The long-running PBS newscast made a decision last year to be more aggressive in acquiring news from the field and to provide a full-blown, multimedia news service. To implement the strategy, NewsHour rebuilt and relaunched its website and tore down the walls between its broadcast and online staffers. "We need to be your one-stop shop for very high quality news journalism on a daily basis," says Simon Marks, associate executive producer. "And we don’t care how you come to us.”
‘NewsHour’ Embraces New Media Mindset
The BP Gulf oil spill this spring and summer spurred a level of newsgathering and new media distribution at PBS Newshour not previously associated with the staid weeknight show.
NewsHour staff pulled off feats like the Gulf Oil Spill Tracker, a widget that streamed live, underwater footage of the gushing oil. For four hours one day, YouTube ran a banner on every one of its pages linking users to the NewsHour’s YouTube channel with the tracker. It attracted 14.6 million views.
In June, NewsHour correspondent Hari Sreenivasan interviewed conservationist Jean-Michel Cousteau about the spill’s impact while Sreenivasan was in NewsHour’s Washington studio and Cousteau was on a boat somewhere near Bora Bora. Cousteau recorded his end of the interview and sent the footage back to Washington as FTPs.
By July, viewers got in on the action, submitting questions via Google Moderator for a live interview with BP executive Bob Dudley. That interview appeared on the show’s website, www.pbs.org/newshour, YouTube and the nightly broadcast.
The enhanced coverage is the manifestation of a decision made last year to be more aggressive in acquiring news from the field and to provide a full-blown, multimedia news service.
“The change we’ve been engaged in is we need to be your one-stop shop for very high quality news journalism on a daily basis,” said Simon Marks, associate executive producer. “And we don’t care how you come to us. We are producing more content across more platforms than ever before, but it is content that is absolutely loyal to keeping the time-honored quality of video journalism and the time-honored news agenda alive.”
To implement the strategy, NewsHour rebuilt and relaunched its website and literally tore down the walls between its broadcast and online staffers late last year.
The main newsroom in Arlington, Va., has been expanded to accommodate 21 staffers, 12 more than before, in a floor plan that allows for easy collaboration. The workflow is through an Avid iNews system.
The newsroom has Four Apple Final Cut Pro edit suites as well as a sound-isolated audio booth to record voiceovers and interviews. A camera is set up so that reports can be recorded with the newsroom as background.
From an operational standpoint, the big change is that just about everyone is becoming adept on Final Cut Pro so that they can produce clips for broadcast or the Web. More than 40 have had the training so far, said Marks. “Before, you could count on your hand the number of people who could edit.”
Reporters still go out on stories with freelance shooters. But they are also making greater use of Skype and other Web-based technologies to get more stories from more places.
Stories can now be imported in HD via the Internet and compression technology, said David Sit, VP of operations and technology. “There is much less of a need of satellite feeds, which are hard to attain in difficult areas. Although it is hard to quantify, we have definitely increased the number of video reports on the broadcast and significantly so on the Web.”
NewsHour is also pushing out news on other platforms like YouTube. The NewsHour iPhone app was the No. 1 such download in its first week of availability, said Travis Daub, NewsHour creative director.
Viewers now are a more integral part of the news process as well, through events like the Dudley interview. They can reach reporters via e-mail and Twitter. “It’s a little more democratizing,” Sreenivasan said. “It’s letting the public back into public media a little.”
The Fort Hood shooting, which occurred last November just days after broadcast and digital staff started sharing a newsroom, highlighted differences between the two groups. Working sources by phone, TV reporters wondered why the online staff wasn’t chasing the story with equal fervor.
Turns out that at least one digital reporter was well ahead, exchanging Twitter messages with a member of Congress who had an aide on base.
“The broadcast staff, myself included, realized there was a completely different discipline in news gathering … and we didn’t know anything about that,” Marks said.
In addition to the technological and operational changes, NewsHour adopted a new name (it was formerly The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer) and speeded up the pace of the broadcast a bit. Judy Woodruff regularly co-anchors and Sreenivasan appears nightly for news roundups.
It all seems to be paying off for NewsHour. “At a time when commercial stations are losing audiences [for their broadcasts], we are definitely not losing and in some markets we are making modest gains,” Marks said.
According to a June release, NewsHour draws about 1.1 million viewers a night and about five million unduplicated viewers a week.
“Website traffic is off the charts in terms of growth,” Marks added. Through May, the website had approximately 2.4 million monthly page views, and about 730,000 unique monthly visitors. The program delivered an average of 600,000 video rolls and 1.2 million podcast/audio downloads.
The way Marks sees it, statistics like these are a testament to NewsHour meeting its goal of shedding its role as a source for news junkies only — a supplement to the commercial networks’ evening newscasts — in favor of being a vibrant, multiplatform distributor of in-depth news.
“Twenty or 30 years ago people could say legitimately to be a responsible, educated citizen, you could watch network news,” Marks said. That no longer is the case, he said.
For Daub, the challenge is to constantly reevaluate and break through staid notions of news coverage as technology continues to evolve. “We are constantly analyzing our progress and not holding onto things that are holding us back,” he said. “NewsHour has been a stable environment for 30 years, and it’s not anymore.”
“There’s an opportunity for experimentation … and a culture that is supportive of it,” added Sreenivasan, who joined NewsHour in December just as the changes were being implemented. “This is exciting in that it’s kind of like a start-up.”