MEDIA PROFILE: NewsHour lures viewers wanting more than shouting matches

For three decades, Jim Lehrer has pushed the boundaries of broadcast journalism, and his current PBS show is no exception. As Douglas Quenqua reports, there's room for more knowledgeable PR pros to pitch.

For three decades, Jim Lehrer has pushed the boundaries of broadcast journalism, and his current PBS show is no exception. As Douglas Quenqua reports, there's room for more knowledgeable PR pros to pitch.

Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil first teamed up in 1973 to anchor gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings on PBS. Still five years before the advent of C-Span, the uninterrupted access to Congress broke new ground in broadcast news - an appropriate beginning for what would become one of journalism's most respected institutions. In 1975, the team reunited for the Robert MacNeil Report, a nightly half-hour news show with a novel approach - every episode was devoted to a single issue. MacNeil was the anchor and Lehrer was the Washington correspondent. It started as a local show in New York, but within months was distributed nationwide as The MacNeil/Lehrer Report. In 1983, the show expanded to its current hourlong format. Today, following MacNeil's 1995 departure, NewsHour with Jim Lehrer is that rare example of media bucking the trend. While other outlets tweak their programming toward the quick and the commercial, NewsHour remains an ad-free, long-format show. It nurtures debate without the shouting, and analysis without the alarm. It's a wonder the thing is still on the air at all. In truth, NewsHour's endurance owes more to its credibility than its ratings. With a nightly audience of about 2.7 million viewers, the show's exposure pales in comparison to the major networks' flagship offerings, most of which hover in the range of 10 million viewers a night. But mass appeal doesn't seem to be high on the list of NewsHour priorities. "I think we're reaching people who have a real interest in the world and certainly the government and national affairs and what's going on around them," says senior producer Jeff Brown. So when putting together a story, "We have in mind a broad, generally interested person who may or may not know anything about the subject" - not the lowest common denominator. The hour itself can be split any number of ways. Typically the show starts with a six-to-eight minute roundup of the day's headlines, followed by longer, in-depth looks at the top stories. Those include an 8-12 minute taped piece followed by analysis, expert commentary, an essay, or a roundtable discussion. An arts feature appears several times a month, generally at the conclusion of the program. Because so much of the show is devoted to outside commentary, NewsHour is an ideal platform for expert analysts to strut their stuff - particularly if they dislike having to out-shout an opponent on CNN. Each reporter is responsible for finding the commentators for his or her own segments, so they are in constant need of people who can expand on the day's news. "Who is prominent in that field? Who is respected? Who is credible? Who is current?" are among the questions foreign affairs reporter David Butterworth asks when looking for guests. "Naturally the show has its own institutional 'knowledge' of people who are well-versed in certain topics. But if you're doing your job properly, you're keeping up with just who it is who's prominent in the field." Well-mannered PR pros occasionally help Butterworth do that. "It's not terribly common probably because we just don't get that many calls," he says. Because every reporter is responsible for getting guests, there are as many ways to get involved as there are reporters (nine, for the record). Butterworth actually prefers to be contacted by phone ("Not to chew my ear off for 20 minutes," he warns). Jared Jones, senior associate at New York-based Coltrin & Associates, got in the door earlier this month with an e-mail pitch backed up with a call. "We had an executive from a healthcare client we were looking to get out there, so we e-mailed the health producer, Susan Dentzer, and pitched her on a general meeting," he says. Dentzer had an informational meeting with the executive and has since followed up with questions. "I think something will definitely come of it," Jones predicts. "It's just a matter now of being on her radar screen. Now she knows she can look to our client for commentary on various healthcare issues." NewsHour also represents a rare opportunity for the "high" arts to get coverage. As earnest and respected as Dan Rather is, he's still unlikely to end his broadcast with a haiku. Not so Jim Lehrer. The show is, in fact, so dedicated to covering the arts that it recently created a new title for Brown, Arts Correspondent. "We want to make the arts as much like the rest of the news program as possible," he says. As for deciding what warrants time on the show, "We tend to look at arts that are relevant to people's lives, that make some news and have some national or international resonance," he explains. "So the kinds of things we've done have been major art exhibitions that are getting national attention, and musicians or theater that we think a broad part of the population will be interested in even if they haven't heard of them." He stresses, however, that anyone who watches the show should understand what is and isn't appropriate. "The pitch that works around here is the one that comes from people who know our program," he assures. Given the history of NewsHour, that's no fluffy assignment. ----- Contact list The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer Address 3620 South 27th Street, Arlington, VA 22193 Tel (703) 998-2150 Web www.pbs.org/newshour/home.html E-mail first initial.last name@newshour.org

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