CNBC’s Courtney Reagan talks with the Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about her early days at the network, what she has learned from covering the retail sector and what it was like to drive a Ferrari down Park Avenue.
What do the beloved children’s TV host Captain Kangaroo, media personality Regis Philbin and original Charlie’s Angel Kate Jackson have in common with CNBC’s Courtney Reagan? Each was chosen to serve as an NBC page out of literally tens of thousands of applicants vying to fill 50 coveted spots. The program typically lasts 12 months, but Reagan served just four months before being offered a full-time position with the CNBC news desk in 2006. “Those were the four most memorable months of my entire life,” Reagan exclaims. “You enter the program with 50 other people who are in the exact same boat you are—some were political science majors without a broadcast or journalism background—but they were undoubtedly 50 of the most talented people I have ever worked with. Many graduated at the top of their class from Ivy League schools. They might wear a uniform and a name tag and give tours of the NBC studios, but they are passionate about what they do. They do it because they love it. There is a sort of fraternity among former pages that is hard to rival—once a page, always a page.”
Reagan is currently an on-air reporter covering retail for CNBC. She also anchors daily business headline cut-ins for CNBC, NBC affiliates, MSNBC and CNBC international and hosts Yahoo and CNBC’s twice-daily online program, “Big Data Download,” a show that taps into the big data revolution to deliver valuable information to everyday investors and business decision makers. Reagan is also a regular contributor to NBC’s Today show.
Opportunist: Were you surprised to receive an offer so soon after being selected for the Page Program?
Reagan: Yes. I didn’t know much about CNBC, which seems silly in hindsight, but with my finance background I thought it might be a fit. [She holds bachelor’s degrees in finance and mass communication, with a focus on broadcast journalism, from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.] I interviewed with Tyler Mathison, managing editor of CNBC Business News, with whom I still work, and he offered me the job. I had been an intern with ‘Dateline’, working on the show again as a page, in addition to an assignment on ‘Today.’
Opportunist: What was it like to work on ‘Dateline’ and the ‘Today’ show? Many would consider those dream internships.
Reagan: I interned at ‘Dateline’ the summer that former President Ronald Reagan died. We worked through the weekend to help the specials teams put together stories about him. I also worked on a follow-up story about Elian Gonzalez four years after he returned to Cuba and another story on Princess Diana when the new book about her was coming out.
Opportunist: Did the ‘Dateline’ news team actually travel to Cuba?
Reagan: His father had agreed to an interview, but when the crew arrived he said ‘No. Sorry.’ So the producer left a handheld camera and asked Elian’s father to ask his son the questions and send us the tape.
Opportunist: And he obviously complied?
Reagan: Sure enough, we got the tape back. I was the first to watch it and I even got to log the video.
Also during the summer I was interning, ‘Dateline’ started its ‘To Catch a Predator’ series. When I returned to ‘Dateline’ a year later as a page, the producers asked for permission to use old pictures of the pages and interns for some online profiles they needed to create, since we were the youngest in the office. I said I would give them my picture if they let me help produce it, and they agreed. [Laughs] They used a photo of me wearing braces and a Santa hat and assigned me the name ‘Bubble Beth’ with some numbers after it. They hired an outside watchdog company called Perverted-Justice to create the online conversations and profiles using our real photos. Once it actually aired, I thought that’s pretty weird because those guys came to the house thinking I was 14. My brother still teases me: ‘Remember, Courtney, the first time you were on national TV you were bait on ‘To Catch a Predator.’ [Laughs]
I spent a lot of my time at ‘Today’ escorting guests around and handling guest relations for their special segments. I also helped to arrange schedules for Chris Matthews and others who needed a little help. I remember all those moments very fondly.
Opportunist: Who influenced your career?
Reagan: In some sense I got lucky because I figured out what I enjoyed doing early on. I was always interested in news from the time I was a little kid. Whenever I was babysitting, which I loved doing, I would watch ‘20/20’ or whatever news magazine was on TV. I didn’t do anything until college, although I seemed to have a knack for public speaking and telling stories always came easy to me. If I have one talent, it’s telling stories—all my friends and family will tell you that. [Laughs] I also enjoy writing and I feel really lucky that I get to do the things I enjoy doing. My dad always told me, ‘I don’t care what you do, Courtney, but you have to find something you love … the money will come.’ When I first came to Manhattan, I lived on a $10 an hour page’s salary. [Laughs] If I wanted money I certainly never would’ve picked that. A friend of mine died in a fire a few weeks before our college graduation, and that made me realize life is short. People tend to call me ‘cautious Courtney’ because I take calculated risks, but losing my friend Julie —plus knowing I had skills to do something productive— made me realize that you have to take chances and kind of worked together to influence me.
Opportunist: What are some of the rewards and challenges of being a journalist?
Reagan: I love to write and that’s why I really prefer—at least at this point—being a reporter. It can be hard sometimes, certainly in business news when you have to explain something very complicated in 75 seconds, but it’s never boring. We get to write and tell our own stories. Whether in person, out in the field or speaking to someone on the phone it can be very challenging but I really do love every minute of it.
Opportunist: As a general assignment reporter for CNBC what kinds of stories do you cover?
Reagan: I can do just about anything as long as I know a little about a topic and call the right people. I largely focus on retail, though, and the process is pretty much the same. For a retail story, for instance, I frequently speak with analysts and consultants and I read trade publications to keep up with the latest trends. I also have knowledge of retail strategy and consumer behavior because I have been studying those disciplines while working on my MBA. If I am out shopping I am always curious and will notice what people are buying and what they are saying. I find that talking with the right people can help put me in the right direction to see what’s most relevant to Wall Street and, on the flip side, to see what the mainstream consumer is doing and any lessons that Wall Street might learn from their actions.
I am also responsible for covering the stock market as it moves. If there is a spike of a certain amount, for example, I have to figure out who the right person is to talk to when I fill in for reporters at the stock exchange. My days involve regular storytelling and sort of explaining what is going on with the market right now. It’s a little less calculated in that you may not always write out full scripts. You simply explain the movement, so it’s a little more free-flowing. This morning I started out at the stock exchange, where I did a quick market update for the ‘Today’ show about what to watch on Wall Street. This week was my week to appear on the ‘Today’ show, where I did a handful of stories. I also did some business news updates for our NBC affiliates in Washington, Chicago and New York, so I have already played several really different types of storytelling roles so far today.
Opportunist: Please take us, if you will, through one of your appearances on the ‘Today’ show.
Reagan: I will head out to the stock exchange in the morning and write a piece tailored to a mainstream audience. Then, during the news belt, Natalie Morales will read two or three stories and announce, ‘Let’s go to CNBC’s Courtney Reagan for a look at what is happening on Wall Street’ and I will appear and say my piece. This is usually in the 7 a.m. hour. On other days when there are bigger news stories, they will juggle you around but we are typically on most days of the week. Four of us are in the rotation and each of us is assigned a week or two every month, so it’s a bit of a rotation.
Opportunist: Is there a particular story from your career that stands out in your mind—one that resonates with you more than others?
Reagan: Most of us at CNBC will never forget living through the financial crisis. Bear Stearns practically disappeared overnight. One of our managers pulled us aside and said, ‘Something feels funny … why don’t you put together something like an obituary on Bear Stearns?’ I must admit that my first thought was this is crazy; nothing will happen. I have to hand it to my managers for their good foresight. I ended up coming into CNBC on a Sunday afternoon and staying until Monday afternoon. Of course, the information changed and the story went on for an extended period of time with the Lehman Brothers collapse and AIG’s troubles.
The JC Penney story has been very interesting to follow since the day of their big transformation in January 2012. I interviewed their now former CEO Ron Johnson twice, who extended me sit-down interviews. What was interesting to me was to walk through their prototype and see that and then sit down and ask Johnson some pretty tough questions. I will never forget those days and the questions I asked. It was definitely one of my most memorable interviewing experiences.
Opportunist: What lessons does JC Penney have for the retail sector?
Reagan: So many lessons, but I think the biggest lesson is that turnarounds are really tough. They brought in this guy who was billed as a visionary and there were high hopes. He tore the guts out of a 110-year-old retailer and tried to reinvent that wheel. Wall Street, however, is very impatient. What may have ended up as an effective long-term strategy was apparently ineffective in the short term. The bigger you toot your own horn the bigger the scrutiny. I can picture where I was sitting when he announced this. He brought on the attention from the get go and you cannot shy away from that. Unfortunately, the lessons were learned too slowly and it cost him his job. There were some things they should’ve learned more carefully along the way. Some of the customers that used to shop there can no longer find the merchandise at the coupon prices. If you’re buying an $80 dress that was originally priced at $100 but a coupon gives you $20 off, your perception of that price is changed when the coupon is no longer offered and the dress is simply offered for $80. It’s an amazing lesson in consumer behavior. Every person who ever ends up as any kind of retail employee can learn from JC Penney. No one is entirely sure what the company is going to continue with and what they will stop. It is certainly going to be a business school case study. I am finishing up my MBA at NYU and I just turned in a paper I wrote on the JC Penney turnaround.
Opportunist: Which story, if any, did you have the most fun with?
Reagan: Working on a mini-documentary called ‘Luxury Boom: The New Big Spenders,’ which aired in March a year ago. It was so much fun to do something in a longer format like that. I really enjoyed finding the story and showing it in a very visual way. And I got to interview designer Christian Louboutin and drive a Ferrari down Park Avenue. [Laughs] I had to stop the car and give a line, then drive off … all with a Ferrari executive in the seat next to me in New York City traffic! Believe it or not, we did it all in one take.
Opportunist: What is your role as host of ‘Big Data Download’ and what topics do you cover on the show?
Reagan: We hear a lot of people talk about or write about big data. Big data is a phrase that people use to describe the massive amount of data that is being made available—whether it’s the storing of a consumer’s browsing history online or connecting purchases to an individual’s CVS ExtraCare rewards card—and how companies can use it to draw conclusions and see where the smart money is going. Businesses can use the data to figure out how to streamline their processes and get rid of products consumers don’t like and carry more of what they do like. We air new segments online twice a day, in partnership with Yahoo finance. For example, on jobs day our discussion was about jobs and what the data tells employers about the processes they should employ with their staff and how job seekers can go about their search in a smarter way. It’s very interesting information. In the beginning I thought oh my goodness, we are never going to find enough information to do two shows every day but, actually, if we had the production and the manpower to do more, we could put on four segments a day! There is just an incredible amount of information. Figuring out what all those numbers mean and trying to come up with intelligent analysis is really amazing.
Last week we talked about weather analytics, which resonated with lots of folks. We examined large amounts of data on the weather to determine how it impacts retail and how consumers are shopping. It has been a much colder spring than expected, so you can imagine how few people are in the mood to buy bathing suits and shorts. In order to really move merchandise and get people to buy it, you’re going to have to figure out how companies can do a better job of that. As a consumer, you’re looking for a sale and as an investor you’re looking for a company that does it smarter. So we are really talking about big data for both your consumer and investing life.
Opportunist: Can you share any retail insider tips with our readers?
Reagan: Retailers have taught us that if we wait, inevitably, it will go on sale. [Laughs] Retailers will have a very hard time moving away from sales and coupons—and good luck ever getting me to buy something at full price. Consumers are smarter and that poses more problems for businesses. It is much harder for retailers to survive. Retailers have to get smarter. Amazon is the big retail disrupter—the elephant in the room that no traditional brick and mortar company wants to talk about, but they better be talking about Amazon. I can sit at my desk and order throw pillows online and they can arrive the next day with free shipping. I can compare goods and read consumer reviews. Retailers must get smarter about online processes and make sure it’s a seamless experience, particularly for millennials. It’s not about why consumers buy as much as it is about the way they buy. That’s why retail consultants are highly paid. Business evolves and sometimes they see it early and sometimes they see it late.
Opportunist: We noticed you are on twitter. How do you feel about social media and the role it plays in news reporting?
Reagan: Social media and the Internet are wonderful things but, at the same time, they are
disrupters to what we do. The recent tragedy in Boston is a prime example. So many people had twitter up as we watched the news organizations and individuals tweeting, but you have to be very careful and cautious about it. For example, look at the recent tweet that moved the market over 100 points in a couple of minutes, which turned out to be a hacked account. Social media is an effective tool in some cases and very dangerous in others. We hope it will help us to do our job in some ways, but if people turn more to twitter for their news instead of traditional networks it could hurt us. I think it really is a double-edged sword.
Opportunist: From your perspective, does the U.S. economy still hold promise?
Reagan: The financial crisis taught us a lot of lessons, which is actually a good thing, but I do believe there is an upside in our future. People seem to be more careful about spending their money and I think more people understand credit now and what it means to sign on the dotted line.
Opportunist: When you’re not working on the next big news story, how do spend your time?
Reagan: I grew up in Ohio and country music is just about my favorite thing. [Laughs] In the summertime I enjoy gathering up some friends who also like country music and going to a concert here in New York City. I am a big fan of Ohio State football and I try to fly back to Columbus and watch live football with friends as often as I can. That’s sort of what you do as an Ohioan in the fall. [Laughs] I love that stuff. Since I live in Manhattan, I must admit that I am much better at going out to dinner than I am at making dinner. It’s all about allocation of resources. [Laughs] So, I say to my friends, ‘I will tell the stories, you guys cook.’
Opportunist: Is there a book on the horizon?
Reagan: I would love to write a book, and if I do I would like to write sort of an ‘I have learned’ book or a book about personal finance tips. I never said I was the smartest girl, but I have worked very hard and learned a lot along the way. I used to wish there were books to show me how to do things. For example, I have always been passionate about personal finance. I invested in my first mutual fund when I was 12 years old—with my babysitting money—and I never sold it.
Opportunist: No kidding?
Reagan: In high school I took an elective class called Business Economics, which was more like a personal finance class. The teacher was great. She taught us how to do our taxes by hand. She gave us a list and a blank 1040 and that was our test and we had to figure it out. Her name was Mrs. Jane Alter. I still keep in touch with that teacher. I think she’s in her 80s now. In fact, up until recently I still did my taxes by hand. Lots of people, for whatever reason, just don’t get that education. When the country was going through the financial crisis I felt bad for people who took out mortgages they couldn’t afford. I have learned how to live in New York City on $10 hour and have no debt.
Opportunist: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Reagan: I have to say—and this is the absolute truth—that I have been able to accomplish much more than I ever thought I would by this age. I really like where I am right now. I love business news but I wouldn’t necessarily count out doing something else, say in the realm of more consumer-oriented or personal finance oriented projects. I do love telling stories in writing, though, so I would be open to any job that lets me do both.
I am graduating from NYU Stern School of Business with a full MBA in a few weeks. In fact, my final class is Thursday, May 9th. I went back to school part time at night and on weekends, which took about two years and three months to complete. My specialty is economics, luxury marketing, with a retail focus because they don’t have a retail focus per se, and the specialty known as EMT: entertainment, media and technology.
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 Florida. Follow her on twitter at @les7989.
Follow Courtney Reagan on Twitter @CourtReagan
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