PBS NewsHour EP Sara Just Tells Us What the Broadcast Has Prepared for Election Night

By A.J. Katz 

The PBS NewsHour, like so many newscasts, has had to significantly revamp its production process in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on everyday life, NewsHour usually had more than 150 people in its newsroom, studio and control room daily. While utilizing home studios (which each of the newscast’s correspondents and regular guests has) and limited field reporting, NewsHour says it anticipates around two dozen people in its control room and studio for Election Day special programming.

We caught up with WETA svp and PBS NewsHour executive producer Sara Just, who is producing presidential election night for the public broadcaster, this week and she gave us the rundown on what NewsHour will deliver to the masses on Nov. 3, as well as how her team is adapting to Covid-19.

TVNewser: What can we expect from PBS NewsHour Election Day coverage that we didn’t see in 2016? 

Just: Overall, our team has grown since 2016—and we are working even more closely with the vast network of over 330 PBS stations around the country to bring their reporting into our national coverage and to share our graphic and video assets with them to support their coverage of races in their communities. These public media reporters know their communities best and throughout the night, in addition to our national reporters and analysts, we will be turning to them for insights.

Additionally, we have been working to unite our broadcast and digital work to maximize efficiencies in our newsroom and expand the audience who consumes our journalism. The election is one important part of that. We are launching what we are calling our “Graphics Hub” that will create graphics for all social media, digital and broadcast platforms together. Whether you watch us on your PBS station or YouTube or follow us on Twitter or Instagram—you are getting the same great content and design.

To what extent has Covid changed how you’re covering the big night?

Covid-19 has significantly changed how we are doing all of our work these days, with some 90% of our team working from home since March. For November 3, we will have a slightly bigger team in the studio—it is, of course, our most complicated production of the year. But our top priority remains safety and we are taking every precaution possible. Almost all of our reporters and analysts will be outside of the studio that night, joining us from homes and other locations around the country.

How have you determined what you want to do in person versus remote?

Our main priority is safety. On election night, just like every other assignment, we are evaluating what is gained from being in the studio and what is lost by being outside of the studio and balancing that calculus against the risks. Because we have so many remote guests and incoming feeds, we decided we need to have our anchor, Judy Woodruff, in studio, along with our senior national correspondent Amna Nawaz and political correspondent Lisa Desjardins, where they can interact with the large graphic wall we will be using.

Our regular political contributor Amy Walter will also be with us in studio analyzing it all. Everyone else will be in the field or joining from home.

This year’s election may not be decided on Nov. 3, or even Nov. 4. Do you have coverage plans set if this goes on for longer than usual, and if so, what are they?

As of now, we’re slated to stay on broadcast until at least 2 a.m. ET/ 11 p.m. PT on Nov. 4, but it may likely be later. We will stay on the air as long as we feel the story can be advanced. If at some point in the night, there is no imminent decision on the major questions of the night, we will sign off from broadcast and redirect viewers to our online coverage.

We will be back the next day with PBS NewsHour and, if needed, will return if another prime-time special is warranted that week. Those decisions will be driven by events.

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