Old Dog With New Tricks

PBS NewsHour launches new politics site

There’s been a lot of activity over at PBS NewsHour this past year. First came the jazzy makeover that saw host Jim Lehrer’s name dropped from the title. Then came the hiring of former ABC News political director David Chalian to head up political coverage on air and online. And this month came the launch of the NewsHour’s Politics page, the beginning of a Web redesign that will make the NewsHour a powerful source of online news and analysis in time for the midterms—or, so the show’s staffers hope. There are still challenges ahead as the NewsHour translates its dependable brand into something that speaks to those used to getting their news in an increasingly immediate digital world.

Audience was foremost on the mind of the folks at PBS NewsHour as they prepared to launch their new page, which went live September 9. A smart and measured Politico-style setup, the site is the first in a series of topic-based pages the team plans to unveil in the coming year. It brings all of NewsHour’s political content together and introduces some new features, like the “Political Checklist,” a weekly web-only discussion with Gwen Ifill, Judy Woodruff, and political editor Chalian. According to those at the NewsHour, it was all born out of audience demand.

“When political news happens people come to us looking for analysis or answers whether we have them or not,” says NewsHour’s creative director, Travis Daub. “We see it in the search queries of people trying to find us; we see it in spikes in traffic we get when political news breaks. We feel it’s our duty to be there when the audience is looking for that kind of analysis. But we were concerned looking at our statistics and what we were hearing from our audience that we weren’t really meeting their expectations. So our goal in the last year has been to dramatically beef up what we’re providing them.”

The “beefing up” process began in December with the NewsHour’s broadcast and Web relaunch. Online, it involved a new homepage, the launch of news blog “The Rundown,” and a furious social networking effort that saw Gwen Ifill gather quite the Twitter following. (Nearly 2,500 followers as of today.) With the launch of the new Politics page, NewsHour goes further, partnering with Patchwork Nation to map and report on trends in congressional districts, producing more web-only video—like the Checklist and interviews with party heads such as DCCC chair Congressman Chris Van Hollen—and establishing its own rival to the Politico Playbook, “The Morning Line.”

The new daily e-mail is written by Chalian and other NewsHour reporters and is impressive. It can sometimes be very inside-baseball stuff, but it’s generally a deeper look at the day’s political issues than is offered by the summary-heavy Playbook. In a way, the newsletter reflects the Politics page overall: a savvy digital marriage of old world quality reporting and the demands of the fast new world.

And there’s the rub.

In pushing a standard-bearer like the NewsHour to succeed online, there is the constant need to guard against some of the web’s worst—but often more successful—habits: speed without thought, sensationalism, shallowness. Quinn Bowman, a politics reporter and producer for the NewsHour, says he recognizes the challenge. “When we started this push we wanted to keep the same values that the NewsHour’s always been about: in-depth analysis, fairness, taking a little more time to help our audience understand the issues. And we’re trying to keep that the same despite the fact there’s this push for news online to be immediate.”

Daub adds: “We just went through a round of internal research and the top-line point was that people want twice the information in half the time. That’s our challenge, and that’s one reason we feel we can’t afford to only be available to our audience from six to seven in the evening on their PBS station. There’s an extra layer of work that goes into that, to provide the level of editorial analysis and integrity that the NewsHour holds itself to, and to do that as quickly as possible.” (The NewsHour brand is clearly a priority: images of Ifill, Woodruff, and Jim Lehrer dominate the page.)

The challenge is particularly apparent with video content on the NewsHour’s political page—of which there is a lot, though it is more pundit-to-pundit chat than out-and-about reporting at this stage. “We have a capability and expertise in creating video we want to leverage; we have TV personalities, we have cameras, it’s an easy fit,” says Bowman. “But it’s also a struggle. We’ve found that a lot of shorter videos tend to be more accessible. We try to strike a balance between providing the long form journalism that the NewsHour is known for and keeping videos short enough that they keep a Web audience’s attention.” He notes, however, that video posts of Shields and Brooks are often holding audiences for their entire length, often more than twelve minutes.

As well as fulfilling the need of those who flock to the NewsHour for political coverage, the Politics page is clearly aimed at building a new audience from those who don’t necessarily tune in to the PBS broadcast. As Bowman says, “It’s a way of introducing our brand in a different way.” It’s too early for meaningful metrics to show how successful they’ve been, but the extent to which they will succeed will depend on the extent to which they define themselves as a must-read/must-view site as independent from the NewsHour broadcast and distinguished from online competition. And that comes down to content.

The NewsHour has the resources and the talent. So far, the reporting and analysis on the site are high caliber, and the team says they have plans for expansive coverage of the midterms. (Though there won’t be any wheels, or vans.)

Still, that speed-quality question might trouble them. Scrappier players like Politico, The Hill, and HuffPo update at a feverish pace; they churn out “newness” like scoop factories. And it’s the new that gets Tweeted and clicked on and linked to; it’s the new that builds news audiences quickly.

The NewsHour might have to be content with a slower build—it won’t be challenging Yahoo’s news primacy anytime soon. But if there’s room for a new political voice online, a measured, experienced and urbane one like the NewsHour’s is as good a candidate for the slot as any.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.