Laura Jarrett’s first day on the job started early this morning, well before you could even think about returning to the one you’ve held for months.
She joined co-anchor Christine Romans Thursday for the first time on “Early Start,” CNN’s entry in what has fast become a serious business matter: catching TV-news early birds. Despite the fact that the nation is just easing into a new year and the end of a holiday season, this morning’s news cycle was brutal. CNN had correspondents ready to hold forth from Jerusalem, Australia and Baghdad, as Romans and Jarrett ticked off critical events taking place around the globe.
Expect more activity in days ahead. “This news cycle, especially in January, is shaping up to be a little bit busy. We may well be covering an impeachment trial,” says Jarrett, 34 years old, in an interview. “People are waking up and want to figure out what happened and what’s going to happen today.”
Jarrett’s presence on the CNN program shines new light, as it were, on the growing importance of early-morning programming to the news business. Once firmly the province of repeats or hours from international news teams, the hours before 6 a.m. are rapidly being filled with live programming in a bid to keep viewers hungry for new information from turning to other sources. And Jarrett, who did not work her way up in the business in the usual fashion, may offer viewers something different on the screen.
“There’s an audience there, and we want to try to take advantage of it,” says Michael Bass, executive vice president of programming at CNN, in an interview. “They want new. They want fresh. They don’t want repeats.”
CNN debuted “Early Start” in January 2012, part of a bid to retool mornings after dismantling its long-running A.M. effort, “American Morning.” The show was initially led by Ashleigh Banfield and Zoraida Sambolin and has been co-anchored by Romans, CNN’s chief business correspondent, since 2014. It leads right into “New Day,” CNN’s A.M. response to a time-honored TV-news tradition of fielding a distinctive morning program that gathers audiences for the day ahead.
Like those programs, “Early Start” faces heady competition. Fox News Channel launched its early-bird show, “Fox & Friends First,” in March of 2012, while MSNBC has over the years juggled versions of “First Look” and “Way Too Early” at 5 a.m. At present, MSNBC airs a lead-in to its “Morning Joe” called “Morning Joe First Look.” Many local stations also have early news programs. New York’s WNBC, for example, is on the air at 3:30 a.m. with a broadcast of “Early Today.” The show comes on less than two hours after NBC’s last original program of the daily cycle, “A Little Late With Lilly Singh,” signs off at 2:05 a.m.
The early-morning cable programs tend to move more quickly than the shows they precede, and have higher story counts, which allows the networks’ morning mainstays to focus on the bigger stories of the day.
The new “Early Start” cohort is well-versed in hard news. Romans can tackle business-news developments well before the stock market opens each day, and Jarrett has a legal background that will likely prove useful in the swirl of news around a Trump White House.
Jarrett followed a non-traditional path to the news desk. She got her start as an attorney, graduating from Harvard Law School in 2010, and had been working for a Chicago law firm. But she had long had an interest in journalism and telling stories.
“I didn’t want to be an advocate anymore,” she explains. “When you are a good law firm associate, you drill down on whatever argument your client wants you to make, and you do not let up. I was always questioning. ‘What about this thing over here? This doesn’t make sense. This story doesn’t quite add up.’ Those types of questions are not really welcome by your paid clients. They are not interested in you poking holes in why their defense doesn’t work.”
In the news business, that sort of thing tends to win applause. Jarrett says that she decided to explore any and all opportunities she could find to get into TV news, with the support of her husband. She knocked on doors at several local stations, she recalls, but “luckily for me, CNN was willing to take a risk.” Jarrett quickly found herself covering the U.S. Department of Justice; the “emoluments clause” lawsuit against President Trump; and the Mueller investigation.
CNN’s decision to bring her aboard in 2017 raised some eyebrows. Jarrett is the daughter of Valerie Jarrett, the longtime Chicago government official who would go on to become one of the longest-serving advisors to President Barack Obama. And TV-news organizations often require less experienced journalists to spend time behind the camera as producers or off-screen reporters, if they don’t work their way up from stints at local stations.
But executives liked her on-air appearance and the path she had trod. “She brings a legal background, and, obviously, an understanding of politics and how life works in Washington,” says Bass, noting that CNN executives think pairing Jarrett with Romans, a news veteran, will create a point of distinction in the pre-dawn programming field.
Jarrett says she has learned the business in an intense trial-by-fire environment. “I was basically holed up in a bunker in the Justice Department since January 2017, which was the best possible training ground for somebody like myself,” she says. “It was a great way to get my feet wet, a great way to learn how to be a reporter from the ground up. And the first show that I was ever on was ‘Early Start.’ It’s a full circle moment.”
For CNN, creating more differentiation around “Early Start” can help the overall schedule. “The better ‘Early Start’ can do, the more it helps ‘New Day.’ The better ‘New Day’ can do, the more it helps the rest of our day,” says Bass. “It’s all about getting people to the screen, and lead-ins matter.”