Judy Woodruff: ‘We Have Never Had As Many Smart, Talented Women Covering Washington As We Do Today’

By A.J. Katz 

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It’s well-known in TV news circles that the evening newscasts haven’t seen the year-over-year ratings bump their cable news counterparts have.

An exception is PBS NewsHour.

Under the leadership of executive producer Sara Just, NewsHour has delivered year-over-year ratings improvement, and is presently up +38 percent in total audience compared to Q2 2014.

“We aim for more light than heat,” Just tells TVNewser. “We’re not trying to set up a false sense of combativeness, but we try to show various thoughts and ideas around certain issues, to go deeper and allow people to really understand them. I think that’s resonating right now.”

PBS’s nightly newscast has undergone cosmetic and editorial changes since Just took over in 2014.

“We have focused on refreshing and pushing forward this legacy newscast,” Just says. “We added a new set, new graphics, new music, and we’ve also increased the number of stories per broadcast, the amount of original field reporting that we’re doing, a big emphasis on the amount of original content we’re creating for digital and social platforms.”

The X-factor for PBS NewsHour is longtime anchor Judy Woodruff.

“Judy strikes a very balanced tone,” says Just. “Guests appreciate talking to her, and the audience appreciates hearing her respectfulness come through. She’s not trying to be adversarial, but she’s challenging.”

TVNewser: How do you cover Donald Trump? Do you treat him like every other president, or does he need to be covered differently?

Woodruff: Every president is his unique person who comes to office with a bundle of experiences, personality traits and a track record. In that regard, he’s no different from anyone else. He brings his package of who he is, and so has everyone I have covered, from Jimmy Carter and every president since. But he is different because he comes to office with no political background, no real Washington background. There has not been a dull moment, although I’d say that’s been the case with most of the presidents I have covered. Their first months in office have always been a bit tumultuous by virtue of the fact they’ve never done this before. But in this case, it has been full of surprises. He is someone who knows the news world because he has been in television himself, and he knows how to make news. That has made our jobs more challenging. Following him, and following the administration has kept us all on our toes morning noon and night.

TVNewser: How has NewsHour changed in the past few years?

Woodruff: I returned to NewsHour in 2007 after a hiatus. I was here in the beginning when they went from a half-hour to an hour. It was almost entirely studio interviews with some taped pieces each night. Studio interviews were the heart and soul of NewsHour. That remained the case when I returned and Jim Lehrer was anchoring, and has continued to be the case to an extent. Our ep Sara Just has kept the classic NewsHour formula, which is digging deep, asking questions maybe others aren’t asking, making stories relevant to everyone watching, and she has also taken advantage of the technology changes. Sara also has people multi-tasking more, and I think she has found ways to bring out talents in people that hadn’t been tapped into before. We have done more crisis reporting, national pieces, and found ways to work with international partners, as well as partners in the U.S. that give us a depth that we didn’t have before. There’s a vitality to NewsHour that everyone here feels good about.

TVNewser: I know it’s impossible to replace the late Gwen Ifill, but what are some qualities you would like your next co-anchor to possess?

Woodruff: Gwen Ifill was one of a kind. We of course had no idea she was going anywhere and we had no succession plan. She was here and here to stay. We want someone who loves what NewsHour stands for, who loves our values, who can work with the NewsHour team, and who believes in collaboration because we’re very much like a family. We want someone who likes to share credit because people here deserve credit. Above all, we want someone who’s a great journalist. Journalism is what we’re all about, and the news itself demands that. The public is watching what we’re doing more closely than ever before, and we have to toe that line every single night on the air, and every single moment we’re on-line. We want someone who will step into the role here and do the best kind of journalism they possibly can.

TVNewser: Tell us some female journalists whose work you admire.

Woodruff: I need to start with my dear friend Andrea Mitchell. She and I worked together many years ago during the Carter administration, and the Reagan administration at the White House. She is head and shoulders above so many journalists. Andrea just doesn’t relent and is at the top of her game everyday. She sets the standard.  I’m also a huge fan of Martha Raddatz at ABC. She does an outstanding job. I’ve known Lesley Stahl for as long as I’ve known Andrea. She does an amazing job on 60 Minutes. I see remarkable women in print journalism coming along. I’m wary of singling one person out, because I’ll leave someone else out, but there are so many fabulous, strong, smart women bringing it everyday. We have never had as many smart, talented women covering Washington ever as we do today.

TVNewser: Your husband [Al Hunt] is also a well-known journalist. Do you two take your work home with you? What’s dinner table conversation like?

Woodruff: We used to say when our three kids were little that when we walked in the door of the house, we would talk about them and their lives. Things like homework and soccer, etc. So that was the way it was for a long time. Now that they’re older and out of the house, I cannot deny that when I go home, work occasionally comes up. But we still stay in very close touch with our children, they’re all in or near Washington and continue to be a huge part of our lives.