the opportunity to cover some absolutely fascinating and complex stories.
Opportunist: Do you ever get nervous on air?
Kayla: In the beginning, I would still get somewhat nervous. I wanted to make sure I knew exactly which anchor was bringing me into the story and who I was throwing the story back to. You get to know your colleagues and the situation so well that it becomes second nature. I hope to have my thoughts worked out in bullet points or a script about five to 10 minutes before going on air, but when things get hectic you’re literally sprinting down the stairs. [Laughs] Some stories merit more time, though, and in TV time is your currency and it is finite. Conversations take on a life of their own, especially when bringing important issues to the table. So, a segment that was supposed to be 90 seconds can run for minutes. You try to talk about the points you want to hit on, but if [the interview subject] thinks about something you haven’t brought up you cannot script for that. You do get a sense of salience for what’s important but, still, you cannot plan for anything because anything can happen.
Opportunist: You have certainly covered some of the hottest and most sensitive business news stories of the last year. What was the key to your success?
Kayla: Yes, if you think about the big, top of the fold stories from the last year, I have to say that I’ve been extremely lucky to call a lot of them my assignments. None of them have overlapped and so I have been parachuting into brand-new subject matter and really having to get up to speed on all the players and characters involved. You also have to establish a layer of trust between you and the people involved and maintain confidentiality. With Occupy Wall Street in particular, it was so important for us as a channel covering big business to report accurately and strike the right tone so as not to alienate our audience. I am extremely proud about the unbiased reporting we did in communicating both sides of the story.
Opportunist: Please share some highlights from your recent experience covering the Facebook IPO.
Kayla: Facebook has been a trying story to cover because it’s been in the spotlight for so long. Theirs was the most highly anticipated IPO since Google. It’s a household word and a company that everyone knows. So, because of that and all the policing from the SEC, the information was extremely hard to come by for most of the process.Facebook was such a high-profile story that many of the other news organizations devoted resources only to that story for nearly a year. As a single body, it's hard to compete with that. But in the end, you have to trust the accuracy of your information, and sometimes that means not jumping on the bandwagon of what everyone else was reporting. We were able to gain a lot of respect and break a lot of stories that way.
Opportunist: Was there a sense of skepticism among the people you spoke with, or were they optimistic?
Kayla: I would say there was a little bit of bifurcation, especially from an age perspective. My colleagues who didn’t grow up with Facebook were skeptics from the get-go. They wondered how a website that doesn’t make a product could be worth $100 billion. I am of the generation that had Facebook as a vital tool of communication ever since I was in college. Some of my colleagues and fellow commentators closer to my age also knew how prevalent and vital it was for people in a certain generation. What matters is where underwriters place the company. The CFO decided $38 per share was the right price and we’ve seen what’s happened in the market since then.
Opportunist: How did you develop your sources?
Kayla: We certainly spent a good amount of time with people who were familiar with early transactions in Facebook and early rounds on the private market and big investors out in Silicon Valley—those with the best insight into the company and its genesis, who had watched it grow from infancy to what it is now.
There certainly were a lot of analysts who were marketing themselves as regular research analysts, but in realty their clients were big hedge funds or big investors. Much of the information they received was coming from people peddling information based on their own conclusions and insights or based on the fact that maybe the analyst had access to the company or was privy to information already out there. There was no way these people could’ve arrived at this specific financial information unless it was a model they built themselves.
Opportunist: Did you ever worry that your sources would fall through or you would inadvertently report misinformation?
Kayla: No. I was fairly confident throughout. We called people to verify information. You have to trust people because there is certainly a level of interest on the company’s side to have accurate information. On the flip side, companies are not supposed to speak with the media during the IPO rest period.
There certainly were times when you reported on sources who wanted to remain anonymous, so you were stepping out on a limb and your face was on the line. There is always that fear, and it’s not specific to any one company. You have to be responsible no matter what story you are covering. We thought, alright we have gotten different information and we are not going to report what other people out there are reporting. We wanted to be sure we personally knew the information to be true.
Opportunist: What are your thoughts on the future of the stock?
Kayla: This is a stock you can watch every day and see how the market feels about it. In the beginning, you saw that investors did not feel good about what was happening behind the scenes in the options market. Bearish bets were being taken.This company has been around for eight years and it’s not going away. Maybe its valuation was too high but at some point it’s got to stop sinking.
Opportunist: Who inspired you to get where you are today?
Kayla: I have to credit my dad and my great aunt. My dad is in advertising and has that creative gene. He suggested I consider journalism. My great aunt, who was a career diplomat with the State Department, inspired my initial interest in diplomacy. I lived vicariously through her stories. Also, Chris Roush, who writes a blog called Talking Biz News, was very instrumental in helping me make career decisions left and right. I was able to make clear, definitive decisions because of his guidance. Nik Deogun at CNBC has also been an inspiration.
Opportunist: Who is the most impressive person you’ve met?
Kayla: Everyone leading a Fortune 500 company in this economy. We are so lucky at CNBC to have access to so many business leaders, day in and day out. I admire their ability to come on TV and face an audience and, in most circumstances, do it with an impeccable amount of grace under fire. I sympathize with CEOs of the big banks, such as Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein. They survived the recession with an incredible amount of grace in spite of everything they’re facing. I definitely don’t agree with everything the banks have done but I think it’s been an extremely difficult feat that doesn’t go unnoticed.
Opportunist: What was your most difficult assignment?
Kayla: The MF Global bankruptcy situation was a very trying experience because there was a lot of political red tape that you had to cut through. Also, because it’s an election year, I felt there was a lot of polarization around the way people were telling that story. Jon Corzine [former CEO of MF Global] was very instrumental in the Democratic party. Senators and representatives would hold long hearings and bring executives to the table, to put their feet to the fire, and it turned into an enduring game of partisan politics. That was frustrating from the standpoint that tons of customers lost money and instead of focusing on getting their money back as soon as possible, this intense, long and winding game of political theater continued. I cannot even say if today—nearly nine months after the fact—that the situation is worked out.
Opportunist: What is your favorite assignment so far?
Kayla: I have enjoyed covering News Corp and the phone-hacking scandal, but not so much from the content perspective because everything is just so terrifying. What ultimately set this story in motion was that journalists were hacking into the phone of a young girl who had been murdered. It’s fascinating from the standpoint that I’m a journalist and ethics in journalism—which techniques hold water and which do not—was at the heart of it. I’ve been a journalist on Fleet Street and so I know how chatty that place is. The journalists were going to shocking lengths for stories and their lack of ethics has constantly been imparting lessons on how not to get a story. You must go about it in the right way and make people respect you so they will want to talk with you. We were able to establish trust in talking with some of the journalists in the U.K. who were at the center of this. They felt more comfortable talking with us, from one journalist to another, and the understanding of deadline pressure was certainly mutual. We all do jobs and need paychecks.
Opportunist: What did you learn from them?
Kayla: Their feeling was that it was what you did and their organization wasn’t the only one. The stakes were so high and it was so widespread that it was hard to point fingers and say who did something wrong. I have constantly been impressed with how accommodating the company has been with helping us get the story right even though we are a competitor.
Opportunist: What do you enjoy most about your work?
Kayla: The access that comes with being a journalist. It really is second to almost no other profession other than perhaps being the president of the United States. [Laughs] That may sound like a highfalutin comment, but throughout my almost five years in the business I have been amazed at who would actually return my phone calls—even when I was a 21-year-old very junior level cub reporter. It gives you the ability to pick up the phone and call anyone in the world and have them on the other line in a heartbeat. Everyone has an interest to talk with a journalist, especially corporations and politicians or anyone else who wants to manage how they appear in the media.
I have a tremendous amount of respect for all my colleagues at CNBC. They have been covering some of the wildest stories in American business in the last several decades and it’s neat to be among those ranks and call those people my colleagues and mentors.
Opportunist: Tell us about a typical day in the life of Kayla Tausche.
Kayla: I get up around 5 a.m. and read the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and the business section of The New York Times. I also have the Bloomberg app on my iPhone, so I try to get caught up on all the news and have at least one cup of coffee in my system by 6:30 a.m. [Laughs] I am usually in the office by 7 o’clock, unless a story arises that is of the moment, which means I’m up by 3:30 a.m. and in the office by 5:30 a.m.
Opportunist: When does your day end?
Kayla: I wish I had an answer for that. [Laughs] We are usually off the air at 8 p.m., but if you’re on air at the very end of the day it can go as late as 9:30 p.m. Oftentimes, I am leaving the office to go to dinner or drinks with a source or an executive I am interested in meeting face to face—and still on the clock. This job requires 24/7 dedication, but there’s just so much going on and you want to do a service to make sure no stone is left unturned. I do the reverse commute—out of Manhattan to Englewood Cliffs, N.J.—so it takes about 30 minutes to get out of the city and as much as two hours to get home.
Opportunist: What advice do you have for aspiring journalists?
Kayla: I feel like a lot of the advice I got was to keep my head down and work hard and never really flinch. But I’ve found it helpful to speak up, stand my ground and ask for new projects. It’s also very important to care about the quality of your work and make sure your reputation is as good as it can be. In journalism, you can have a million bylines but the quality of your work can suffer as a result of such a busy schedule. If you have a lot of corrections on those bylined pieces your reputation isn’t going to be as unsullied.
Opportunist: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Kayla: Hmm. I don’t know if I can even think that far ahead. [Laughs]
I consider myself lucky to do what I am doing now. I get to tell good stories to a great audience that is very engaging. It’s nice to have such an active audience—they let us know how we are doing—and a colorful cast of characters to interview. I would like to find a way to write a little more than I have been. Any journalist wants to write a book and I certainly hope that would be possible for me in the future as well. None of the stories I cover have lent themselves to an opportunity for longer form journalism. Everything is so fast moving, which requires so much intensity and being right there in the moment.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer/editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides in the Orlando area.
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