Why PBS NewsHour’s Amna Nawaz and Geoff Bennett Just Need EP Sara Just

By Mark Mwachiro 

The PBS NewsHour team of Sara Just, Geoff Bennett and Amna Nawaz

The Producer I Can’t Live Without is a recurring feature from TVNewser, in which prominent on-air TV news talent and their producers take us behind the scenes to discuss their work partnerships.

Amna Nawaz and Geoff Bennett are 15 months in as co-anchors of the long-running news program PBS NewsHour. Taking over from Judy Woodruff at the start of 2023, Nawaz and Bennett, who had never anchored together, quickly found their groove, making the transition smoother.

Award-winning senior executive producer Sara Just, who is also the senior vice president of WETA, orchestrates all of this. Just ensured that PBS NewsHour did not lose a single step when onboarding Nawaz and Bennett. Now that they have acclimated to their roles, she is working to ensure that her co-anchors have the tools to succeed during this election year and for the long term.


TVNewser recently caught up with the three of them to learn about their bond as they took us behind the scenes of PBS NewsHour.

Amna and Geoff, what has it been like working with Sara?

Bennett: In a word, incredible. I mean, TV news is a team sport, and live TV, in particular, is a high-wire act, and I think Sara is not only an exemplary team leader; we are so reliant on her voice in our ear being a steady hand in the control room. The relationship between an anchor and an executive producer rests so much on having a deep relationship of trust. She is constantly backstopping us in the control room, and we always know that she has our backs, so we’re deeply grateful for that.

Nawaz: I agree with everything Geoff said, and I’ll also note Geoff and I just marked one year in the anchor chairs in January, and Sara was instrumental in making sure that transition was as smooth as it was, was as seamless as it was. The entire show and the entire operation around us basically just kept pace. This is about keeping an institutional ship steady, and Sara was at the helm of that ship for that entire incredible transition. That doesn’t happen often at NewsHour, let alone in TV news. But even day-to-day, Sara has the rare mix of being able to be incredibly involved in the editorial details of an hour-long show every day. It’s a lot of details, but she also sees the big picture and the strategy, and very few executive producers can do that. Some are very good at one or the other, but Sara’s great at both.

Sara, what is it like working with Amna and Geoff?

Just: It’s just terrific. I mean, I’ve worked with a lot of different anchors over the years. I spent a long time working with Ted Koppel at Nightline; I’ve worked with George Stephanopoulos at ABC; I’ve worked with many others, and, of course, at PBS News Hour, coming up on 10 years soon. I worked with the amazing Judy Woodruff and the amazing Gwen Ifill, whom we miss so much, and I knew these were big shoes to fill as journalists. Big shoes to fill as anchors, but also, really importantly, I knew that the tone and the relationship in a co-anchor situation would be really important.

Amna and Geoff didn’t know each other before we introduced them for this role, and they had to develop that, but I just had a feeling both of them were such good people, so similar in a lot of ways, different in other ways that I thought they would really connect. So, that’s been my happiest thing that they have really connected and have such professional respect and personal affection for each other that it comes through on the screen. In much the same way Judy, Gwen, did. It’s a rare combo. Our program—except for the last few years when Judy anchored solo after Gwen’s passing—it’s always been a co-anchor thing. It was started by Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil, and that is an unusual thing you don’t see in many other evening news programs, certainly. Their chemistry, both as journalists, are on the same page in terms of standards. They’re on the same page in terms of ethics, and they are very inclusive of each other and of the whole team. That’s really essential to making the whole operation work.

Amna Nawaz, Group picture of the PBS NewsHour team of SaraJust, GeoffBennett

Picture courtesy of Mike Morgan

How are you preparing for this year’s elections with this new team?

Just: Amna, Geoff, myself and most of the staff, we covered a lot of different elections, and there is something of a sort of expectation and script almost to covering elections, and we’re really looking at everything and saying, “Do we have to do it that way this year?” This year is different. It’s been a long time since the country has had a former president running. We can see that there’s a lot at stake in this election. We’re always conscious of our limited resources in public media, and we like to say we punch above our weight, but we do have limits. We are really looking at everything about the way we’ve covered elections, and maybe not all the bells and whistles that are expensive have to be used, but we really want to get to the heart of what’s at stake in this election. What are voters saying? What are voters thinking? Getting out to the country and taking away some of the sis boom bah of an election and really looking at what’s going to be decided by this country in about eight months. We realized that’s an incredibly important story that we take seriously and try to look at from all different vantage points every day.

Bennett: Political coverage, in particular, is really the bread and butter of the NewsHour. So for an election cycle that has been so focused on personalities, I think it’s incumbent upon us to try to get beneath that and focus on policy where we can and to articulate to our audience what the stakes are. Especially for an election that Sara mentioned, which is a rematch. Polls after polls have shown that people aren’t necessarily excited about it. It’s still on us, especially given our roles working in public media and covering the news as a public service, to make sure our audience understands the many issues at stake.

Nawaz: It’s an election like none we’ve covered before, and we all covered elections before, and I think we realized that, to Sara’s point, we’re willing to throw out the rules to say what’s the best way to do this, to serve our audience. We all believe that politics is really how it shows up, how those issues show up in people’s communities and their homes. So that’s where our focus is this year.

Sara, logistically, this one should be an easier election to cover because the last one was during a COVID year.

Just: That turned out to be not that hard to cover because it was all online, but we had so many plans that we had to slowly toss out the window and make smaller and smaller and smaller until it was online. But yes, it’ll be easier that way.

Can you all apply anything you learned from that time this year, or are there any best practices you gathered during that period?

Just: Oh, absolutely. I can’t believe how quickly we were able to go from being a live television program with our entire staff in the office to a remote-anchored show—not just for election coverage, but in general. That was really great work by our team and also lots of advice and sharing of information from colleagues at other networks. But it was particularly challenging for the election, but we’re just glad to be back in our offices. We actually have a brand new studio that we’re unveiling in a couple of months, and we’re excited about that, but some of the things we learned during COVID have really helped and will stay.

What has been your most memorable broadcast together so far?

Nawaz: I’d say the first one we all did as a team is still pretty memorable. It was a big news day; we were in the middle of the speaker fight, right? Kevin McCarthy‘s, I don’t know, 717th round of votes or something. It was great. I think until you do it, there is a big question of how it works. It felt so normal and natural, and we were all focused on the work and mission-driven. Got to the end of the show, and I remember just looking around and being like, “That was kind of great. We can do this. This really works.” That show, I think, stands out to me.

Bennett: In building off of Amna’s answer about the first broadcast, the thing that has been so heartening to me over these past two years are the viewers—what I call the legacy viewers. The people who’ve watched since the Lehrer days, who have just welcomed us and from their point of view, have seen a seamless transition. Because that didn’t happen by accident, I would say it was the result of a lot of hard work, intention and vision.

Just: I would say the memorable ones for me are always the ones we just nearly avoided a disaster. A taped piece isn’t ready, a guest isn’t there and the connection went down, and Amna and Geoff are so steady. It’s like a duck swimming. They’re very calm and cool above water, but there are a lot of things underneath it. So we’re in their ear saying, ‘This isn’t ready, go to this segment instead. We’ll come back to this, or this is breaking.” There are so many (instances) of when these things happen, and it is a partnership, and they’re both just incredible at rolling with the punches.