If this blog hasn’t given you enough reasons to tune into public broadcasting, then perhaps this very post will. Of all the many programs that are worth watching (and trust me, at least 80 percent are) none are worth it more than the Friday evening news program Need to Know. I recently had a chance to catch up with producer Shelley Lewis and probe her mind into what it takes to put together this first-rate news broadcast. Head to the jump to read her answers.
21 Questions for Need to Know Producer Shelley Lewis
1. When was the idea for Need to Know first discussed?
Need to Know germinated as an idea for more than a year and a half. I came aboard in February and we launched 12 very quick weeks later.
2. Was the Web site always part of the initiative behind the series, or did that take shape in the latter stages? In many ways the Web site seems bigger than the series. Was that also intentional?
The idea of doing a program on the web and on television simultaneously was part of the earliest thinking. It’s been refined as we’ve developed, and it continues to be. Is the website bigger than the television component? Well, yes, in that there are of course many many more stories on the website at any given time than we cover on the on air part of Need to Know. But really, we try always to think of Need to Know as a journalistic enterprise that is both on the web and on the air. Not one first, then the other. It’s one thing…Need to Know.
3. What do you look for in stories? Need to Know covers a wide range of topics, so how do you delineate what is worth focusing on and what isn’t? Is there a certain format for each episode?
On the web, we’re looking for newsy, topical updates as well as interactive features. We do longer versions of interviews that are on the program, or early “first look” versions of stories in development for the program. For television, we are always looking for stories that are topical and that will resonate with thoughtful viewers. We are a weekly news magazine on TV, so we have to pay attention to what’s in the news and national conversation as we go to air. We like to do stories that present solutions to problems whenever we can. We want to understand the real core of an issue, not the chatter around it. This will play out as we cover the fall campaign and focus not on candidates so much as the various issues and proposed solutions. We’ll spend a lot of time on the states, because it’s so obvious that they are in budget crisis, and we’ll look at how different states are reacting.
We always ask ourselves, do I need to know this? Why? Sometimes the answer is as simple as, because you will love meeting this performer, or hearing from this author. That’s especially true in our culture beat. But we really try to get to the core of what we need to know and understand, and spend little or no time on the talking points and political chatter that surround every issue.
Format is basically, a newsy lead story or interview, a long take out that illustrates an issue, such as gun control, or veterans’ health care issues, or the BP disaster’s impact. We like to have a story from our culture beat each week, whether it’s a profile or an interview in the studio or pre-taped. And most weeks Jon Meacham has an essay, and we end with some humor from Andy Borowitz.
4. Explain the decision to attach Alison Stewart to the project. What did she bring to the table, and how has the decision to use her as co-host, helped shape the series’ trajectory?
Alison is smart and engaging and warm and has a fresh take on the subjects we cover. She is curious about all kinds of stories, and she’s a critical thinker. Her life experiences as an African American woman inform her approach to stories, which is tremendously valuable. Plus she’s an old hand at web based reporting and loves doing podcasts and web stories.
5. Same question for Jon Meacham.
Jon is one of the smartest people I know—Jon Stewart referred to him as a “human Wikipedia,” and he really is. He is also wicked funny, which may surprise you. It’s a huge luxury to have a journalist/historian as a co-anchor; it allows us to bring perspective to our coverage that you don’t often see on television. He is amazingly prolific as a writer, and since he is editor of a weekly print magazine, he’s up on everything, except, I would say, hip hop music.
6. What does Need to Know offer that other news programs don’t?
I don’t know of any news programs that are truly multi-platform journalistic entities. Need to Know is able to offer new stories every day, in the form of video or text. We are a true multi-platform program, debuting many stories on the web before television, and often as web-only. We take the mission of Need to Know as a web and television (and mobile media) journalistic entity very seriously. We’re “on” every day because of our web presence.
7. Do storyboard change mid-week, or is everything set by Wednesday or Thursday?
We try to settle on the second half of the show by Tuesdays, but it’s certainly true that the lead stories can change or be updated until the last minute.
8. Have stories ever taken longer than expected? I imagine coverage on something like BP would be evolving every day, so the original slant might be revised numerous times and just keep elongating as the week progresses? Explain how to balance or counteract that if you can.
We aren’t a breaking news program per se, but we will go back in and change a finished taped story, as we did with the BP story a few weeks ago. We were doing a lovely profile of some of the residents of Grande Isle, and it was the week President Obama announced BP’s agreement to put 20 billion dollars in escrow. We called one of the families we were profiling, and learned that the White House had called them to tell them about it. Of course we put that in. The same program featured a report on the health effects of the oil and dispersants, and that story also changed, as the government changed its respirator usage recommendations on Thursday before the show. That too necessitated a re-cut to include the latest information.
9. What’s the greatest benefit of being on PBS?
The best thing about doing a program on PBS is that you know you have a highly intelligent, highly motivated, well informed audience. They’re patient, they want depth, they appreciate context and perspective.
10. What’s the greatest weakness to being on PBS?
It would be nice to have the same time slot in all cities; I understand why stations program as they do, but I’m still not used to it.
11. What’s the most exciting part of producing Need to Know?
It’s hard to choose one. I loved the staffing process. I got to meet so many talented and smart people and I was able to assemble a fantastic staff of journalists. The screening of a piece can be very exciting—especially when it’s full of surprises we couldn’t anticipate when it was green lighted. And meeting fascinating people who are guests or subjects of our taped profiles can be exciting.
12. Being the replacement for Bill Moyers is an arduous and weighty task, because of that do you feel any pressure? Are you trying to draw in his demographic as well? Aside from the Web component, what does Need to Know offer that Moyers’ Journal never did?
They are two very different programs. Of course we want to hold on to all of his viewers and bring in some new ones. We want to expand our audience in every way we can.
13. With the proliferation of cable TV, do you foresee the end of network news? And if so, how does a show like Need to Know fit within the framework of the evolving news cycle?
I don’t foresee an end to network news, if by that you mean, the evening newscasts. The morning shows are all products of network news divisions and they are (at least two of them anyway) extremely successful. I do hope the three commercial network evening programs evolve so that they have appeal to the people they’re missing now. The rapid pace of the news cycle doesn’t really have an impact on what we do. Because the cable channels have to fill so much time, they often fill it with the kind of talk that is not conducive to deeper understanding of issues that are hugely important. We are mindful of the talking points and rapid response and the distractions from the issues, and it’s our goal always to take a step back, and provide some depth and understanding.
14. Watching Need to Know in many ways feels like revisiting Edward R. Murrow’s See it Now. Was there any discussions about trying to revisit his style of broadcasting news and going back to the way news used to be broadcast?
Not at all.
15. Trying to compete with news programs with bigger budgets on CNN and Fox can never be easy, do you feel any pressure or limitations because of this?
First, I don’t know what the budgets are exactly at CNN or FOX, but I don’t consider them competitors in any way. They have very different missions, and, I would guess, different audiences. The pressures we feel are probably self-created; they really have only to do with us judging our own work, not comparing ourselves to other programs.
16. It’s hard to get the X and Y generations interested in a news magazine on Friday evenings. How difficult has it been to pull in Gen X and Y, and is this something you as producer have been conscious of from the very beginning?
Yes it is a goal to get Gen X and Y viewers. It’s too early to say at this point how we’re doing with that. Of course part of the web strategy is to appeal to viewers who get their information on the web, not on television, and we’re perfectly happy to grow the television audience by way of the web.
17. Building on the last point, one would think that viewers of Colbert and the Daily Show would find a kinship in Need to Know. While those two shows tackle weighty issues, they balance them with humor and witticism. Is there every any added pressure to push the show in that direction?
No. I had said from the beginning that I thought there was a place for wit and humor on this program, especially given that it airs on the weekend. But the last thing I would think of us doing is trying to imitate what those brilliant shows do. Only they can do what they do.
18. Though Meacham and Stewart is the show’s mouthpiece, they are in no way the sole foundation. Need to Know draws on an array of veteran journalists and broadcasters to help bring the show to life. Have there been any discussions about featuring certain journalists and correspondents regularly and making them weekly staples, as opposed to one-time presenters?
Jon Meacham and Alison Stewart are our co-anchors and principal reporters, but we do expect to feature certain reporters fairly regularly. For example, you will see Dr Emily Senay, our medical correspondent, frequently. There are others as well. They won’t be on weekly but we are building a stable of talented journalists whom we’ll use as our go to people to cover stories in their fields of expertise.
19. What segment has generated the most favorable response?
Next Week’s News with Andy Borowitz. And the BP spill coverage.
20. What segment has generated the least response?
Do you mean least favorable? If so:
Next Week’s News with Andy Borowitz. (but the positive far outweighs the negative). The gun rights segment we did also generated a lot of positive and negative response, which to me was no surprise.
21. Of the three network news programs, which one do you find yourself watching most frequently?
I am rarely home at 6:30 (p.m.), but when I am, I probably watch NBC slightly more than the others. I like to see what everybody’s doing, though.