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PBS, changing 'NewsHour' to preserve it

By Howard Kurtz
Monday, November 30, 2009

For the first time since Gerald Ford was president, Jim Lehrer will not have his name on next week's PBS newscast.

He is giving up television's biggest perk, making way for a dual-anchor format with a rotating set of correspondents that will change the look and feel of one of the capital's most enduring journalistic institutions.

"It's a little strange," Lehrer admits in his Shirlington office, wearing a brown "Metro Transit" cardigan in an office festooned with bus depot signs. "Not only am I at ease with it, this was not something forced on me. This grew out of my own thinking. . . . We've been a team operation for a long time. What it does is validate the obvious."

Having been sidelined by a heart valve operation last year, the 75-year-old anchor knows there are whispers that this is an interim step toward his retirement. As Lehrer shares the stage with Gwen Ifill, Judy Woodruff and Jeffrey Brown, the renamed "PBS NewsHour" will no longer be synonymous with the bus driver's son from Wichita.

"I am still going to be on the program," he says. "I am still the executive editor of the program. I want this program to go on and on." Asked whether he will take some evenings off, Lehrer hedges: "We're going to play it by ear."

His face is more heavily creased now, his gait slightly slowed, but his passion for news seems undiminished. At the same time, the 20th-century icon has come to recognize that he and his venerable program are in danger of being eclipsed by a fast-changing world.

The format change comes as the "NewsHour" is combining its television and online operations and coping with sharp cutbacks by donors, which has led to the loss of half its producers over the past five years. Lehrer sees this confluence of events as part of a larger threat. "I am very concerned about serious journalism," and for longtime practitioners of the craft, "we damn well better get with it," he says, slapping his chair.

Woodruff, who returned to the "NewsHour" in 2007 after a dozen years as a CNN anchor, is excited by the change. "It's not a gigantic lurch in some strange direction," she says. "It's the same team that's been on the air for years now. Hopefully there's a comfort level there."

Lehrer, of course, sets the tone. In an age when full-throated partisans draw the biggest ratings on cable news, he radiates a detached sense of fairness. It's no accident that Lehrer has been tapped to moderate 11 presidential debates, that his program risks charges of dullness by conducting extensive interviews with newsmakers and polite debates with policymakers. The "NewsHour" has little flash and dash, and that's the way its 1.2 million viewers like it.

Lehrer has been through name changes before. In 1975, he was the Washington correspondent for the fledgling PBS program known as "The Robert MacNeil Report." After New York's WNET decided to make the broadcast a joint production with Washington's WETA, there was talk of a new moniker -- Lehrer actually suggested "Nightline" -- and his anchor mate came up with "The MacNeil/Lehrer Report."

"I thought it was great. My mother thought it was great," Lehrer recalls.

When MacNeil retired in 1995, the program, by now expanded from its original 30 minutes, was christened "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer." Now it's Lehrer's turn to share the credit.

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."

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