NewsHour at a crossroads

As PBS prepares to launch a weekend edition of the NewsHour, observers doubt the program's continued viability

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.”

Marc Rosenwasser, executive producer of the new weekend edition and former EP of Need to Know, says the new program aims for tight integration with the weekday NewsHour, despite different sources of funding and separate production locations (the weekend edition will originate from WNET in New York, while the weekday version is produced at WETA in Washington, DC). Hari Sreenivasan, who was elevated to the role of “senior correspondent” in the recent anchor changes, will appear on the weekday program—from New York—multiple times a week, a role which may include contributing packaged pieces and interviews. Beth Hoppe, PBS’ head of programming, describes the change as a “back to the future” moment, since the program had a similar New York-Washington axis in its MacNeil-Lehrer days.

In terms of format, the weekend NewsHour will be a half hour. In an innovative move, it will also feature a two-minute window for member stations to insert local news content, similar to the local cut-ins that are a staple of NPR’s radio programming. This is a feature that, if successful, could be added to the weekday edition. Hoppe also emphasizes that while the new edition will allow the program to follow news that breaks on the weekend, it will also open an opportunity to cover culture and the arts. The weekend edition will feature a greater number of lengthier, field-reported pieces, according to Rosenwasser, including a series focused on national and global public policy solutions.

Observers are divided on what the NewsHour should do to maintain its position in the media landscape. Frank Sesno, former CNN correspondent and director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, agrees that the program faces “very real funding challenges.” But he points out that PBS can draw on the resources of its local member stations to produce stories for the program and, as was hinted in the announcement of the Denver and San Francisco layoffs, rely more on stringers. Tom Bettag, former producer of ABC’s Nightline during the Koppel era and most recently of NBC’s Rock Center, sees it differently. He disagrees with the conclusion at the heart of the Gates Foundation study, arguing that it “implies that if they were just more creative, more forward looking, everything would be fine.” In his view, “the problem doesn’t lie in what is a superb staff, but in the funding model.” While he agrees that the staff at the NewsHour has managed to produce strong journalism considering its budgetary situation, he took a dim view of the recent budget cuts at the program, noting that “the heart of any program is news gathering in the field.”

Brown, a co-author of the 2012 Gates Foundation study, says the NewsHour is making real improvements in its digital integration but says whether it’s making competitive decisions from an audience and funding standpoint is “less obvious.” He suggests diversifying the program’s coverage to include the interior of the US, shifting from a beltway-centric focus. Columbia’s Wheatley also has suggestions for improvement. The program should have “more energy and a bit of style,” he says. “It need not be controversial or fast-paced, but it certainly could be made more interesting. Let the anchors acknowledge each other’s presence more than they do now.” He also recommends integrating relevant viewer comments through the program and breaking up news summary items, sprinkling them throughout the show rather than clustering them.

For all the obstacles the NewsHour faces, its biggest asset might be the reservoir of goodwill the program still triggers—both among viewers, who continue to regard PBS as a highly trusted and unbiased institution for news, and among those in the journalistic community. Sesno describes the program as “essential,” and Wheatley says the program provides a “valuable service.” It’s clear that many are rooting for the NewsHour to succeed. Whether it will remains to be seen.

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Abraham Moussako is a former CJR intern. Follow him on Twitter at @AMoussako. Tags: ,