It’s 3:17 in the morning on an unseasonably warm Tuesday in late November in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, and Nicole Lapin is hard at work.
Lapin, the 26-year-old co-anchor of CNBC’s “Worldwide Exchange,” is sitting at her office desk, cell phone in hand, in a three-way conference call with her colleagues in Europe and Asia. Their subjects of discussion include the day’s Dow Jones futures; North Korea’s deadly shelling of a South Korean fishing village (and its likely effect on world markets); an FBI raid on three hedge funds suspected of insider trading; the reaction to the bailout of the Irish economy; and the monthly survey of the United States residential real estate market.
The call continues as she gets up and walks down the hall to the network’s makeup and hairstyling room, where two experts work in tandem, quickly and skillfully, to make her cosmetically ready for the camera. By now it’s 3:31 a.m., and in 29 minutes, she will be at another desk, just down the hall in the cavernous, blue-walled and high-ceilinged TV studio in the world headquarters of CNBC, the global business-news network, working with her coanchors in London and Singapore, as “Worldwide Exchange” begins its two-hour report on what has happened, what’s happening right now, and what is likely to happen later that day, in the wide and volatile world of high finance.
The program, a rapid-fire mix of reporting, interviews, visual aids and computer graphics—featuring correspondents, commentators and business experts worldwide—is the network’s most widely distributed news program, available in more than 100 countries.
Lapin is considered by many to be a rapidly rising star in the TV-news universe. At 22, she was hired by CNN as its youngest anchor. Her move to CNBC in early 2010, with a regular program, one that focuses on no-nonsense business reporting, increased her profile and continued to establish her as a serious journalist, not just a broadcaster with a pretty face (although that face certainly garners notice). She has, she says, no objections to being considered a news nerd. Her work ethic—sometimes it’s 18 hours a day in the office—and her eagerness to succeed mark her as someone to keep an eye on. And, she says, cigars play an important role in her job (but more about that later).
“I’ve never been on such a dynamic show,” Lapin says; it’s a few minutes after 6 a.m. and she is in her company’s cafeteria, winding down after 120 minutes of airtime and dipping a fork into a plastic container of cubed watermelon. “There’s a lot to talk about. There are so many moving parts. So much is happening. There’s such an intensity. My adrenaline is always flowing. And I love it. I love days like today, trying to make sense of it all, to flesh out all the rapidly moving facts and make them coherent, juggle the many different types of stories, pulling together all this data very quickly. There’s so much on my computer screen—so many open applications, charts, e-mails. And you can’t really script on a 24-hour-type news show. Most of it is ad lib. It comes out of my brain, hopefully eloquently. You’re putting together a very first rough draft of history.”
For the petite, svelte Lapin—her inherited beauty comes from her mother Orly, a former Miss Israel—creating that first version of history takes a major part of the 24 hours in a day. And getting where she is today took a significant quantity of, to use her description, chutzpah—a quality that perhaps compensates for her relative lack of downtime.
“My schedule?” Lapin replies when asked about her typical workday. “The short answer is there is no schedule. I make time for the things I need or want to do. When I go to sleep and when I wake up depend on what’s happening that day.”
So how much sleep does she get? “Sunday night, for example, I got into bed about 8. I fell asleep about 9. I woke up about midnight and started reading—the newspaper websites, The Wall Street Journal, ft.com, the wires, our planning reports. My car picked me up about 2. I live in Hell’s Kitchen on the West Side of Manhattan right across the river so it’s an easy trip. I kept on reading in the car. I’m always reading something—iPhone apps, our planning reports. Then I came in and did the show”—for the broadcast, she is alone at her anchor desk in a corner of the large studio, which, though lively by day, is almost deserted in the middle of the night. Her producer, Adam Idleberg, sits a few feet away, providing company and guidance. In front of her are preset lights and a fixed, unmanned camera, aimed at her face. The program itself is produced from London, with which she is in constant contact.
“After the show I did a report on the financial markets on ‘Morning Joe’ on MSNBC. And later I did the 4 p.m. closing bell report on the stock market.”
When she can, she tries to catch a few extra hours of sleep in the afternoon. “And sometimes I don’t go to sleep at night at all and just sleep during the day. The last couple of days have been more normal than most.”
Often, she says, she reports stories—like a recent one from New York’s Comic-Con on comic books as investments—and that takes time. “And sometimes I’ll travel for special series and reports, and I might fly to other cities. Once I flew to Nashville for a day and flew back to do the show. Once we were in Maine and missed the flight home and drove back to the studio in time to do the show. That’s the beauty of the schedule—you can pretty much defy the space-time continuum.” (On weekends, she keeps a more normal schedule.)
Her desire for a career in journalism, she says, originated during her childhood in Los Angeles, and in one way was an act of defiance. Her parents emphasized study and forbade her to watch TV news because of its unremitting violence. (Her father Ron Lapin, a surgeon who invented a method of bloodless surgery, using a special piece of medical equipment that closed wounds as it cut to reduce the need for blood transfusions, died when Lapin was 11.)
“I was always an independent young lady,” she says. “A little bit rebellious. My family was very proreading and antitelevision news watching. So I would sneak it on.” She went to a small private school for “gifted” children that gave no grades and had no grade divisions. “If you were 9 and wanted to study algebra, you could study algebra. We were all a bunch of nerds, but in a good way. There were no judgments for being bookworms. I was always intellectually curious. And it turned out I was able both to read and to watch television news. Fancy that.”
By the time she was in high school, she was already doing local news cable-access broadcasts, courtesy of a school program. “I just had this passion,” she says. And then she decided she wanted to study dance. “So in my junior year I transferred to a performing arts high school. I was going to transition into a very expensive private school, but the performing arts school was free. It was two buses away, quite far away, through downtown L.A. I wanted it bad, so I did whatever it took to get that experience.” She was the class valedictorian.
In fact it could be said that wanting things bad, doing whatever it takes to get them—and here’s where the chutzpah comes in—kind of defines Lapin.
After high school, she decided she was less interested in performance and “more in communications—it’s communicating with an audience that I especially love.” And the communicating she wanted to do was through journalism, the TV journalism she had been forbidden to watch but managed to look at surreptitiously. And so she decided to fashion for herself what she terms “an adhoc education,” and to gain as much work experience as she could.
She had, at age 15, taken part in a writing program at Harvard and signed up for graduate literature courses. She took classes at Columbia University in New York and studied European Union politics at The Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris.
She used all those credits for her degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, where she graduated summa cum laude as valedictorian, with a second major in political science.
“Northwestern was very accommodating to my working professionally,” she says. “In those years I was working, part of it full time, in smaller markets—you have to pay your dues—at local news affiliates as a general assignment reporter.” She was a reporter in Lexington, Kentucky, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Palm Springs, California.
“I went wherever someone would take me. I sent out hundreds of little tapes from the local cable-access news. I begged people to hire me. I worked really hard and studied really hard. I bombarded everybody, took any opportunity—would I like to work weekends, nights, replace someone on maternity leave? ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ I said. I was so hungry. And I still am.”
While at Columbia, she decided she wanted to intern at WNBC-TV with the reporter Asa Aarons. “He’s a great mentor of mine. I showed up at his office. I had gone to the Human Resources office, but they said I had to be a senior, and they played by the book. So I just showed up at his desk and introduced myself as a summer intern. He thought I had chutzpah and he hired me. He said if I could figure out how to get through security I could figure out what he needed for me to do as an intern. I spent a lot of hours there while I was studying at Columbia.”
ll that experience paid off—in 2006 she wound up, at age 22, at CNN as its youngest anchor.
It was at CNN that she reported live on the massacre at Virginia Tech, the Israeli-Arab conflict, the terror attacks in Mumbai, India, the Hudson River plane crash and the 2008 presidential election. She also interviewed politicians and celebrities, among them Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California. She reported live from Los Angeles for the Michael Jackson memorial service. She pioneered a series called “Young People Who Rock,” profiling high achievers under age 30. And she wrote a column for CNN.com.
“I worked very long hours at CNN too, 18 hours a day sometimes. All their networks were in one place in Atlanta—CNN International, CNN Headline News, CNN.com. Being so hungry and excited and wide-eyed, I wanted to work for everybody.”
The Virginia Tech story, she says, was the most memorable—and awful. “It was a seminal moment in news coverage,” she says. “If you go to the Newseum you see it was a turning point, because the primary visual depiction of the shooting came from a citizen journalist, a student who had shot footage on his cell phone. That changed the game. From that point news was no longer about lighting kits and setups. It was about information. It was about content being king, and being platform agnostic.”
Covering the shootings was “horrific,” but it also filled her with pride. “It was of course a life-and-death situation, and students would email us saying they were watching from their dorm rooms and they didn’t know what was happening. They would ask, ‘Is there another shooting?’ ” Being a source of information for the students “was a great responsibility. It made me proud to be a member of the Fourth Estate.”
Working at CNN was particularly exciting, she says, “because we covered everything. You had to become an expert at everything. When I was in local news, you became an expert on worm farming, or hurricanes, or triple homicides. That’s what I love about this job, and CNN really hit it home.”
And that is what she loves about CNBC, where she has been since January 2010 (her coanchors on “Worldwide Exchange” are Ross Westgate and Christine Tan). “It’s business—and everything is connected to business. Every story has a monetary focus. Toward the end of my time at CNN, we were covering the financial crisis. Everybody became a financial reporter. I had been one in Chicago, and I became one again. I realized very quickly that this is the story of this decade, of this generation, and I felt an intense urgency to be part of it.”
She is also proud of CNBC, she says, “because it’s a higher level of concentration. Nothing is dumbed down. It’s more technical. I really like that. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I like being nerdy.”
And what role do cigars play in her life and her work?
First of all, she says, cigars are “a nostalgic experience. It was ingrained in my family life. My father smoked cigars. I remember the aroma. I remember his smoking jacket. When I smoke, it reminds me of him.”
But then there are also those very useful workplace cigars. “It’s a good thing for ‘sourcing,’” for helping to create a mood of camaraderie and collegiality when she meets with people in the business world to make the contacts and get the information necessary for her job. “A lot of financial gentlemen—and ladies—find cigars a recreational experience. Someone, for instance, will invite me to the Grand Havana Room” in Manhattan.
When it’s time for her to light up, Romeo y Julieta takes first place, followed by Ashton and Avo: “Lighter wrappers, medium body.”
So is Lapin all business? Does she have a personal social life?
“I’d like more of one,” she says with a gentle, wistful laugh. “In addition to being anchor, I’m managing editor for North America. That’s a large coverage area. I sleep with my BlackBerry and my iPhone. I always want to make sure we’re covering stories in the best way possible. I have dinners out, but most of them are meetings. I try to take advantage of New York—I’m still a new New Yorker. It’s been almost a year. It’s such an interesting place. I love the small pleasures—walking around neighborhoods, finding inspiration in architecture, sampling different local cuisines.”
Right now, she says, there is no special guy, no relationship—though eventually she would like one, and a family as well. “It would take a special kind of chap,” she says. “Someone who is truly passionate about whatever it is he is doing, who works hard and is devoted—whether it’s gardening or basket weaving or finance or politics or environmental issues. Who has a purpose to wake up to.”
One thing Lapin is passionate about is Operation Smile, the organization that provides free surgery to repair cleft lip, cleft palate and other facial deformities for children worldwide. “I’m an ambassador for them,” she says. “I get a great title. How could you not love to be a Smile Ambassador to Munchkins all over the world. I recently made a trip to Alexandria, Egypt, with a group of global physicians, plastic surgeons whose business is to help these children.” The work, she says, helps her “to continue some of my father’s legacy of helping young people.” She has also been an ambassador for the Starlight Children’s Foundation, which works with seriously ill children, and she created a program to help educate children with terminal illnesses on world news.
Lapin is a vegan. “I’ve been vegan for many years. I’m not a preacher, but it works for me. I don’t judge anybody—people can eat whatever they want. I eat anywhere—I find things at steakhouses and, when I’m on the road, gas stations. It’s a fundamental philosophy for me of limiting excess. There’s so much of everything—overstimulation all the time, at work and streaming on the Web. It’s a way of keeping things simple. I like simple things. Plain old food. Simple food. I’m very low maintenance. I’m a cheap date.”
Professionally, though, Lapin is still hungry—very hungry. But, she says, one thing that isn’t simple is thinking about her future career. “I’m a happy woman, living a dream. It sounds Pollyanna-ish of me, but I’m a happy camper if I can just continue to grow as a journalist. Yet things are changing so quickly that I don’t know if I can make any plans. Jobs probably won’t be exactly the same five years from now. I find that when I make goals they end up changing a little bit. I’m not taking anything for granted.”
For now, though, this young and successful journalist, and lover of cigars, is content. “When I wake up, I say I’m a lucky lady. A lucky lady to be alive. And I’m ready to start the day—or the night—or the morning.”
Mervyn Rothstein is a contributor to Cigar Aficionado.