Sitting in his well-appointed midtown Manhattan office at CBS News, Rick Jefferson ’83SVC is surrounded by a treasure trove of historic memorabilia from virtually every major news event spanning the last 30 years, including Republican and Democratic National Conventions, presidential inaugurations, Super Bowls, and Space Shuttle launches. “Not bad for an inner-city kid from the Bronx,” Mr. Jefferson noted.
Growing up in the hardscrabble borough in the 1970s, Mr. Jefferson recalled, “My challenge as a youth was to sidestep the prevalence of drugs and crime, and to rise above the inadequacies of the New York City public school system that existed at the time.”
Raised in a family of six children by a janitor and a homemaker, Mr. Jefferson described the emphasis his parents put on the value of hard work and the importance of higher education. “What my parents lacked in formal education they made up for by the work ethic example they set. Their love of reading and following the news impacted me—my dad in particular, the smartest man I ever knew, would regularly quiz my siblings and me on both historical and current events.”
When it came time for college, Mr. Jefferson was encouraged to attend St. John’s University by a family member who had earned a St. John’s degree as part of the Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP). HEOP is an academic enrichment partnership between the State of New York and its independent colleges which provides economically and educationally disadvantaged residents the possibility of a college education.
“I was an average student in high school and never took a college-prep class,” he said, “and when I arrived on campus, I had to catch up in a hurry. HEOP helped me to do so.”
Struggling through a difficult first year of college, Mr. Jefferson worked hard, began to adjust, and his grades improved. “I was determined not to fail. I knew I was going to graduate.” But a seminal event occurred after taking a class in TV production and learning firsthand how to produce his own news segments—he found his professional calling.
While at St. John’s, he secured an internship with the famed New York TV and radio sportscaster, Bill Mazer, who was also an adjunct instructor of Communication Arts at the University. “As an intern, I would write copy for Mr. Mazer’s nightly sports telecast and then talk about it in his class the next day.”
During his senior year, Mr. Jefferson began working nights as a doorman in a luxury residential building in Manhattan. Months after graduating in 1983 and while still working as a doorman, a career door opened for him.
“I struck up a conversation with a tenant in the building, unaware she was a senior producer at CBS,” Mr. Jefferson explained. He recalled their conversation, in which he explained how he had earned a Communication Arts degree at St. John’s University and sought a career in television. “When she wanted to see my résumé, I asked her to watch the door while I ran to my work locker to get it. Two weeks later I was working at CBS.”
Being both prepared and attentive to detail are trademarks Mr. Jefferson further perfected throughout his distinguished television career. Beginning as a CBS Network documentation clerk, he later served in various capacities at CBS including broadcast distribution manager, supervisor-broadcast operations, satellite control manager, and production supervisor for CBS-owned flagship station WCBS-TV.
After 12 years steadily climbing the corporate ladder at CBS, Mr. Jefferson left the company in 1996 to be part of the original team that launched the cable news station, MSNBC. During more than 15 years at MSNBC (owned by NBC Universal), he traveled across the United States and gained an appreciation for how people in different regions view the country. “Just as St. John’s University exposed me to a different environment than the Bronx, covering news in our nation also showed me new perspectives,” he said.
In 2012, he returned to CBS News and played a leading role in the transformative relaunch of the network’s award-winning broadcast CBS This Morning. The show’s newfound success is evidenced by impressive climbs in Nielsen ratings, which measure viewership and audience size. Mr. Jefferson takes pride in having built the rejuvenated technical team for the premier two-hour morning news show, and cites his team winning the Emmy Award for Outstanding Technical Team in 2014 as one of his proudest career achievements.
Today at CBS News, Mr. Jefferson is Vice President of News Operations, reporting directly to the president of the news division. He is responsible for the technical personnel and facilities worldwide, including Hard News, Prime Time, and Public Affairs. Charged with exploring and implementing the latest technologies, he drives innovation through process improvement and delivers high-performing news operation teams. In addition, he oversees remote productions, domestic and international bureaus, and works with labor relations on all union-related contracts.
Reflecting on the nexus of his humbling beginnings and the career stature he enjoys today, Mr. Jefferson noted, “My entire life’s journey has been about beating the odds—and it all started for me at St. John’s.”