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Jim Lehrer is stepping aside for a dual-anchor format on PBS's 'NewsHour'
He is mindful of his mortality. Lehrer suffered a heart attack a quarter-century ago, and he churned out 20 books -- including novels that ranged from Beltway politics to One-eyed Mack mysteries -- after returning to work. "That was partly motivated by the fact that I didn't know how much longer I had to live," he says.
He was out for more than two months after last year's heart operation, and this time he was a decade older than MacNeil was when he retired. "I had no idea whether I was going to be able to come back, wanted to come back," Lehrer says. "Psychologically, you never really know, despite what the doctors say: 'You're going to be great! Ten years younger!' I didn't believe it."
When he did feel fully recovered, "I didn't want people to think I was going to be some kind of invalid." But, he says with a grin, deepening his voice and waving his arm, "this for me is not my last great mission for journalism and mankind."
The program has just finished rebuilding its newsroom, finding a few hidden typewriters in the process, so that television and digital staffers work side by side. "You can no longer afford in this age of journalism having people work for you who can only do one job," says executive producer Linda Winslow.
The "NewsHour" Web site has added blogs and video, along with a presence on Facebook and Twitter. The program's newest hire, CBS correspondent Hari Sreenivasan, will help merge the old and new media ventures. And the broadcast is teaming up with other PBS programs, such as "Frontline," in ways never before deemed necessary.
"The one thing we're not going through here is an identity crisis," says associate executive producer Simon Marks. "We know what our journalistic mission is." The challenge, he says, is extending a brand "that mostly till now has really been known as a 54-minute television program," at a time when "audiences may no longer have the opportunity to sit down and watch for 54 minutes."
The broadcast, with its famously unhurried feel, has also had a bit of renovation. For decades, the "NewsHour" began with a straight summary of the day's top stories. Now, with research showing that six in 10 viewers are well briefed on the news by 6 p.m., the program usually kicks off with a lead story and discussion, and the news digest comes later.
Without the pressure for ratings that the commercial networks face, the broadcast can range more widely. Last week featured a report on an economic boom in India and a 13-minute discussion of health care with former Cabinet members Donna Shalala and Michael Leavitt. Lehrer also found time for this story: "A mass animal sacrifice began today in Nepal. . . . 200,000 buffalos, goats, chickens and pigeons are killed in the two-day ritual."
While Lehrer could easily coast with the prestigious program, the truth is that he's dissatisfied. "Our audience is a considerable audience, but it should be double what it is," he says. "Because we've been on a long time, some of our stuff doesn't get the attention others have. We've done a poor job of promoting what we do. I think we got comfortable. We need to be more aggressive."
In that vein, Lehrer is fully behind the online expansion, though he scoffs at the notion of tweeting. As a onetime staffer for the Dallas Morning News and now-defunct Dallas Times-Herald, he agonizes over the decline of newspapers -- and, by extension, of original reporting.
"The shouting and opinion and jokes don't exist if there isn't first a story," he says. "If you start at the end with Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann -- I'm not knocking these people, but they're at the end of the reaction chain. All you know is what Beck or Bill O'Reilly or Rachel Maddow or Rush Limbaugh said. But what was actually in that legislation? Where are you going to get that piece? You go to a serious news organization."
This, then, is why Lehrer doesn't hang it up after 35 years on the air, after the cardiac incidents, after moderating all those presidential face-offs. He sees himself as upholding the banner of quality reporting -- musty and tattered as that banner might be in the infotainment age -- and he wants to lead a team that carries it into the future.
"I still have the hunger," Lehrer says. "I didn't have the hunger to do it all by myself. But I really have the hunger for it to be done, and done well."
Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."