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Venerable Format of ‘NewsHour’ Struggles With New Era of Media
For many of its 38 years, the sober studio-interview format of the “PBS NewsHour” has served the program well, drawing viewers and corporate underwriters alike. But with a deep financing crisis forcing layoffs and other cutbacks this week, some public television employees believe that format — and a general unwillingness to embrace the digital realities facing journalism — may be jeopardizing the program’s future.
“NewsHour” came under criticism in a confidential May 2012 report commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the program’s major supporters in recent years, that concluded bluntly that the program needed to aggressively “modernize news gathering production.”
The report stressed the need for a major reorganization that included developing new digital platforms and clarifying its editorial focus. It also said more “decision-making transparency” was needed from MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, the profit-making company that co-produces the program for PBS. (The company is controlled by Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil, its founding anchors. Washington public television station WETA is the other producer.)
The pressures facing “NewsHour” are not unique. “What every traditional media organization is confronted with today is how to change profoundly to reflect the revolution in how people consume media,” said a former CNN bureau chief, Frank Sesno, now director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. But many organizations have moved more quickly to adapt, equipping producers with inexpensive video cameras to reduce news gathering costs, and investing in online and mobile platforms.
Mr. Sesno said that he “desperately” wants “NewsHour” to succeed. “They’ve got to figure out how to do the deeper dive and bring people along with them,” he said, by developing more of a conversation with the audience and becoming a “multimedia information experience. You can’t just be a TV show anymore.”
In the year since the Gates Foundation report was delivered, the foundation, whose $3.56 million, three-year grant to “NewsHour” to cover global health expired in December 2011, has yet to return as a supporter. A foundation spokesman, Christopher Williams, said in an e-mail on Wednesday that the consultants’ report “was not conducted as a prerequisite to any further funding.” He added, however, that the foundation does not discuss “what a particular grantee’s prospects for funding might be.”
A “NewsHour” spokeswoman, Anne Bell, said in an e-mail that the study was “helpful,” adding that “many of the recommendations have been acted upon” and that the program had “increased dramatically” its Web and social media initiatives.
With corporate funds running short, however, the program’s financial situation has deteriorated rapidly, leaving the production company to close a gaping hole of about $7 million on a $28 million budget this year, according to public television employees familiar with the numbers.
Corporate underwriting, which has declined elsewhere in public media, has fallen far short of what program officials hoped to raise, partly because the program was asking too much for sponsorships, said two public television employees.
Four times in recent months, MacNeil/Lehrer Productions executives have asked PBS officials for emergency $1 million infusions so they could pay the “NewsHour” bills, the public television employees said, and they received at least $3 million. Ms. Bell said the show would close the fiscal year with a “relatively small operating deficit.”
MacNeil/Lehrer Productions and WETA produce “NewsHour,” which is a nonprofit program, under an annually renewable contract. PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting contribute a portion of the program’s budget — $12.5 million this year — with the rest to be raised from corporations and foundations by the production company.
PBS, in a statement from Beth Hoppe, its head of programming, declined to comment “on financial information regarding specific programs,” but said it was working with “NewsHour” to ensure that the program’s “critical services” continued.
With a new fiscal year starting July 1, the program’s immediate financial squeeze will be eased, said the public television employees. But the end-of-year request for emergency funds requests revealed the intensity of the financial pressures.
Although Mr. Lehrer retired from anchoring in 2011, he remains fully in charge of “NewsHour,” said the public television employees. Mr. Lehrer and Mr. MacNeil each own 16 percent of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, with the remainder held by the media giant Liberty Media. “NewsHour” did not respond to a request to interview Mr. Lehrer.
This week, “NewsHour” took some steps to bring its expenses more in line with revenue. In an internal memo, Linda Winslow, its executive producer, and Bo Jones, the chief executive of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, told employees that the program would close its Denver and San Francisco offices, effective July 1. In the program’s first significant layoffs in two decades, about 15 positions are being eliminated.
Terence Smith, the program’s former media reporter, who retired in 2006, said of the moves: “They are now doing the cutbacks that they needed to do four or five years ago, because this deficit is crippling and has been running year after year.”
In the internal memo, Ms. Winslow and Mr. Jones said the program, which is based at WETA, also would further reduce costs through “changes in our technical production processes” to “streamline and digitize operations.”
But the memo added, “Under no circumstances do we intend to abandon the mini-documentary reports that have become so critical to our broadcast.” Indeed, Mr. Lehrer, the public television employees said, has said repeatedly that he saw no need for the program to change what for years had been a successful alternative format.
Outside consultants disagree. A May 2012 confidential study, from consultant Frank N. Magid Associates, concluded that viewers found the program “smarter” than other network news sources, and appreciated its “fairness, depth, original content and overall sense of purpose.”
But they also felt that it “doesn’t excel for having reporters and personalities that viewers enjoy,” finding it “old-fashioned, slow-moving, even boring.”
In response to a Baltimore Sun critique of the program this week, one of its anchors, the senior correspondent Gwen Ifill, defended “NewsHour,” writing, “we still stick by our core mission — to provide news and information for people who choose to know more than what their home browser page can show them.”
PBS, among other changes, wants the program to choose a permanent anchor or two co-anchors, said the public television employees. When Mr. Lehrer left two years ago, he decided not to name a replacement. Instead, a handful of anchors, including Ms. Ifill and Judy Woodruff, share the two host chairs in constant rotation, further muddling the program’s identity, critics said, and adding to costs.
PBS could choose not to renew the program’s contract and find a new producer. For the moment, PBS is instead investing $3 million in a new program, “PBS NewsHour Weekend,” which is expected to start in the fall, anchored by Hari Sreenivasan, a correspondent on the weekday program and its director of digital partnerships.
Two different companies will produce them. The contract for the weekend program went to WNET, in New York. PBS executives have said they hoped the new program would generate new models to produce a news program less expensively, said the public television employees.
Devoted to Politics, MSNBC Slips on Breaking News
Por Bill Carter[The New York Times, 3/6/13]
At MSNBC they view it as rooting against death and destruction: the last thing the channel wants is more months like the last two, filled with terror bombings, tornadoes and plant accidents.
It’s not all altruism. The destruction MSNBC also wants to avoid is the havoc such news has been wreaking on its competitive standing.
In May, MSNBC, which generally runs second to the dominant leader, Fox News, among cable news channels, plunged all the way to fourth place, dropping behind not only its closest rival, CNN, but also that network’s sister channel, HLN (formerly Headline News).
At a time of intensely high interest in news, MSNBC’s ratings declined from the same period a year ago by about 20 percent. The explanation, in the network’s own analysis, comes down to this: breaking news is not really what MSNBC does.
“We’re not the place for that,” said Phil Griffin, the channel’s president, in reference to covering breaking events as CNN does. “Our brand is not that.”
The brand, one MSNBC has cultivated with success, is defined by its tagline, “The Place for Politics,” and a skew toward left-wing, progressive political talk, the opposite of the conservative-based approach that has worked well for Fox News.
MSNBC began to commit itself to presenting a liberal spin on political coverage in the middle of the last decade, partly because it had not found success in previous models (like trying to be a news channel for younger viewers) and mostly because it had one host, Keith Olbermann, whose ratings were exploding based on his outspoken criticisms of the Bush administration and the conservative voices on Fox News.
MSNBC has ridden this formula to a consistent edge over CNN. It has topped that network about 80 percent of the time over the last three years, Mr. Griffin noted, by relying on a lineup of prime-time shows with strong hosts like Rachel Maddow. CNN has never made ideologically impassioned shows the basis of its appeal. Instead, it has thrived when its potent brand identity, the channel for breaking news, has come into play.
Mr. Griffin acknowledged that CNN, which has experienced ratings gains near 100 percent in the last two months, shines in periods of intense news interest. But, he said, this will pass.
“You do have to look at the long term,” Mr. Griffin said in May. “In the first quarter of this year, Fox News had its lowest quarter in a decade. A year ago CNN had its worst month ever. I tip my hat to what CNN has done this month, but let’s not be so myopic as to think the whole world has changed.”
For the second quarter so far, MSNBC has averaged 704,000 viewers in prime time, down 18 percent from last year. Among viewers that news advertisers pay to reach, those 25 to 54, MSNBC has averaged 214,000 for the quarter, down 11 percent.
The network has experienced steady growth in ratings over the last several years, however, and profits have followed. For example, a Pew Research study put the network’s annual profit at $186.6 million for 2011, up from $168.8 million the prior year. The research firm SNL Kagan estimated MSNBC’s 2012 profit at $202 million.
Mr. Griffin pointed out that CNN has surged ahead of MSNBC (and occasionally even Fox News) when enormous news was breaking, like the tsunami in Japan in 2011 — but fell back once the news cooled. And on three nights last week, MSNBC edged back ahead of CNN in the prime-time hours, though CNN maintained a lead over the full day.
But there is speculation that something different may be happening this time, that a combination of a more aggressive approach from CNN, dimming interest in political news in general, and a sense that MSNBC has less to offer in hard news coverage, may be eroding the advantage that the channel has enjoyed.
Mr. Griffin acknowledged that with Jeff Zucker, the former NBC chief executive and an experienced news producer from the “Today” show, now leading CNN, the competition is going to increase.
“We have to be aware of it,” he said. “We’ll figure out how to deal with their aggression in our own way.”
The way will be consistent with the political brand — and that could be a risk.
“People are just sick of politics,” said one former senior network news producer, who asked not to be identified because of current dealings with another news organization. Mr. Griffin agreed that “dysfunction in Washington” has been a factor in MSNBC’s recent struggles.
MSNBC’s viewers may have especially grown tired of politics because the news has been mostly negative recently toward President Obama, whom MSNBC’s hosts have championed. As another senior producer for news programs at multiple networks put it, “People will watch MSG when the Knicks are hot, and not watch when they aren’t.”
Even Ms. Maddow’s ratings tumbled sharply in May, at least partly because the network’s new host at 8 p.m., Chris Hayes, has lost more than 30 percent of the audience in the hour before Ms. Maddow’s show. (Mr. Griffin, who defended the decision to bring in Mr. Hayes, said the show had been hurt by the discord in Washington, and vowed to stick with it after “some tweaking.”)
A broader question is whether MSNBC is being damaged by a perception that it is not really a news channel anymore. “MS has stopped doing news so you don’t really think of them when there is a breaking news story,” said a producer who has worked in both cable and broadcast news, who asked not to be identified because of continuing relationships with one of the networks.
Unlike CNN and Fox, MSNBC does not have a full roster of its own correspondents, still relying largely on reporters from NBC News like Chuck Todd and Pete Williams. It does not even have a White House correspondent.
“Fox News has an advantage in having its own correspondents, who don’t have to do double-duty,” said Judy Muller, a former network correspondent who now teaches at the University of Southern California.
CNN, of course, has correspondents and bureaus around the world. Ms. Muller and others questioned whether MSNBC is now a political talk channel rather than a news network. On its Web site, the channel promises “world-class reporting and a full schedule of live news coverage.”
Mr. Griffin argued MSNBC’s coverage of the Boston bombings matched any other channel’s, though he acknowledged that the network had access to Mr. Williams, one of the stars of the Boston coverage, only when he wasn’t on NBC.
Mr. Griffin offered his own definition of the network: “We are a news and information channel that focuses on politics and what’s going on in the country.”
“To say ‘news channel’ in the modern age is irrelevant,” he added. “E is a news channel. The Weather Channel is a news channel. Politico is a newspaper. They all do news and information in a different way.”
With all the changes wrought by the Internet, Mr. Griffin said news organizations are in the midst of “a media revolution — and you better find out where you fit in this world.”