(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.
The media landscape had changed radically and not nearly enough of those foundation folks who look down their noses at corporate journalism were willing to put their money where their mouths were and seriously fund the "NewsHour" so it could have the reporters and producers needed to actually cover the news once the corporations stopped picking up the tab.
Thank God for the Kroc hamburger money and a successful squeeze-the-local-stations business model that has allowed NPR to grow a worldwide news organization at the same time much of the rest of the mainstream media was just trying to hold on.
So, I am not going to lie and be nice any longer about this program. When things are as bad as they are now at the "NewsHour," it's time to look in the mirror. And that's not just meant for the producers at "NewsHour" and executives at PBS. That's a challenge to us as well.
As a culture, do we want a nightly news program on public television? And even if we do want one, can we afford it?
And if we can afford it, why have we let this once valuable newscast become a shell of itself -- dying off piece by piece before our eyes, promising year after year to do more with less long after the promise was viable?
Response from NewsHour:
Dear Mr. Zurawik,
We take issue with your characterization of the PBS NewsHour as "some analysis and lots of high-sounding talk -- blue smoke and mirrors instead of original reporting." Our program features original reporting on a broad range of topics, on-air and online.
Over the last 10 days on the PBS NewsHour: Margaret Warner wrapped up a week's worth of substantive, on-the-ground reporting from Lebanon and Syria; Google's Chief Legal Officer, David Drummond, sat with Jeffrey Brown for the first U.S. broadcast interview since news of the PRISM surveillance program broke; economics correspondent Paul Solman spoke with Paul Krugman as a part of his continuing coverage of the government's role in the economy; Judy Woodruff moderated a vital debate on proposed cuts to food assistance programs in the U.S. farm bill; Gwen Ifill asked two military legal experts about ways to end sexual assault in the military; and Ray Suarez explored the ethics of organ transplant policies with a medical ethicist. Tonight, we will air the last of Paul Solman's stories in a series about older workers' contributions to the economy.
On-air, we give stories time and depth that other news organizations don't, if they choose to cover them at all. Those include science journalism … high school dropout rates … arts stories (even poetry) … civil political discussion and analysis … and much more. Online, we hear viewers' stories, offer new data and analysis, provide exclusive online reports, discuss solutions to problems and, when necessary, link to insightful stories by other trusted journalists.
The PBS NewsHour gets high marks for trust. In February of this year, Public Policy Polling found "that there's only one [TV News] source more Americans trust than distrust: PBS. " That means a lot to us and to our viewers. Our reporting has earned acclaim, too. Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism has called our international coverage, "The PBS Difference," noting in 2012 that we provided "one-third more coverage of international events over the last year than the media overall." Media Matters took note of our climate change coverage, which included Hari Sreenivasan's "Coping with Climate Change" reporting from around the country, observing that "PBS NewsHour devoted almost twice as many segments to climate change as the other networks combined."
We believe our efforts to reorganize and streamline our operations will allow us to continue doing what we've done well for more than three decades: supply a steady, objective voice in reporting the news on a daily basis. The changes you detailed will not affect our commitment to original reporting. Our mission is to provide intelligent, balanced and in-depth reporting and analysis of the most important issues and news events of the day. That mission continues. We believe the answer to your question, "As a culture, do we want a nightly news program on public television?" is a resounding "yes."
Deputy Executive Producer