Is it time to quit being nice about what 'NewsHour' has become?

Does PBS still really even have a nightly newscast?

  • The 'NewsHour" team as it now exists in these downsized days for the broadcast.
The 'NewsHour" team as it now exists in these downsized… (PBS promotional photo )
June 12, 2013|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun

(Updates at end with response from NewsHour) With the word Tuesday that "NewsHour" was shutting down offices and laying off employees, it's time to ask the question: Just how much of the this one-time PBS bedrock is actually left?

In fact, let's go a step further and ask if it is even accurate to call it a nightly newscast any more -- and if what's left is worth trying to save?

I know I've been avoiding asking those questions for at least four years even though they begged to be asked. Now they demand answers.

On Tuesday, Alex Weprin of TVNewser reported the following:

According to an internal memo obtained by TVNewser, MacNeil/Lehrer Productions – which produces the “NewsHour” – will be shutting down its offices in Denver and San Francisco, eliminating nearly all the positions there. The company will also eliminate several production positions in its Washington, D.C., office, while leaving two open senior-level roles unfilled. The “NewsHour” is also planning to save money by streamlining and digitizing its technical process.

“This difficult step comes after more than a year spent reviewing how the ‘NewsHour’ functions, and determining the streamlining necessary to address both the funding challenges (primarily a steady drop in corporate revenue) and the opportunities presented by new technologies,” wrote “NewsHour” EP Linda Winslow and MacNeil/Lehrer president Bo Jones in the memo to staff.

... While the program will still maintain in-house crews, the “NewsHour” will rely more on freelance contributions going forward.

While Tuesday's news might seem like a surprise to some, the "NewsHour" has been struggling and cutting back for years. And that context matters.

In May 2009, PBS held its annual meeting in Baltimore, and here's part of what I wrote as a curtain-raiser on the event after talking to Winslow:

As programmers and public broadcasting executives from across the country come together ... in Baltimore for the annual PBS Showcase conference, they face what could be the most challenging time in the history of American public broadcasting.

... Linda Winslow, executive producer of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, is one of the producers trying to do more with less. As financial and technological pressures radically alter the landscape of commercial TV news providers, the NewsHour becomes more important than ever as a source of information that citizens can trust.

And yet, she, Lehrer and their team of journalists and technicians have just come through their hardest year ever in terms of funding.

"The NewsHour started feeling this incredible financial pinch exactly a year ago," Winslow says. "I remember having a staff meeting last May, which was the first I've ever had to have, to explain to people that we were freezing salaries and eliminating the company contribution to the 401(k) plan, and travel was going to be something they needed six signatures to certify that it was absolutely necessary."

So, the "incredible financial pinch" started at least in May of 2008. And since that time, more and more of what the "NewsHour" has become is a one-hour broadcast that relies mostly on original reporting done by other people, who the producers then try to bring on the show to talk about their stories.

I'm sorry, Jeffrey Brown interviewing a New York Times reporter about a story she or he broke is not a nightly newscast -- not in any sense of what they do on CBS with Scott Pelley or ABC with Diane Sawyer every night. It's more like a cable talk show -- or a radio talk show with a camera showing the interviewer and interviewee sitting across from each other.

This isn't easy to say. In fact, I held off saying it for some four years out of, if truth be told, probably affection and even prejudice for the values Lehrer and Winslow tried to represent in TV news and journalism.

After a couple of months of closely watching the show following that 2009 piece, I became convinced Winslow no longer had anything close to the horses needed to do a real newscast. Forget the world, they couldn't cover stories down the street in Washington on their own most nights. Some nights, when they tried to re-purpose a piece that had run previously by giving a new introduction, it was just plain embarrassing.

They could shuffle the anchors, and move Lehrer finally toward retirement all they wanted; the problems ran far, far deeper than that.

It wasn't the fault of Winslow, but for all the good intentions, what she and her team were mostly offering the last four years was some analysis and lots of high-sounding talk -- blue smoke and mirrors instead of original reporting.

Having a real newscast costs money, folks, real money -- the kind of money it takes to have an infrastructure like CNN, which featured two correspondents and two crews on the ground in Turkey Tuesday bringing us live coverage of what looked like it could be a cultural revolution.

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