Q&A: With the Press Under Fire, Lester Holt Combats ‘Low Blows From High Places’

NBC Nightly News anchor discusses journalism, sports and politics

'When I started in the business, we had a 24-hour news cycle. Now, maybe it’s a two-hour news cycle,' Holt told Adweek.

As news anchor for NBC Nightly News and Dateline NBC, Lester Holt is a man on the move. Last week, he reported from inside North Korea (later criticized for the government orchestrated coverage). The coming weeks will find Holt in New York and then Washington, D.C., for the State of the Union address before traveling to Minneapolis where he’ll be covering Super Bowl LII (his first). Then it’s back to the Korean Peninsula for the XXIII Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea (Holt’s ninth).

Holt, who took over the Nightly News’s anchor desk in 2015, says the show, marking its 70th anniversary this year, is as sharp as it’s ever been—this, despite having to deal with, as he puts it: “low blows from high places.”

Adweek recently spoke with Holt about journalism, the changing news environment and the increasingly merging worlds of sports and politics.

Adweek: NBC Nightly News is averaging 8 to 9 million viewers. While significant, those numbers are down from broadcast news’ heyday. Given the current information-saturated landscape, what does a nightly newscast offer viewers?
Lester Holt: The formula is very simple. It’s about original content. That’s our focus. But we also understand that with smartphones, Twitter and Facebook, from the minute we wake up we’re getting news in a variety of ways. That said, people really deserve to sit down in the evening and get some understanding of the big events of the day. We have built up our political units, our investigative units, our health units, business units, and they’re turning out fresh stories every day.

Yet, given that you have only 22 minutes for news, how do you accomplish this?
It’s not easy. When I started in the business, we had a 24-hour news cycle. Now, maybe it’s a two-hour news cycle. It’s a constant balance of: What do you lead with? What are the important stories of the day? What have people not heard a lot about? What story has been battered back and forth on cable all day? There’s no single answer, and it’s more difficult than it has ever been.

The Olympics in Pyeongchang will be played out against the backdrop of tensions between North and South Korea and the United States; not to mention the absence of a unified Russian team, banned because of the country’s doping scandal. How does this play into your planned reporting of the Winter Games?
Every Olympics seems to have a major news story in the background. This one is evolving as we speak. I think if you asked me the question a month ago, we would have said: “What will Kim Jong-un do?” We need to keep in mind [the Winter Games aren’t] far from the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Now, that conversation is shifting before our eyes as the two Koreas have agreed to carry a joint flag. They’ll field a joint women’s ice hockey team. There’s something happening on this level of sports. The world is holding its breath on the issue of: Is this the breakthrough? Is this the moment when they can start having a useful dialogue? We are in a unique place to cover that story as it unfolds before our eyes. And on a geopolitical level, this may complicate how the White House views the North Korean nuclear threat if this sets a pattern for a stronger relationship between the North and South.

This past year has seen the politicization of the NFL, with players protesting, kneeling during the anthem and President Trump publicly denouncing them. With over 100 million viewers expected to tune into the Super Bowl, does this inform your approach to coverage?
We are still finalizing our coverage plans, but clearly the NFL is a major news story, not only because of the anthem protests, but also because of controversy behind concussion protocols. So those will be among the stories we plan on telling. We’re also in a unique position because NBC is carrying the Super Bowl this year, and while plans are still being finalized, I know we will have significant access.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 29, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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