After a two-year holding pattern following the gradual retirement of Jim Lehrer from on-air duties, PBS NewsHour is entering a transformative period. On September 7, the program will expand to seven days a week, debuting a weekend edition of the NewsHour and ending years of frequent questions from viewers, along with the service’s own ombudsman, about the lack of scheduled weekend news programming. The following Monday, September 9, Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff will begin their tenure as permanent co-anchors, ending the five-anchor rotation that’s been in place since Lehrer stepped away. The other three anchors—Jeffrey Brown, Margaret Warner, and Ray Suarez—will become chief correspondents for arts and culture, foreign affairs, and national affairs, respectively.
This set of changes might be the shake-up the NewsHour desperately needs, especially since 2013 hasn’t been the best year for news at PBS. In June, the NewsHour closed both its Denver and San Francisco offices, laying off staffers and leaving other open positions unfilled, due to declines in corporate support stretching back to before the end of Lehrer’s tenure. The staff and funding used to produce the weekend NewsHour were mostly transferred from the cancelled Friday night newsmagazine Need to Know, a program which, despite winning several awards, failed to build a significant audience in its three-year run. The Friday time slot vacated by Need to Know is being filled by Charlie Rose: The Week, which largely recycles interviews conducted for Rose’s existing 11pm nightly show.
The challenges the NewsHour faces are, to some degree, the same challenges all established media face in an age of greater competition, such as the show’s frequently discussed funding troubles. Rumblings of such issues date back to before the end of the Lehrer era, but the biggest single blow may have come when Chevron ended its sponsorship of the program at the end of 2011, leaving a $2 million hole in the budget. This year, the Times reported executives at MacNeil/Lehrer Productions asked for emergency cash infusions from PBS to pay the program’s bills. After the Denver and San Francisco bureau cuts, Baltimore Sun television critic David Zurawik wrote that the program has become more of “a one-hour broadcast that relies mostly on original reporting done by other people,” with many segments simply consisting of an anchor interviewing a journalist from another outlet (i.e. The New York Times) on a story reported earlier that day. The NewsHour countered with a swift response defending both the value and reporting of the program.
Bill Wheatley, former NBC executive and adjunct professor at the Columbia Journalism School, points out that the concept of “original reporting” Zurawik cites means different things to different people. In his view, the NewsHour does a good job of producing field reports that “aren’t seen anywhere else on American TV news,” such as its economics and education reporting. However, he also thinks the program could revamp its Washington reporting by trading some of its political discussion segments—a market already dominated by cable news—for more reported pieces looking at congressional dysfunction.
Along with questions of financing comes one of viewership. Ratings for the NewsHour have roller-coastered, declining to slightly less than a million nightly viewers in 2012 and then rising to 1.3 million nightly viewers in 2013, according to PBS Audience Research numbers supplied by the NewsHour press office. (Those numbers are difficult to compare directly, however, since 2013 numbers are calculated under a new methodology, says Public Relations Manager Anne Bell.) Meanwhile, the NewsHour touts increases in online pageviews and in unique website visitors. Still, the program is dogged by concerns over the quality of its on-air presentation. A 2012 report commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—co-authored by Merrill Brown, now director of Montclair State University’s School of Communication and Media, and Larry Kramer, publisher of USA Today—called on the program to “modernize news gathering production.”