Lester Holt and His Producer Kim Cornett on Why Their 21-Year Partnership Has Been So Successful

By A.J. Katz 

Update: This story kicks off a new recurring TVNewser feature called The Producer I Can’t Live Without, in which prominent TV newsers and their longtime producers talk about their successful partnerships.

NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt and NBC News senior anchor producer Kim Cornett started working together in July 2000, when Holt arrived at MSNBC after 14 years as an anchor at WBBM in Chicago.

Fast forward 21 years, and the dynamic duo remain a team, working side by side everyday. Any interview or trip Holt goes on, Cornett is there, making it all happen. Or as Holt tells TVNewser, Cornett is “making sure the trains run on time.” (She also now handles NBC Nightly News Kids Edition.)

It’s rare for talent to work with the same producer for so long, without interruption, and we thought it would be interesting to hear from Holt and Cornett themselves about why their professional relationship has been so successful over a 21-year span. Here’s what they had to say:

TVNewser: How did you end up working together?

Holt: I started at MSNBC back in 2000, and I don’t remember if it was actually in my contract, but they wanted to get me a producer for whatever reason. But even before that process happened, I think it was my first day on the job, my orientation day, they decided to send me on a story in Boston, and they assigned me Kim. I knew nothing about how this works, how we travel, what happens, how we get pictures from there [Boston] to here [30 Rockefeller Center]. So, they assigned me to Kim right away, and that was our first experience right out of the bat, first day on the job.

Cornett: Yes, it was a story about two dads in Massachusetts who got into a fight. One dad, his name was Thomas Junta, killed the other dad over a kids hockey game. So, [former MSNBC executive producer] Tom Bowman came to my edit room, and said, “I need you to meet the new anchor Lester Holt for this story in Boston.” And then, we were on our way.

Holt: I didn’t really know who she was or what she was capable of, but she seemed to know how this works. So, I put myself in her hands, and we got that story on the air that night.

Holt and Cornett covering Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Why has your relationship been so successful?

Cornett: For Lester and I, the secret to our success has probably been because I know his needs, I know what the show needs and I know what NBC News’ needs are. I think we have worked together for so long that I can anticipate editorially the stories or the interviews that he’s going to want to go after. Even just on the ground covering breaking news, from a logistical standpoint, I liken myself sometimes to an air traffic controller, where there’s tons of requests coming in from different shows, different departments. I know that Lester is low maintenance, easy to work with, knows what he wants on the ground. He’s editorially strong, but it’s my job to kind of navigate all these requests and everything going on and just make sure he’s not overwhelmed.

Holt: Kim basically tells me what I need to know. She has a very in depth knowledge of how to make the trains run on time, how to make sure we have camera crews, that we have live transmission capability, that logistically this plan will work out that flight connections aren’t too narrow; all of those things that go into to news coverage in the background, she understands. I really give her freedom in that lane, because I don’t want to blow my head up with more information that I need. I have complete trust and faith in her that she will make sure that I get on the air and look as good as possible while doing so.

Holt and Cornett, Kandahar Sept. 2012

What was your most memorable day working together, and why?

Holt: The Boston [Marathon 2013] bombing. Not so much the bombing itself, but the manhunt that went on in Watertown that eventually led them to the suspect. I think we would all had dinner together that night in downtown Boston. We may have been at a bar. But at some point, we split up for the evening and went back. Then, things started breaking, this report of a shooting, I think it was a Harvard security guard. Then, this manhunt in Watertown, and we scrambled. But the bottom line is, none of us had slept. I think we went roughly 48 hours with no sleep, and we are out there doing this intense manhunt. It was exhausting. It was professionally very difficult because we are all in a fair amount of danger. We are standing there, sitting ducks, where this guy is, who has shot people. But that stands out for me. We’ve done a number of disasters and terror attacks and things like that, but that was a that was a memory but it’s the fact we went without sleep for so long.

Cornett: I would agree the Boston Marathon sticks out to me. Like Lester said, we have covered dozens and dozens, unfortunately, of breaking news stories through the years. I think the other one that stands out to me, and it is probably more so just from a behind the scenes and logistical point of view, is we were tasked with going to Puerto Rico. We went in on a military transport plane, and it was in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. We had no comms on the plane at all. We were actually diverted to St. Croix for a while, which the crew didn’t really want to tell me before we got there [laughter]. I found that out after. We landed within an hour before Nightly, and we literally had taped the whole show, there was no script. It was like “run and gun.” We had to feed it all back. I just think, from the behind-the-scenes standpoint, the show–a big credit to everyone back in New York who put that show together, because the show looked flawless. We looked at each other like, “wow,” because we had no comms for several hours.

Holt: Yes, this was aftermath of Hurricane Maria. I think we laugh sometimes at some of the circumstances we’ve been in where we’re on the ground somewhere, and everything is working against us, timewise. Teleprompters not working, signals going down, and we’ve always managed to pull it off. We’ve been in situations where Kim is literally hand writing scripts, sitting on the pavement, and thrusting pages in front of me, trying to do the show. We laugh about it afterwards; we always figure out a way to get on the air. But if people only knew some of the close calls we have had, they would shudder.

South Africa, 2007

How did the relationship change once Lester moved to Nightly News?

Holt: I think that, obviously, it put me at a new level in terms of the resources applied to me for anchor trips. Everyone knows I like to be in the field, I like to go on the big stories. We kind of instinctively know which ones that we need to roll on. Most recently, Miami, and it was Thursday’s broadcast. But there’s obviously more attention, more pressure. Everything we have done in the years that were leading up to that I think really enabled us to take on that step.

Cornett: Like Lester mentioned, at MSNBC and prior to Lester taking over as the Nightly News anchor, sometimes the resources may have been a little bit more limiting. So, I think that certainly laid the groundwork for the past several years, because I think it certainly made me a better producer. There were times where I had where I was shooting some Lester’s stories back on Weekend Today and Lester on that aircraft carrier.

I think that relationship didn’t change. Lester does a terrific job. One of the strengths is his reporting on the ground. Really unflappable. The satellite truck could be overheating, the prompter could go out, and Lester is just cool and calm. He trusts the people around him. The viewer would never know if there are some problems behind the scenes.

In covering breaking news over the years, often times we are arriving in a community that’s been devastated–either by a natural disaster like a tornado or hurricane, or a horrible crime–and I think what Lester brings, and what we both bring, is compassion and also the ability to keep calm in stressful situations.

Holt: I’m not given to panic or shouting and that sort of thing. Generally, when things start going wrong, whether it is Kim or the crew, I have great faith that everybody is pulling for the same outcome, and that’s to get us on the air as cleanly and as smoothly as possible. The fact that things may be going wrong, I know they’re going to figure it out. That trusts extends to Kim and the entire team because we work with the top people in the business as far as I’m concerned.

Some people say, “you’re mellow.” I’m not mellow, I just focus on what I have to focus on and let everyone else do their jobs.

Camp Eggers, 2010

What is one of the biggest ways that Kim has saved you recently?

Holt: We were in Miami last week covering the condo collapse, and it was another one of those examples of where by the time you get on the plane and leave the airport and get there, we were in a pretty narrow window. It was not the easiest place to anchor a broadcast from but she’s working the problem all the way on the plane on the way to the scene, making sure that everybody understood what was necessary to get the show on the road. We didn’t have our full complement of things that we normally like to during a broadcast, but she figured it out, and we figured it out. And she was talking in the past, but I will tell you that there may or may not have been a cell phone stand up that Kim shot of me during that particular trip …

So, sometimes, we kind of rely back on those older days where we did not always have all the resources.

Dyess Air Force Base, 2002