At the NewsHour in May, the top managers told all employees their jobs would soon change — but no one yet knew what their new duties would be. The online and broadcast units, then housed in two buildings separated by a flood-prone creek in Arlington, Va., would coalesce into one newsroom. Everyone would cross-train. Work for on-air and online would become one effort. And all this would happen in less than a year.
“We realized if we were going to survive as a news organization, we needed to engage a broader audience,” said Executive Producer Linda Winslow, who had to lead the paradigm shift.
“However you get someone’s attention through whatever platform — television, mobile, desktop computer, listening on the radio, a podcast — all those eyeballs and eardrums are of vital importance,” said Simon Marks, associate executive producer.
“The feeling was, our audience has changed and we need to catch up,” said former Online NewsHour head Lee Banville, also instrumental in the realignment. The producers could “incrementally tweak” the show and website, “or blow things up and do something totally different.”
They blew things up.
They busted down newsroom walls, adding some space but much more humanity, doubling the number of desks, adding new editing stations and a fixed camera for quick shirt-sleeves standups. The broadcast and website now carry the PBS NewsHour title and they come from the same combined staff. The show is more spontaneous and engaging, based on extensive CPB-funded audience research (sidebar below). Everything graphical was redesigned.
All that was accomplished in a matter of months by a staff that has been under a salary freeze since May 2008. Only one new hire came on, becoming a visible bridge between the Web and the broadcast. PBS covered the bulk of the transition cost. A network spokesperson said PBS doesn’t release such numbers, but several NewsHour insiders said the total grant was around $300,000.
Did that the effort lure in new viewers and web users while engaging the present fans more deeply? Early numbers look promising. During launch week, Dec. 7, traffic to the website jumped some 50 percent and online video views doubled from December 2008. National broadcast ratings are still being gathered but major markets from New York to Los Angeles got an average lift of 9 percent from the previous week’s numbers. Updated figures should arrive later this month, delayed by the holidays.
There’s a lot at stake. The Friday-night schedule loses Bill Moyers’ Journal and Now in April, thinning out the core of PBS’s public affairs programming.
Inspiration from Khartoum
Several years back, “Jim recognized the need to do something to try answer the big questions that all media were asking: How to integrate online, broadcast, video, audio and text,” Marks said. Technical advances in TV reporting — driven by tight budgets — were already indicating great possibilities about four years ago.
Back then Marks was a special correspondent for the show, as he had been since 1992. “We really embraced a lean, flexible field production model,” he said. Small cameras saved thousands of dollars in baggage fees; an Apple Mac could handle editing work that previously required equipment filling three steel flight cases. “I remember sitting in a bar in the Khartoum Hilton sipping pineapple juice and transmitting our Sudanese peace agreement story on free WiFi.”
“We were delivering a product as high-quality as the NewsHour demands for a fraction of the cost,” he said. “That’s what started conversations percolating” about using more far-reaching yet efficient technology to continue the program’s evolution. Marks came on full time in August 2008 to focus the work.
Lehrer was looking to venture deeper into the changing media world while sustaining the program’s recognized journalistic standards. “We wanted to make the most of our serious journalism and use all our resources as one,” Lehrer told Current. He knew that his separate staffs — web and broadcast — had “mutually beneficial skills.” The show had operated a website since 1995 (longer than the New York Times, Banville likes to point out), but it had a separate staff and a separate Online NewsHour identity.
Early last January, Winslow and Marks met to plan how they’d mesh the TV and web platforms. The two had worked together for years: Winslow joined the show in 1975 when it was called The Robert MacNeil Report; Marks’s Feature Story News, a global production company, still frequently provides reports. Consuming pots of coffee at Winslow’s dining room table, their vision grew into a 25-page report. “We were writing for an audience of one: Jim,” Winslow said. She expected they would tinker with the plan for months before acting, but no. “He read it and said it was fantastic.”
That was Jan. 23. As Marks said: “Linda called me and said, ‘You’d better get down here immediately. He wants to implement this now.”
“No turning back”
The program got a new name Dec. 7 to accompany its new look and staff organization. The idea came straight from Lehrer. He previously had told his managers that “PBS” belonged in a title replacing The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.
“Robert MacNeil and I wanted PBS in the title from the beginning,” Lehrer said. “There were internal political problems within the world of public television that kept that from happening.”
During a meeting at MacNeil/Lehrer Productions last year, Lehrer discussed the title with PBS President Paula Kerger and Chief Content Officer John Boland. “I felt the time had come to establish the program in name for the public television institution it was in reality,” Lehrer said. “Everyone thought it was a good idea — and it happened.”
Kerger was enthusiastic. She suggested announcing all the changes at PBS Showcase, last May in Baltimore. “That gave us a target to shoot for,” Winslow said. “Once we announced it, there would be no turning back.”
This would be a huge change for the 125-member staff. Marks recalled past NewsHour parties where broadcast staffers would ask, “Those people over there — are those the online people?”
Those online people were for the most part journalists in their 20s and early 30s, described by Banville as “entrepreneurial, quick to adapt and technically willing to try stuff.”
“The Online NewsHour had evolved ad hoc, with everything made up on the run,” Banville said. “They thrived on frenetic energy.” Managers wanted to capture that spirit for the broadcast, which had an older staff, with many trained at newspapers.
Figuring out how to click together the puzzle pieces was a time-consuming challenge. “Logistically and administratively, it’s incredibly hard to do and do right,” Banville said. “I can’t tell you how many times I went back to Kinko’s to copy organizational charts.”
Staffers were anxious. “There were concerns and questions, absolutely,” Banville noted. “When somebody comes along and says you have to change, the initial reaction is, ‘I don’t want to,’ and the second reaction is, ‘Why?’ But once you understand the ‘why,’ you get over the ‘I don’t want to.’”
Striving for immediacy
Reconstruction of the website geared up after Showcase. The team requested specific user analysis of the site, which was conducted in June. “As the site was, we heard users say it lacks immediacy,” said Christopher Schiavone, president of the media consulting firm City Square Associates. “It felt like a good research tool but not necessarily a site that was relevant today.”
The home page now provides more up-to-the-minute coverage. Last Friday, as soon as unemployment numbers were released, visitors found a video interview with New York Times columnist David Leonhardt giving context for the figures.
Conducting that interview was Hari Sreenivasan, the human link between the web and program who came on in November. Sreenivasan has an extensive broadcast and web news experience, including, most recently, CBS News, and ABC’s World News Tonight, Nightline and ABC’s online news service. He delivers a news summary at the top of the show, a re-cap and details of additional online stories at the end, and video reports on the Rundown blog updated throughout the day and during the broadcast.
Correspondents also connect with the audience by posting to the blog. That idea was bolstered by City Square research that showed viewers “have a real affinity” for the program’s small corps of correspondents, Schiavone said, and want to know more about their work.
The users’ desire for speed and relevance also prompted changes. The day’s top story would lead the hour, replacing the news summary. “Research showed that 60 percent [or more] of viewers come to the broadcast already having consumed an enormous amount of news during day. They know the headlines,” Marks said. “But 40 percent don’t. So covering the top story immediately and in-depth gives something to everyone.”
Time ticked toward dual launches: Dec. 3 for the site, Dec. 7 for the program. The new site was activated inside the building so the merged team could get practice feeding it.
Banville was pondering the physical surroundings. He sought advice from the BBC, which had undertaken the a similar merger. “I said, how important is the physical layout, with all the staff in the same room?” Banville recalled. The BBC had tried combining the responsibilities of staffs that remained in separate newsrooms but quickly realized everyone needed to be together. Now the NewsHour staffs were blocks apart.
The decision: The online crew would join their colleagues upstairs from the studio in WETA’s old technical building. To make room, the broadcast staff first had to make way for renovation. The correspondents moved elsewhere on the floor. Six months ago, nine people worked in the newsroom; today, 21. In the quieter “bullpen” of cubicles next door, 14 staffers now work where there had been six. All that reconfiguration began in mid-August and was completed by the first week in November.
Late last summer came an unexpected announcement: Banville, a pivotal transition team member and 12-year head of Online NewsHour, was departing for a teaching position at the University of Montana, Missoula. “I could have shot him,” Winslow kidded.
For Banville, moving away was a tough decision. “I wouldn’t have left if I hadn’t had a chance to live in the mountains,” he said, adding that he “jumped at the chance” to remain a part-time consultant to the NewsHour.
Staff training began in September and continues. Everyone is becoming proficient in broadcast and web technology, and partnering on all work. Maureen Hoch, managing editor/digital news, said the broadcast economics editor is now part of the national affairs work; the online healthcare reform staffer now also contributes expertise to the nightly broadcast. Many editorial meetings are unified.
Finally, the new world
On Dec. 3, Banville called up the upgraded site from his Montana home, “feeling like a parent first seeing a child walk,” he said. “I felt really proud of it, and proud of the organization for making it a reality.” The website still shows evidence of its piecemeal evolution. Though it employs PBS’s slick new COVE video player, it also presents some video in the older “public affairs player” previously shared with Frontline. NewsHour content also turns up on the show’s new YouTube channel, a Facebook page and Twitter updates. Travis Daub, creative director, said within a few months there’ll be a mobile site that’s iPhone- and BlackBerry-friendly.
Marks admitted all had not gone smoothly because of Internet connection problems for the new website. “We had a bit of a rough couple weeks,” he said. Winslow explained: “The web people were going bananas. If there’s not a stable connection, there’s not much you can do with website.” She said the problem has been resolved, at least for now.
The evening of the new show’s launch five weeks ago brought “kind of a quiet tension, as well as excitement as the program went on,” said Les Crystal, who spent 22 years as executive producer and is now president of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions. Crystal watched from the control room with special visitors: Lehrer’s longtime partner in the show, Robert MacNeil; Lehrer’s wife, Kate; and MacNeil’s wife, Donna.
“The program went off flawlessly,” Crystal said. “It looked good and felt good. It introduced the new and preserved all of what was important from the old.” After signing off, Lehrer joined the group and said a few words. “He thanked everybody; it was nostalgic and warm,” Crystal said. “He said he was honored that Robin [MacNeil] was there.”
“It was quite an evening,” Crystal added. “Everyone walked out proud and pleased.”
Viewers ask for and get more interaction among Lehrer and his team
Many changes in the NewsHour show and website were based on — or reinforced by — focus groups, interviews and news-consumer observation studies led by City Square Associates. The media consulting firm’s work for NewsHour was an offshoot of CPB primetime audience research and paid for by a $1.5 million Opportunity Fund grant to the show.
In 2008, City Square analyzed attitudes and behaviors of more than 400 adults nationwide, both viewers and nonviewers of the NewsHour and PBS, said Christopher Schiavone, who heads the Cambridge, Mass., company. NewsHour viewers “have high admiration for journalistic values, but something about the way it was produced was not engaging,” Schiavone said. TV news viewers, who generally favor “natural and spontaneous” interactions among presenters, thought NewsHour “felt more scripted and controlled.” Now the producers call for more interaction among correspondents and anchor Jim Lehrer between segments.
In April 2009, NewsHour wanted input from general managers, programmers and development specialists. They also asked for more insights about online news consumers, conducted in June. Internet users were interviewed and observed in a “usability lab,” Schiavone said, as they navigated other news sites, then the NewsHour’s. “We came to the realization that very few of those who watched the show utilized the website,” he said. That reinforced what the NewsHour team felt: They had an opportunity to enlarge their audience by better cross-promoting on multiple platforms.
Once the NewsHour team began to formulate changes, it released an executive summary to station execs. “I really admired that,” Schiavone said. “They were willing to go out to station community and say, ‘We heard you loud and clear — we know that you value us, but we have some work to do’.”
The research provided “as much of a 360-degree view as you could possibly get — viewers, web news consumers and station leaders — and the findings had impact.”
NewsHour goes to high-definition video, December 2007.
Producers announce in May 2009: Next-generation NewsHour coming to PBS.
Lehrer announces the program's overhaul plans at PBS Showcase event in May 2009.
Winslow and Marks preview the changes, December 2009.
Google and YouTube blogs report that NewsHour will open a channel on YouTube.