Bennett and Nawaz Are Ready to Reboot the PBS NewsHour

From a story in The Hollywood Reporter by Alex Weprin headlined “Not Your Parents’ News Hour: Geoff Bennett and Amanda Nawaz Ready Reboot of Storied PBS News Program”:

On Jan. 2, 2023, a new era will begin at the NewsHour, the long-running PBS evening news program. After nearly 10 years at the anchor desk (three as co-anchor with the late Gwen Ifill and six solo), Judy Woodruff is stepping down to make room for the next generation of anchors. Geoff Bennett, NewsHour‘s chief Washington correspondent and weekend anchor, and Amna Nawaz, the show’s chief correspondent and substitute anchor, will take the helm as co-anchors of the program in the new year.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Nawaz and Bennett, as well as NewsHour senior executive producer Sara Just, about their plans to reimagine the public news program for a new generation, and why NewHour‘s more than 40-year TV legacy can be an advantage in an era dominated by digital media.

Geoff, Amna, Sara, I’m glad we were able to talk ahead of of your debut next month. To start, Geoff and Amna, I wanted to ask what it means to you to be taking, taking seats at the anchor desk for a show with the history and pedigree and influence of the NewsHour.

Geoff Bennett: Well, I’m deeply honored to be entrusted with this responsibility. I’m excited to partner with Amna in building on its rich legacy. The NewsHour is special in that it is a news program with a mission. And I’m really proud to work with such a stellar group of journalists day in and day out in pursuit of that mission, which is providing reliable reporting, solid storytelling and sharp analysis of the news and the issues of the day. And it’s a program with a nearly 50-year history, and so the idea that I get to have a hand in writing the next chapter of that is just, I’m deeply honored.

And Amna what does it mean to you and kind of what do you hope that you’ll be able to bring to the program?

Amna Nawaz: Yeah, I mean, I could echo everything Geoff just said, I’m incredibly honored and humbled. I am so excited to be doing this and especially alongside Geoff. But, you know, the thing that strikes me is that there’s only ever been four people who’ve sat in that chair. And I think the weight of that is something that’s very real to both of us. The reason that the NewsHour is the most trusted and credible brand in journalism today is because of the mission-focus work and because of the fact that we seek to add light and not heat, and I think Geoff and I have always practiced our journalism that way. That will continue, and that’s what our team has always done. For me personally, to be able to step into this role after working with this team for the last four years, it’s pure joy. I mean, there’s never been a more critical and important time to be a journalist in our modern American history. I think we all recognize what’s at stake. But I’ve always been a big believer in the idea that the good stuff rises to the top, and in a crowded and messy media landscape. NewsHour is — and we are who we are — because of the work we do.

When you think of the NewsHour you think of Robert MacNeil, Jim Lehrer, Gwen Ifill, Judy Woodruff. They’ve all put their own stamp on the program, and I think it’s safe to say that they are all journalists that are household names in the world of television news. When you think about what you want to bring to the table, what do you want your stamp to be? What will you do to distinguish your program from the great work that that, you know, MacNeil-Lehrer, Gwen Ifill, Judy Woodruff all brought to the program.

Bennett: For me, having covered national politics for the last 20 years, you know, one of the through-lines from all those people that you mentioned, has been just an extensive knowledge and a deep reporting on all things political. And so you know, I hope to be able to do that. One of the things that I’ve really enjoyed doing is making sense of what can sometimes be arcane policy, either through interviews or stories. And so in terms of putting my stamp on political coverage, that’s what I hope to do, helping people understand how policy matters to them in a way that they might not understand it by watching coverage or reading coverage elsewhere.

Nawaz: Yeah, I would just add to that, politics is absolutely in the NewsHour DNA, and it will continue to be a hallmark of what we do. But you know, for me, I cut my teeth overseas. I was a foreign correspondent for years, and I’m one of, I think, very few anchors, who spent years doing that kind of work. And the kind of connection that NewsHour has with its viewers is special and unique. We have a very deep and engaged viewer base. And that’s built on the backs of more than 330 PBS member stations across the country. So I think, for me, political reporting is about the impact that those policies and that the politics have on people’s lives. It’s about connecting what’s happening in one part of the world, to our audience here at home. And I think the real benefit of having both Geoff and I at the desk is that you’re going to get those connections, we’re going to be able to get out more into the field and continue to do the reporting that got us where we are today. But do it with the leverage and the credibility of the anchor chair behind us.

The co-anchored newscast has become less frequent over the last few years. NewsHour has historically had that format. Why did you decide to return to that format?

Sara Just: There are a number of reasons but one of them most certainly is for flexibility. Judy Woodruff has been an amazing solo anchor and works harder than anybody in this business altogether combined — it’s pretty startling how hard she works — but we also know how hard it’s been to rush back to the anchor desk after being out in the field. So having the flexibility of a co-anchor situation will allow Geoff and Amna to get out into the field to have one of them in the field even more to be able to anchor from different parts of the country or the world when there’s breaking stories.

And it’s a 56 minute show with no commercials. So it’s really three times as long as the evening news competitors that we compete against. It’s a lot of television. Having the dual anchors will give us more flexibility to be more places, and it’s part of our legacy and history, and I think it really suits the time slot that we have.

Bennett: And it still allows us to report. I’ve always said that the best anchors are those who still consider themselves to be reporters, you know, people who are still in the trenches, still talking to sources, still breaking stories, and so being out in the field allows us to add context to the issues on which we’re reporting, which I think is hugely important. There are limits to what you can do in the office, in the studio, so it’s important for us to be out across the country.

Sara, the NewsHour has always, in my opinion, differentiated itself from other television news programs because it will let the stories breathe a little bit. Other programs are very fast paced, you get maybe 30 seconds, you know, a minute or two for a story. And the NewsHour has always been kind of beat to a different drum. Do you think that’s an advantage right now?

Just: The NewsHour has a different tone from a lot of our competitors. It’s a little slower. I’ll admit that. It’s a little quieter. We aim to be a calm and reasonable place to understand complex ideas in our world. And you can’t always do that in 30 seconds. And you know, Geoff, Amna, and I have all worked in commercial television as well, and we understand the pressures and the pacing there as well. We want our show to be as watchable and shareable and easily discovered on social media and digital as possible. We’ve been working really hard on that over the last few years as well as being a really satisfying watch for a full hour on the broadcast.

But, you know, we are a place where we’re comfortable in the nuance. We’re comfortable in the gray areas of the story, and letting our interview subjects have their say, have sharp analysis that can’t be summed up quickly. There are complex, complicated ideas and stories that we’re dealing with every day. And what we hear from our loyal viewers and what we try to appeal to our viewers we hope will still come, is that the media landscape can be very noisy and a lot of it is partisan these days. And you can come to the NewsHour and count on news you can trust, news that you can believe in. We’re not going to talk down to our audience, we’re not going to hype our audience, but we want to tell them the stories that matter in their world and maybe stories they haven’t heard anywhere else.

Bennett: I echo everything that Sara said. I always I have always believed, having worked in public media for most of my career, initially as a producer, that the real value is the luxury of time that you don’t always have in commercial media, and that we get to think deeply about the stories that we intend to tell and the voices that we intend to elevate. And that’s one of the reasons why I think the NewsHour is the most trusted and respected brand in television, because it is mission-guided work and we do have the time on the front-end and on the backend to be intentional. And I think that comes through each and every day.

Just: And also there’s something pretty exciting about Amna and Geoff, being the next generation for the PBS NewsHour… It’s a new generation of anchors and for a program that’s been on the air as long as ours has, you know, over 40 years, that’s big shift. We don’t make change often here at PBS, so this is a big moment for us. And I think that they will both bring their life experience, their professional experience to the anchor position.

Geoff, Amna, can you explain how your life experience, your professional experience can play into the broadcast and what you think it could bring to the broadcast?

Nawaz: Look I’m a first generation American. I’m a Pakistani-American. I’m a Muslim-American. I’m an Asian-American. There’s hasn’t been someone like me in a chair like this in our American history, and that is also its own weight and responsibility. But that also shows just how much our media industry has changed over the last 20 years that I’ve been working in it. I would argue every journalist brings their own lived experience to the reporting that they do. I’m 43 years old. I have very young children. I have older parents, I know what it is to live in that generation, I’m a child of the 80s and the 90s. And that has good and bad parts that I bring with me to this job.

But there have been many times here in the states and around the world where I’ve been the “only” in the room; the only woman; or the only person of color; or the only woman of color; and that informs my reporting too because I’m always thinking about who is not in the room? Who’s not at the table? Who am I asking questions on behalf of when I’m getting the chance to put questions to lawmakers, administration officials or presidential candidates? That experience informs the journalism that I practice.

Bennett: Yeah, and I think the both of us will make our imprint on the show in that way, and I think it will happen naturally. We will bring all of our experiences as journalists, as parents of young children. Our overall approach and worldview will be evident when we when we take the desk. Beyond the content, I think it will also show up in terms of how our reporting and how the show content shows up on different platforms. I think of my peers who say they watch the NewsHour, but what they really mean is they’re listening to it as a podcast, or they’re watching discrete segments on Twitter, or they might be time-shifting the show and watching 10 minutes of it on YouTube or that sort of thing. And so while there is a huge audience that watches the full hour from top to bottom, every Monday through Friday, I think we’re also thinking about the folks who consume the show in different ways, and making sure that our content is wherever those people are.

That that ties directly into my next question. The way people get their news has changed dramatically over the last 10, 20 years. I’m sure all of us, we probably get the news first on our phones. That’s where you see the headlines first. And maybe, video, television has a different role in that ecosystem. Can you explain how the NewsHour is adapting to that environment and what the approach is to these newer platforms, whether it’s a YouTube or Twitter or Instagram, whatever it might be, and how and how you think that can kind of help grow the overall pie?

Just: Well, we’ve been seeing triple-digit growth on our YouTube channel now for a while, as people are cutting the cord they are often watching us there. But you know, as I mentioned, we have 330 PBS stations around the country, we have almost 2 million viewers tuning in, on broadcast. That’s a significant audience. So we think about them and the way to experience our broadcast in a linear way every single day, but we also think of our broadcast as almost a production center for our digital and social platforms so that we can take parts of an interview, or re-present an interview. We have a TikTok channel now, we have a very active Instagram reels channel. Social media platforms are changing all the time, as we all know, but we just want to make it easy to discover us wherever you’re looking for news, and so we’re always experimenting with how to put our content on those places. And also so people know that the journalism is at the same high standards, whether you’re watching our broadcasts or reading a tweet, or watching a live interview on Facebook.

It reminds me of something you said before, which is that PBS NewsHour has built up this credibility in a world where a lot of television news programs are extremely partisan, or maybe a little hyperbolic. Is that something that you think is an advantage in this digital environment? It seems to me that the credibility and 50-year history of the NewsHour could be a differentiator.

Just: Yeah, we’ve been doing that really consciously. We’re recognizing that we’re an older brand and a lot of people might recognize it and say, ‘I think that’s the program my parents used to watch.’ We are taking kind of a ‘not your father’s Oldsmobile approach’ to it. We’re really seeing a younger audience finding us and discovering us and counting on us at a time when this generation is so suspicious of who the voice of authority is. We’re finding that that audience trusts the PBS NewsHour in a way, and it’s in part because of the long history and the great legacy of this program, but it’s also the journalism we produce every single day the choices that we make every single day; not to hype up a story; not to oversell a story; not to go for clickbait. That’s just, fortunately, in public media, not the business we’re in and so we’re able to really provide context and hopefully trust.

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