Lehrer hands off anchor role to reporting team

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Jim Lehrer, who has reported the news of the day for more than 50 years, became part of it May 12 when he announced that he will step away from the weeknight anchor desk at PBS NewsHour in June.

A big Washington Post story the next day, dominating the feature section, lauded him as “one of America’s most respected newsmen.” It estimated that come June 6, when Lehrer cuts back to once-weekly appearances, he will have anchored some 8,000 broadcasts “and a few zillion newsmaker interviews.”

This week (May 19) Lehrer turns 77.

“I feel good about this,” Lehrer told Current May 13. “I thought I might have second thoughts, but no. This was my idea, I planned it, I worked out a way to do it.” That planning began about three years ago, Lehrer says. A confidante during that process was Robert MacNeil, Lehrer’s longtime friend and former coanchor who retired 14 years ago when the show was called the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.

Pubcasters got a hint of Lehrer’s plans at the May 2009 PBS Showcase in Baltimore. He said his name would drop from the show’s title and a team would share anchor duties.

Jim Lehrer and six of his successors

The “NewsHour” host and his team of reporter/anchor/successors: Ray Suarez, Gwen Ifill, Jim Lehrer, Judy Woodruff, Jeffrey Brown, Elizabeth Warner and Hari Sreenivasan.

When a news show features in-depth interviews recorded in the studio, the ability to shift among a number of people creates a necessary “illusion of movement,” Lehrer says, which helps maintain audience interest. The senior correspondent anchors — Judy Woodruff, Margaret Warner, Ray Suarez, Gwen Ifill, Jeffrey Brown and Hari Sreenivasan — also report stories. Their diverse talents, voices and faces further engage the audience, Lehrer says.

Appearing on the May 13 show, MacNeil congratulated Lehrer for devising a “stealthy” exit that gradually gave more air time to his team of successors. “Now the NewsHour works like a repertory company in the theater, with different correspondents coming forward to take the lead part or share it with another on different nights.”

The transition may have helped build audience: Viewer numbers are up 16 percent from March 2010 to March 2011. The 2009 revamp also called for completely merging on-air and online newsrooms (Current, Jan. 19, 2010) and hiring Sreenivasan to report on the Web and on the broadcast; that has tripled NewsHour’s online traffic.

The decisions are examples of Lehrer following his news instinct, honed through 52 years on the job. Having an independent company, MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, helps give the show that freedom. “But remember,” Lehrer is quick to point out, “I don’t want to make this sound corny, but with independence comes an awful lot of responsibility.”

The program’s move from 30 minutes to an hour in 1983 was controversial, with just 51 percent of stations approving the commitment of extra time. “We’re still in public broadcasting and all kinds of people in that system are ready to judge, to accept or reject — as they should,” he says. “All that being independent does is it gives you the opportunity to do some things you might not otherwise be able to do.”

Although Lehrer is leaving the daily broadcast, he’ll appear Fridays to moderate the weekly review by columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks, and he’ll still help steer the program’s long-term strategy — which, he admits, is exceptionally tricky in the quickly shifting news environment. “You need people who can move quickly in their minds and on their feet. Fortunately we have those in NewsHour.”

He trusts his executive producer, Linda Winslow, to keep the show on track. “I’m not going to call every day and say, ‘Okay, what are you doing?’” he adds, “but I’ll always be available.”