Erin Burnett: Focus on Headlines, Jobs

CNBC anchor says you can find positive news if you look for it.

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I recently spoke with CNBC's Erin Burnett about the recession and how she covers it. (See also yesterday's post on my conversation with Maria Bartiromo.) Excerpts:

What do you focus on as you prepare to report on the day’s financial news?

In the morning we focus on head­lines. It’s as moment-driven as possi­ble. I put quite a bit of stock in global headlines. In the United States, un­employment claims are the most im­portant, it’s been coming in at levels we haven’t seen since 1982. It’s really all about mining through the data. I view it as trying to find the context, especially know when everything is being compared to the 1930s. Recent­ly spending data and personal in­ comes came in, and were growing three times more than people thought — you can find brief and small slivers [of positive news] if you take the time to go through the data.

What economic news most surprised you most in 2008?

I remember that weekend in March on a Sunday night when the $2 a share came in for Bear Stearns. I remember thinking as I was dialing into the conference call to say, “What the heck happened here?” That was an amazing moment.

What experience in your life most pre­ pared you to do what you do now?

On a technical basis, having worked on Wall Street at Goldman and hav­ing been a part of that — working on M&A, fixed income, IPOs — that was during the tech boom when every­ thing was amazing. I remember once we were in a town car going from Goldman to a retailer. Someone asked, “How long does this last?” It was the first time someone had asked that question. The senior banker said, “I don’t know but you just live it while you can.” That was the first time that someone acknowledged that reality. It was hugely valuable for me.

The way you have to move quickly on deadline and then move on comes from athletics. [Burnett played field hockey in college.] You’re practicing and practicing and then if you miss one shot it’s gone. You have to readjust.

Do you have a favorite on-air moment or interview?

One thing I’m very passionate about is how tied together things are. I’ve done our first live shows from the Middle East, India and Russia. Those experiences have been truly incredi­ble. Meeting business and political leaders there has made my coverage a lot more informed and nuanced than it would otherwise have been.

What is your advice to someone who wants to emulate your career?

You’ve got to take risks, just like in the market. You either crash and burn or it pays off. There were times that I was at Goldman. You think, ‘Do I want to be there or not?’ and I didn’t. So I went on a lark and took a chance and worked for Willow Bay [then-an­chor of CNN’s Moneyline]. Figuring out what you want to do takes time sometimes. If you don’t like it, you have to have a willingness to say, ‘I don’t like it, this isn’t working for me now.’ Maybe I was young enough not to realize the risks I was taking. A lot of it is luck. But you have to be willing to try.