Jamie Yuccas keeps a loaded backpack under her desk and a passport in her purse. As a CBS News correspondent based in California, she may have to rush to the Burbank airport at any moment to cover breaking news, from a measles outbreak in Portland to the arrest of Jacob Wetterling’s murderer in her native Minnesota.
Then there are the feature stories — the Rio Olympics, America’s last remaining Blockbuster, zoo pandas, J Lo, the Super Bowl — assignments that allow her time to recruit a colleague to dog sit for her loyal companion, Dottie, a 15-year-old Jack Russell-rat terrier mix.
“I call Jamie a McGyver journalist because she can do anything,” CBS’ West Coast bureau chief Eleanore Vega says. “Anyone who comes through CBS has to be able to switch and pivot or punt to figure out the best approach to a story and Jamie can do that.”
Yuccas’ high-pressure, unpredictable gig isn’t the only challenge the 36-year-old has wrestled with since leaving WCCO-TV four years ago. Her grandmother, stepdad and aunt all passed away within 90 days of each other. She got a divorce. And in Los Angeles, you may run into Noah Wyle in the grocery store, but making genuine friends can be tougher than landing a commercial.
“The last few years have probably been the hardest education I’ve ever had,” she says from her office on the Studio City lot she shares with TV and movie stars. It’s decorated with so much memorabilia from Minnesota that colleagues tell her she should work for the state tourism board.
“Everything used to feel very chaotic,” she says. “But now, for the first time in maybe a long, long time, I feel at peace about everything. I’m learning to let go.”
While Yuccas fattens up a résumé that could very well lead to a network anchor position or a spot with “60 Minutes,” she’s also making sure to focus on the toughest, most important challenge of her career: Taking time in a hectic schedule to breathe.
Like all good Midwesterners, Yuccas grew up working hard and swallowing her emotions.
From Maple Grove, she launched a newspaper, The Loon Lagoon, forcing her cousins to sniff out news around the family’s cabin on Leech Lake. She graduated from the University of Minnesota in three years while finding time to squeeze in an internship at WCCO.
“She was the first student that I knew had what it would take to be successful in broadcast journalism,” says Ken Stone, a former TPT “NewsNight” anchor and instructor at the U. “It wasn’t so much her on-camera talent, which was fine. It was her drive.”
After a short stint in Rochester, Yuccas spent six years covering crime in Fort Myers, Fla., where she won a state award for a story on a U.S. marshals operation. Then it was time to come home. When Yuccas was elevated to the position of WCCO morning co-anchor in June 2013, viewership jumped 18 percent in the first year.
“There’s always a twinkle in Jamie’s eyes,” says her former co-anchor Jason DeRusha, who still mans the morning desk at the station. “It let you know that she is curious, compassionate and tough. But she also has a way of putting people at ease when she’s talking to them. It’s never forced. It just feels natural.”
Despite her popularity during that two-year stint, Yuccas felt like something was missing.
“That was such a fun job, but I didn’t feel like a success,” she says, while Dottie settles in for a snooze on the couch where her owner occasionally naps herself. “There was this script of life you’re supposed to follow and I never fit into that script. I tried for a really long time to do things the right way, but I was feeling anxiety.”
DeRusha could sense that his friend wasn’t fully appreciating her good fortune. “When you have someone who is always striving for excellence — and Jamie was always doing that — it’s hard to settle for really good,” he says. “Maybe she was pressing a little too hard and not just letting it happen here.”
In 2015, Yuccas left for New York and CBS Newspath, the network’s equivalent of the junior varsity team, putting together packages for local affiliates and occasionally filling in as an anchor on “CBS This Morning.” While she enjoyed the bustle of the Big Apple, the deaths of so many loved ones and the end of her marriage hit her hard.
She responded the only way she knew how, by pouring even more of herself into work. She leapt at the chance to cover the Rio Olympics with Ben Tracy, another Minnesota native and WCCO veteran who graduated to the CBS network in 2008.
“There was the night that we entertained our co-workers by putting on a mock newscast at the desk we were sharing in the apartment,” Tracy says. “I think we thought it was far more hilarious than they did.”
Two years ago, the network approved a transfer to Los Angeles, where she could get more high-profile assignments and be closer to her mom, who had relocated to Arizona. With some help from renowned Twin Cities foodie Sue Zelickson, Yuccas landed a two-bedroom condo in Sherman Oaks, just 10 minutes from work.
Her home is filled with funky touches that remind her of family and friends: a bedazzled antler from a gal pal, a box filled with the kind of cigars she used to puff with her stepdad, her grandfather’s practice cornet, a Prince record her mom picked up at a Tucson flea market. She keeps her Emmys in the bathroom so guests can sneak a selfie with them, a tip she picked up from Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
When she’s home, Yuccas gets up for a 6 a.m. run through the neighborhood while patched into the morning news meeting with her New York-based bosses.
“I raise concerns that we’re too East Coast-centric, that there’s a lot more going on in our country,” she says as “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” blares from the TV in the living room. “I think I drive everyone crazy, but I think they trust if I’m passionate about something, I’m going to deliver.”
Yuccas has been jogging most of her adult life, but in L.A. she’s adopted other ways to take care of herself. She does yoga, hikes the canyons, eats avocados, meditates. She sees a therapist.
“Minnesota Jamie would have never meditated,” DeRusha says. “You hate it when things don’t turn out the way you had planned, but life has a way of shaking you out of your own head. I get the sense that she’s finally living and loving her life right now.”
Work in progress
It’s not always easy to find time to work on your health when your beat has you hopping off and on airplanes, racking up frequent-flier miles. On paper, the West Coast bureau doesn’t cover Minnesota and Wisconsin stories, but because of Yuccas’ background, she’s become the network’s go-to reporter for stories in this part of the Midwest.
“It’s so crazy important to be connected and have the sources and have the Rolodex,” says West Coast deputy bureau chief Chris Myers. “She can go into that market and hit the ground running.”
In a one-week span, between a visit to her office and an interview over dinner, Yuccas has spent time with the cast of “Roma” at L.A.’s Chateau Marmont, been to Phoenix for a story on a golfer with Down syndrome and reported on a weather story in Minneapolis. She also made another visit to Barron, Wis., where she had been covering the Jayme Closs story.
After one trip to Barron, she drove her Mustang convertible to the beach and cried.
“Five years ago, I would have just held it in,” she says over roasted beets and jumbo crabcakes at a restaurant where she knows the menu as well as the server does. “I watch a lot of people in my job who still want to get in and get out. I feel like I’ve started caring more about the people I’m doing the stories on. I’m getting better at being present in the story, actually listening instead of checking stuff off.”
Those who know her best can see the difference both on and the off the air. “She’s become a much happier person with a lot more self love,” says her brother John Yuccas, a Twin Cities freelance photographer. “I don’t think either one of us had too much self-awareness when we were growing up. That makes it all the more exciting to watch her focus on mental health. It has really complemented the other parts of her life.”
Yuccas knows she still has work to do on herself. Her human-resources director told her earlier this year she needs to take more time off. Yuccas has tried to comply, arranging long weekends in Santa Barbara and Palm Springs. She also hopes to put herself back on the dating scene.
Of course, the best of plans might have to be scrapped if news comes calling. If that happens, it’s OK. Her bag is already packed.