After countless months of blissful ignorance, I finally broke down and watched the “NBC Nightly News.” OK, so it was at 10:30 pm and it was really a netcast online. I still watched what looked like the evening news. It harked back to a time, perhaps 10 years ago, when I would make sure to end my work day as a freelancer by 5:30 pm so I could watch the evening news on TV.
Now, I am not alone in my ignorance of network evening newscasts, with so many other options for getting my news fix, from Google News to CNN. The collective audience for the three big evening newscasts of ABC, CBS and NBC has been in decline since 1980, sparked by the launch of CNN and cable TV. According to The State of the News Media 2006 report, nightly viewership for the Big 3 newscasts has dropped by 25 million, or 48% of their total audience from November 1980 to November 2005.
(Lately, the PBS NewsHour has been a bit of an anomoly, with its audience remaining at roughly 3 million viewers per night for the past several years, according to the same report.)
As technology and the Internet shift the way we are getting our daily dose of news in the U.S., the Big 3 newscasts are also starting to shift their thinking. ABC News put its political firepower into The Note, while launching a live streaming video network online called ABC News Now (that costs $4.95 per month). CBS News launched its Public Eye blog and tried Assignment America segments where viewers vote online on what stories to include.
But NBC News has topped them all, with its anchorman Brian Williams starting a group blog for his newscast called The Daily Nightly, where he and his correspondents and producers give an insider’s view of the show.
The blog recently celebrated its one-year anniversary, and MSNBC.com, which hosts the blog for NBC, announced “The Daily Nightly” was averaging 400,000 page views per month. The blog allows reader comments, and has been a platform for extended coverage, both during Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath and during the Samuel Alito confirmation hearings.
The show’s star and managing editor Brian Williams posts almost daily to the blog. Sometimes his posts come off as dry self-promotion for that night’s show without enough of his personality, but other times we do get to hear a more emotional side of Williams. One example of that emotion was when he responded to producer Steve Majors’ post about a horrifying fire at a church in New Orleans, not long after NBC opened a news bureau in that city.
Williams wrote, “It’s one thing for someone in my job, or my boss’ job, to decide that NBC News should open a bureau in New Orleans. It’s quite another thing when it comes time to fill it with journalists and camera crews. Everyone in that bureau left a life somewhere else. Everyone in that bureau is there because they want to be. Producer Steve Majors volunteered to go there, and has jumped into the story since arriving. The story he writes about today is one he didn’t count on covering. The photo on his post is nothing short of ghoulish.”
I had the chance to interview blogger-anchorman Williams, 47, recently by phone. At times, he raised his voice to defend the standards of journalism as he practices it, and admitted he had been a reluctant blogger. Despite the sea change going on in old media due to disruptive technology, Williams still stands by his evening newscast as the “largest single source of news in the United States.” His wry humor flashes when he says that if people want to get their news from refrigerator doors then “we will be the king of refrigerator doors.”
The following is an edited transcript of our recent discussion.
Whose idea was it to do the Daily Nightly blog?
Brian Williams: Jeff Gralnick. He’s a veteran of our industry. He made his bones under Roone Arledge at ABC News. I came to know him when he came over to NBC over a decade ago. He was my executive producer when I worked in cable. We’ve been friends and colleagues for a long time, and he was an early, early convert and aficianado in the online world. He had been lobbying me for months before I started the Daily Nightly to get into this game. And finally he wore me down and within weeks, maybe even days, of starting the Daily Nightly I saw the utility in it and saw the viewer interest in it.
Why were you reticent about it?
Williams: To be totally honest, the last thing I needed was another daily deadline. I have a 9:30 a.m. editorial meeting. I have a 2:30 p.m. meeting, after which the writing has to begin for airtime. If I don’t write what I say on the air, I have to allow someone else to write that and then I have to edit it, so no word can be a stranger to me before we go on the air, and no fact can go unvetted. Sometimes [the blog] carries the burden of writing a column for a daily newspaper, and it is not time that I had sitting around in pools. I wondered when I would do it.
I know the [marketing] folks will tell you the prime time for the web is kind of the lunch hour or early afternoon. I know I’m missing that [with my blog posts]. Part of it is to tell people what’s coming up in the broadcast. And we don’t have a real sharp idea of that until about 4 in the afternoon.
To do it as a group blog, what was the thinking behind that?
Williams: I had to start out by recruiting staff members. We throw more knowledge away during a given day than the sum total of what we put on the air.
I just got out of a planning meeting for the 9/11 five-year anniversary, and the big part of this meeting was, look, we are format-limited. We only have 30 minutes for all these broadcasts we’re talking about, we’re going to do some really in-depth reporting on the 9/11 anniversary. Are we safer? Are we better off? Where are they now? We’re going to have a huge online component. We’re going to devote a lot of airtime to telling people ‘please read more of our reporting online.’ That’s our reality.
What do you think the perception out in the public is as far as blogs go?
Williams: I think you get it or you don’t. We can’t just label non-blog aficianados Luddites. It took awhile for me to come around. I think you’re either into them and aware of them or you’re not. You may have heard the term, you know it’s something that’s going on. It may sound scary and unwieldy to someone who only uses the Internet to Google the occasional word or order books through Amazon. I think there is a huge age-dependent factor there. You know more about the population than I do, but I think all the usual factors apply.
What do you think about the growth of all these alternative media such as blogs, podcasts, citizen journalism? Do you see them as a threat to the traditional evening news, or more of an opportunity?
Williams: I see it all as parts of a whole. It’s an unregulated marketplace. I hate to see the Seigenthaler Wikipedia example happen [where the retired journalist was defamed]. I hate to see slanderous comments go unchallenged and unregulated, though that’s a terrible word. With all the talk about the MSM [mainstream media], the MSM is full of people who have devoted their lives and careers to knowing how to practice journalism.
We sit here in our offices every day governed by the standards of our employers. I have a book of journalistic standards — literally a book of them that I follow and I keep it right behind me here at my desk in New York, and I know what they are. There are certain automatic practices that I follow when I do a story.
And the same is not true for everyone who has an opinion and a modem and are writing all day long. I worry that the civically minded part of me — and this will sound a helluva lot like a 47-year-old product of the Cold War Era America — worries that if we’re all writing, and we’re all so intent on sharing our daily schedule with complete strangers online that may just number in the handfuls, when are we listening? When are we reading the next great thing? There has to be time for that. We’ve got to know who the next Hemingway is on their way up.
What about the fact-checking aspect of blogging? Although there are professionals following these standards, there are also big mistakes that are made. There are Jayson Blairs, there are breakdowns. Do the blogs provide a good check on the media?
Williams: Oh sure. Just as the first muckrakers provided a great service in keeping the government and industry on their toes. I know the mainstream media make mistakes, and have lost credibility with some spectacular crashes. I also know that on a day-in, day-out basis, there are hard and fast rules we follow. I write in my blog no differently, with no lesser standard than I would on the front page of a daily newspaper, or the words I use on ‘Nightly News.’ I know my words will live forever, that any quote can be pulled out and used again.
I hope you’ve noted I also use [the blog] as a platform for corrections, apologies, ommissions. ‘We didn’t do our jobs as well as we should have. We should have done better.’ I think transparency in some, but not all, forms is a good thing.
CBS News has this ‘Assignment America’ segment where they let viewers vote on what goes on the air. NY1 has a whole show called ‘The Call,’ where people go online and vote on what stories will be covered that day. What do you think about these projects where they give viewers more editorial control? Are these just gimmicks or do you think they’re an important trend?
Williams: I think editorial control is something everybody already has. I don’t want to hear that people don’t have an adequate choice of websites or news portals, and I don’t want to hear that people don’t feel that the remote control in their hand isn’t powerful enough. I think that news judgment is one of the things we always have to hold onto. People don’t have to agree with us, they don’t have to watch us, but if they do watch us, they should know that this is our collective news judgment. This is what we decided should be the lead story, and so on and so forth.
I don’t think anyone is suffering today from a lack of choice. I don’t think we need a daily election on what the stories are that people want to hear. Part of citizenship is that sometimes we’ve got to hear what’s going on in the world that wouldn’t necessarily be our first choice.
Some people have talked about news becoming a conversation and not a lecture. How do you see ‘Nightly News’ becoming more of a conversation?
Williams: It’s already happened. I’ve read some viewer emails on the air. I take them into account when I sit down to prepare the broadcast. I’ve gone back at them when people have written in and told us to get off the story like with Katrina. I’ve used them as an example as to why we’re not going to get off the story.
I think it’s much more of a conversation today than it was even five years ago. When you talk about five years from now, it will be ever thus. I think we’re doing a better job of avoiding the ‘from on high’ tone in the broadcast. People should know that I read every email received by the broadcast, I read every email received by the blog. I do it for a reason. I certainly hope people are reading it, and I like nights when I go home from work and I will sit down in our kitchen with my wife, where our computer is, and I will log into our blog and see a healthy debate has erupted in the hour or so it’s taken me to come home.
How do you find time to read through all the emails? You must get hundreds of them per day.
Williams: Oh my God. You wouldn’t believe it. The one luxury I ask for is my assistant prints out the ones I don’t get to electronically, and I take ‘em home on paper. And it’s not always pretty. And no one likes the ones that say I should be dead. And no one should just read the ones from the dyed-in-the-wool ‘Nightly News’ fans who think I should be president. Somewhere in there is the naked truth.
So we had Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather, and now we have Brian Williams, Katie Couric and Charles Gibson. What differences do you see there, and what similarities?
Williams: Well, we’ll have to wait. Charlie hasn’t been in the chair all that long. Katie has not yet launched and I know she has some plans to differentiate her broadcast. I think one thing has to be stressed, especially in this interview, considering where you’re coming from. On some nights we split an audience three ways of 30 million Americans, and I don’t need to tell you that you can’t come close to that audience in any other medium. The fact that ‘Nightly News’ most nights leads the pack by — I don’t know what the numbers are — makes us the largest single source of news in the United States by an enormous margin. There’s no newspaper, there’s no website, there’s no news site that comes even close.
With that comes a not unsubstantial responsibility. We take it very seriously and Katie will too. Katie knows the bottom line is she’ll be speaking for an entire news organization, and people are coming to her to find out what happened today and the truth about what’s going on in the world. Let’s wait and let her get launched. Every broadcast reflects to some extent the personality of the anchor because invariably our titles carry with it the dual title of managing editor, so that speaks to content.
Tell me about the News VIPs program, where people join a panel to give you feedback.
Williams: Part of why I write the ‘Daily Nightly’ is we’re looking for the engaged news consumer. And I think News VIP is an extension of that. We’re just now realizing, wow, we are an enormous well funded news organization. I mentioned just how much we throw into the trash each day. There is so much we could be pushing out to people, if you let us know that you’re hungry for more information. With the resources we have to get it to your Blackberry, your cell phone, your television, your computer. If you raise your hand — and this is the genesis of the News VIP program — if you raise your hand, you can get a ton of information. I think this stuff is hugely valuable.
What do you think about the change in the way that people are getting their TV, their movies through all these devices in an on-demand fashion? Do you think this changes our culture away from the traditional everyone-sits-down-to-watch-together vs. people watching on different devices at different times?
Williams: I think some of the technology is a little nuts. My favorite example lately is a Walter Mossberg column in the Wall Street Journal not that long ago on adapters to make your iPod play on your television. A friend of mine plays “The Office” episodes off his iPod onto his TV, and I said, ‘You know they air on TV. It’s really cool, they come over that big box first, it’s wild! And there are devices they have to record it if you want to.’
My friend said he’s awaiting the invention of the ultimate iPod. I said, ‘What’s that?’ This is a true story. He said, ‘It’s going to receive live signals, I’m going to be able to listen to live studio broadcasts on my iPod.’ I said, ‘Well when do they call that a radio?’ So I think it’s a little nuts.
We’re tiptoeing through another new era. We’ll sort it out. We’ll get there, we’ll figure out what it’s all good for. We’re not totally there yet. All these news organizations, ours included, are trying to meet every need. We’ve got all the raw material, we’ve got everything you could ever want or imagine.
You want to know what’s going on in Baghdad right now? Well conveniently we have two correspondents sitting in a Baghdad bureau risking their lives every day. While they’re over there they would love to tell you what’s going on in Baghdad today.
You want to know what’s going on in Washington? I can give you Andrea Mitchell and David Gregory and Jim Miklaszewski and on and on. That’s what they do for a living. So we’ll find you if you raise your hand and say you want the information. I suppose that puts a burden on us to be anywhere there’s a screen. If people think a refrigerator door is the best place to receive news, by God, we will be the king of refrigerator doors.
I was in a meeting the other day, someone was talking about what a promising new medium was coming, terrestrial video over cell phones. Well that’s television, that’s those little Casio color chip TVs we had a couple years ago. Putting them on phones, we can do that, because that’s all it is.
Do you have a problem with people personalizing the news vs. you saying ‘these are the top stories’? Is there a danger in that if you give people too much personalization?
Williams: That’s for others to decide. I will say that if you’re using a filter, if you wake up in the morning and you have loaded up your computer, in other words to say, ‘Foreign news totally bums me out, this Iraq thing, it just ruins my day. Keep it away from me.’ Is that what [James] Madison had in mind, do you think? Is that what [John] Adams and [Ben] Franklin and [Thomas] Jefferson had in mind? Did they expect a little more informed electorate, to quote Mr. Jefferson? Did they expect a little more from us as citizens? I can’t judge people.
Democracy, on the other hand, looking at the argument, it’s their right [to filter]. I’m a lover of news and information, I’m a lover of American history, it’s my hobby. So if I had my druthers… Some people call it ‘eat your peas’ journalism because it has to include everything that’s good for you to know to be a good citizen of the world. We put it out there.
I can’t start programming the ‘NBC Nightly News’ with just the news that doesn’t bum people out. Just the news they want to see and hear. But I can’t stop someone from using filters, from using pay-as-you-go technology to get what they want. I will probably have my own opinion in a couple years about what we’ve become as a society as a result of if we stop getting the news that’s at all negative.
What do you think about the rise in parodies such as ‘The Daily Show’ and ‘Colbert Report’ and The Onion. It seems like mainstream media has become a big target for parody lately and it’s very popular.
Williams: I love The Onion. I have not seen it today, but yesterday’s headline, I can tell you was ‘Crazed Video Editor Doesn’t Know If Gag Reel Is Funny Anymore.’ Today’s headline is: ‘New Roommate Always There.’ The Onion is brilliant. I seldom let a day go by without going to The Onion. I think Jon Stewart, who happens to be a friend, is also brilliant.
I think Jon Stewart plays a great role, there’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, does it bum me out to hear the percentage of people who say they get their news as a primary source from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert? I’ll let sociologists make that judgment about whether that means we’re going to hell as a society or not. But they play a great role, they keep everybody on their toes, they keep politicians on their toes, they keep the news media on their toes, that’s all fine.