Women Behind the News:
CNN Vice President Janelle Rodriguez
When a deadly tsunami devastated Sri Lanka’s south coast eight years ago, the tragedy became a career break of a lifetime for CNN’s Janelle Rodriguez.
“I was producing live from Times Square with Anderson Cooper and every single manager was out, except for me and another woman,” Rodriguez told IWMF during an interview. “Anderson did New Year’s Eve and got on a plane to cover the tsunami. The new president of the network came in to see what we were doing. I was in charge and he saw me in action. I shot the lottery.”
Rodriguez, 40, who has just been promoted to CNN’s vice president of programming, understands that journalism careers are made during those breathless moments of breaking news. She is now the network’s primary programming executive in Atlanta, responsible for all CNN/US newscasts.
Since 2010 Rodriguez has been CNN’s director of programming, and previously was executive producer of “Campbell Brown” and “American Morning,” where she grew the audience by 35 percent. Before that she was senior producer on “The Situation Room,” she spent two years as senior producer for “Anderson Cooper 360°” and was executive producer of “Jack Cafferty: Broken Government.”
She talked to IWMF about the challenges she faces at CNN and offered her views on climbing the corporate ladder.
IWMF: What is your advice for young women journalists?
Rodriguez: “Follow your passion. Those who make it in this business are the ones who have a sense of perseverance. Take your knocks and keep going. Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mine.
“My first producing jobs, I was doing overnight and weekends. The crappiest shift in the business. Careers are made on Christmas Eve at 2 a.m., when all the managers are out and there are massive stories. When I get a chance, I tell that to interns and production assistants.”
IWMF: What challenges have you faced as a woman moving up the business?
Rodriguez: “Not to be Pollyanna, but I’ve worked where there are some really strong, smart, kick-ass women who worked at CNN on camera and behind the scenes. I’ve had mentors from my junior days all the way up to now. Really brilliant women. There was never a sense of ‘I can’t achieve, there is no space for me to achieve.’ They have already paved the way. Every job I’ve had there have been a group of people tracking through my entire career. I try to bring others along.”
IWMF: You’ve covered the past three presidential elections, the war in Iraq, the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina. And you’ve won an Emmy for “Election Night 2006” coverage and a Peabody award for the coverage of the Gulf oil spill. That’s quite a run – how has it been working at CNN?
Rodriguez: “It honestly sounds corny, but I find to be such a privilege to work at a place like this. I went to film school and the idea that I get paid to do TV every day is amazing! I’ve got a front row seat to history. I stand in the control room with a window on the rest of the world. When you go into global simulcast there is nothing like that feeling – I did a lot of waitressing and I know.”
IWMF: What sacrifices have you had to make along the way?
Rodriguez: “I work hard and play hard. I don’t feel like I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. This has been fun and exciting. Moving and traveling is in my genes. I move around and get paid for it. If you’re doing what you’re passionate about and get paid, it doesn’t matter how much you work.”
IWMF: In the changing media landscape, how does social media figure into what CNN is doing?
Rodriguez: “All media is social…whether we are putting up tweets on the screen or Skyping town hall debates, we’re way ahead of our peers at CNN. I did the coverage of the Whitney Houston funeral, and we had a social media strategy. I thought about how much media was around the funeral, and it became clear it was going to be a social media experienced event. I decided to use the “#whitneyhoustoncnn” hashtag so people could tweet about the experience. That became the number one trending topic within 15 minutes and was number one globally within an hour.”
IWMF: You earned a bachelor’s degree in rhetoric from the University of California, Berkeley in 1993 and a master’s in fine arts in film production from San Francisco in 1997. Tell us about your background, after growing up in a Puerto Rican family in Washington, D.C., and going West for school.
Rodriguez: “Someone’s finally asking about my degree in rhetoric – I feel redeemed. I wanted to go to Berkeley more than anything, but they didn’t have a film program. I found the rhetoric department fascinating in a wonky way. It’s a great foundation. It’s philosophical and visual. The underlying philosophy is that there is no visual representation that is not loaded with meaning. A lamp isn’t just a lamp – it might mean one thing in American cultures and be a symbol of great wealth in poor nations. When looking at the presidential election and how candidates are speaking about themselves, there is always more than on the surface.
“I went on to graduate school to get my master’s in film production. In the Bay area in the 1990s digital was just starting and there was an intersection between film video and digital.
“While I was doing my graduate work, I was hanging lights and doing boom work on documentaries…and eventually taught digital editing at the Film Arts Foundation in San Francisco. I got freelance work at a local news station in graduate school. A woman producer and an anchor there realized I was more than an editor so they trained me how to field and line produce and write news. They picked me up and trained me.
“What I brought to the table was that I had always been a news junkie, but having the film production experience helped. It’s all about creating stories with a beginning, middle and end with characters and an arch.”
IWMF: How is technology changing the way we all receive information?
Rodriguez: “TV is everywhere. I watch CNN live off my iPhone every morning when I get ready for work. Technology is going that way. I don’t think it will be five years out before we are able to get live streaming cable TV on any device, whether it is the computer or the smart phone. Content is key. Good content will be desired on any device.
“We use a lot of content from our citizen journalists –iReport on CNN
– and get it right up on TV for breaking stories. There are dramatic pictures coming out of the iReport community. "We have people in every single country around the globe.”