Former CNN science correspondent Miles O’Brien joins evolving ‘NewsHour’

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

PBS ‘NewsHour’ continues revamp, adds science unit

NEW YORK — Former CNN reporter Miles O’Brien is joining PBS’ “NewsHour” to lead a new science unit as part of a continuing revamp of the nightly newscast.

O’Brien had left CNN in 2008 when the news network disbanded its science and technology unit. He’ll be the top “NewsHour” science reporter, joined by producer Kate Tobin, also an ex-CNNer, and reporter Jenny Marder, reassigned from the broadcast’s national affairs unit.

The staff additions follow the network’s technical success this summer in offering a live online feed of the Gulf oil spill, with an accompanying widget allowing computer users to check various real-time estimates of how much oil had leaked. The widget had more than 17 million online views, PBS said.

“The oil spill proved there was definitely an audience for this kind of story,” said Linda Winslow, “NewsHour” executive producer.

The science unit is being funded through a $350,000 grant from two foundations and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Winslow said other funds are being sought.

The “NewsHour,” which gets an estimated 1.1 million viewers a day, is a little more than a year past a reorganization that beefed up its online presence and essentially began a transition toward anchor Jim Lehrer’s eventual retirement.

Lehrer and his team put on a serious newscast each night but not, they insist, a musty one.

“It isn’t that we’re holding on to an old-fashioned news concept, and doing old-fashioned news that no one else is doing anymore,” he said. “There’s evidence that we are delivering a new audience for the ‘NewsHour,’ people who want a different kind of a news presentation than they’ve been getting from the cable news networks or the broadcast programs.

“It isn’t just about people who have grown up with us and are still with us,” he said. “The kind of things we’re covering are the kind of things people care about whether you’re 12 years old or 112 years old.”

Besides the newscast, the “NewsHour” website gets about 1.1 million monthly visitors, the show said. It has 20,000 Facebook fans, posts on Twitter about 100 times a day and does 140 monthly podcasts.

“I tell people all the time,” Lehrer said. “I don’t care if you watch this program on a pink iPod with your initials on it. Just watch it. It’s the journalism that counts.”

Lehrer, 76, has announced no retirement plans. But last year the “NewsHour” adopted a dual-anchor format, pairing him with Gwen Ifill, Judy Woodruff or Jeffrey Brown on various nights. Lehrer takes Monday nights off.

He said he wanted to put more emphasis on the “NewsHour” team so it wouldn’t be a jarring change when he decides to leave.

“One day I’ll be gone for a year or two and people will say, ‘What happened to that guy?’” he said.

Lehrer, his former co-anchor Robert MacNeil, Winslow and senior adviser Lester Crystal were in New York this week to accept the chairman’s award from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences at the annual news and documentary Emmys. “NewsHour” began in 1975 as the half-hour “Robert MacNeil Report.”

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