Alumni Q&A: Cristina Alesci ’01

Cristina Alesci '01 discusses her work as a journalist at CNN and her path there from Pace

You are a business and politics correspondent for CNN, covering financial markets, economic policy, and political campaigns. How did you become interested in journalism and how did you get started?

I’ve always enjoyed writing and been very curious.  I also have a hard time accepting an answer that doesn’t make sense.  The result being I ask a lot of questions, which can irritate some people.  I’m like that annoying dog who won’t stop barking until she gets a treat.  My treat is information. 

Journalism was my third job after college.  I started writing as a hobby while working full-time, first as a paralegal and then as a sales rep for a major pharmaceutical company.  It quickly became an obsession.  I enrolled in night classes because I really wanted to get published.  For two years, I pitched editors at every New York City publication you could name—and a few you’ve probably never heard of.  My first big break was a freelance job editing nightlife listings for the New York Press, which sadly, no longer exists. However, it got my foot in the door and the editors started printing some of the stories I pitched.

The first time I saw my name in a byline was intoxicating—I felt a rush of pride, joy—and relief!  It was still a long road from that point to CNN, but from that moment I was hooked.

What is your typical day like and how do you prepare for it?

There’s no such thing as a typical day.  I often wake up at 6am with a plan for the day and by 6:15am, it’s blown up.  A few hours later I may be sent off to a Senate hearing in Washington, the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, or a farm in the middle of Iowa to cover trade policy.

The only thing you can do to prepare is to get comfortable with the unexpected. In practice, that means reading extensively, always carrying extra battery chargers, and keeping a bag packed at all times.

Journalism today faces many issues and controversies, and the media’s power is constantly being questioned.  What do you feel is the role of a journalist and how have you exemplified that in your work?

The public should scrutinize the press and read and watch news critically.  It helps us do our jobs better.  However, I do take issue with the current vilification of the press.  We are not the enemy of the people—we are its eyes, ears and voice.  At their core, Americans know that democracy isn’t possible without a free press.

I also protect my sources fiercely—they’re the lifeblood of every story.  I make sure to make time for the people who may give me my next lead.

Journalism is often described as the first draft of history.  My job, above everything else, is to make sure I have all the facts correct.  A lot of that involves triangulating what sources tell me.  I also spend a great deal of time thinking about the motivations, merits and unintended consequences of fiscal and monetary policies.

What interviews are you most proud of and why?

A few years ago, I interviewed Ursula Burns, who was raised in a New York City housing project a mile north of Pace.  She grew up to become the CEO of Xerox.  Her story is amazing and I profiled her for a CNN documentary series I developed called American Dream.  A lot of women—and men—have told me how Ursula’s story inspired them to strive and succeed.

What challenges have you faced along the way and how did you overcome them?

A big challenge for anyone in this business is protecting your sources and knowing whether you can trust what they’re telling you. There’s no substitute for time and experience on this one. Personally, I deal with it by exercising discipline. I would rather lose a story to a competitor than publish one I’m not 100% confident is right or that will reveal, or “burn,” my source.

What attracted you to Pace and the study of criminal justice as a major? How did that transition to an interest in a career in journalism? Did you see commonalities between the two?

Pace afforded me a great education in the middle of New York City—and I mean that literally.  Pace offered me a partial scholarship, which enabled me to earn my degree without the burden of  enormous  student loans. Low debt was one reason I was able to take a risk on journalism several years later.

When I first arrived at Pace, my dream was to become an FBI agent. I felt an intense desire to hold powerful people accountable and protect those who were unable to defend themselves. Although I never made it to Quantico, I’m still pursuing my passion—only I use a press pass and a camera instead of a badge and a gun.

Attending college is a significant experience in a person’s life. As you look back at your time as a Dyson student, how did it mold you into the person you are today?

Dyson exposed me to a very diverse student body, both economically and culturally. Many of the students were recent immigrants or first-generation Americans like me, so even though our individual backgrounds were different, we had a commonality that united us. We all wanted to succeed—and the school helped.  Through Dyson, I landed an internship with a Wall Street law firm, which was my first exposure to the international financial markets. That experience shaped the rest of my career. I ended up loving finance, which is one of the reasons I still cover it today.

Were any particular faculty members or mentors instrumental in your personal and/or professional journey?

Without a doubt. I would not be a journalist today were it not for my literature professor, Ruth Johnston. She had a passion for her subject that was exciting and had confidence in me. We formed a strong bond that lasted after graduation. I sought her advice over the years and when I was weighing whether to pursue a career as a reporter, she not only pushed me to do it, but practically shoved me through the door of the graduate school where I ultimately studied journalism.  She was literally my angel.

Where are you from originally?

I was born in Staten Island, and raised in Brooklyn and Queens.  In high school, my parents moved to Long Island, but I couldn’t wait to come back (another reason I went to Pace, by the way).

Dyson students have many options as far as majors that can lead to a career in journalism, including recently, one in digital journalism.  As a woman in media, do you have any advice for our female students who wish to follow in your footsteps?

Get comfortable with rejection. Seriously. Editors will deny your pitches, sources will shut doors in your face, and just about everyone else gets annoyed with you. The most successful reporters actually enjoy that kind of rejection because it usually means they’re on to something. Don’t take it personally and keep pushing. 

What are some of your biggest goals for the future?

Americans need to love economics and personal finance as much as they do sports and gossip.  My goal is to make that happen.

As a board member of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism CUNY Foundation, I want to ensure that future generations of journalists will have the opportunity to learn the craft of journalism without paying a fortune for that training.

If you haven’t already seen this video, check out Cristina’s interview with some of New York City’s greatest success stories, including Howard Schultz, Alan Greenspan, Mickey Drexler, Russell Simmons, and Ursula Burns, as referenced above.