Norah O’Donnell Makes Her Move

Norah O’Donnell slid into the CBS Evening News anchor chair on July 15, shifting from her spot at CBS This Morning. She’s had some significant gets since moving to evenings, including interviews with Apple CEO Tim Cook and Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos.

O’Donnell is ready for another shift, as CBS News prepares to relocate its evening newscast to Washington. The D.C.-based newscast debuts the first week of December. A set is being built in the division’s D.C. bureau. O’Donnell is well-connected in our nation’s capital, where she covered the White House, Congress and the Pentagon before becoming an anchor.

CBS Evening News has been mired in third place among the broadcast networks for years, but ratings are ticking up. For the week ending Nov. 15, the program averaged just over 6 million total viewers, and 1.2 million viewers 25-54, which CBS said is its best performance since March. It has far to go, but CBS News president and senior executive producer Susan Zirinsky likes her Evening News talent. “I really think we have the right person in the right job at the right time,” Zirinsky said.

O’Donnell succeeded Jeff Glor on the evening desk. Alternating between anchoring from Washington and from New York before the official move, she spoke with B+C about the Beltway relocation, her run so far on Evening News and what’s next for the broadcast. An edited transcript follows.

B+C: Why the move to D.C.?

Norah O’Donnell: I’ve been a beat reporter my whole life. Before I was anchoring the morning news, I covered the Pentagon, I covered Congress, I covered the White House. As an anchor, I’ve covered hurricanes and school shootings. The best way to cover stories is to get as close to them as you can. We looked at the landscape in 2020 and said, “How can we best cover what’s going to be the biggest story of the day?” And so the executives made the decision about moving the broadcast to Washington.

When Susan Zirinsky came to me and said, “Hey, we’d like you to anchor the Evening News, and we’re thinking about moving it to Washington,” I thought, wow, that’s really interesting. I can already tell the whole team is energized by it. I think our reporting is always what sets CBS apart, and we’re continuing to build on that. And I think we’re better positioned than ever to do that now.

B+C: Any concern that some viewers are sick of Washington, that there’s D.C. fatigue out there?

NO: I don’t think so. There’s a way to tell a story. Look at farming: We had a record number of farmers committing suicide, you have farmers going bankrupt and where does a lot of that policy decision-making, in terms of helping them out financially, originate from? Washington. So we cover the story by visiting some of the farms that are failing, but we come back and do some reporting about what’s happening in Washington that’s leading to this from an economic policy, a trade policy, a lack of subsidy policy, whatever it is. That just augments the story that we’re telling out in the field.

This is not a Washington broadcast. It originates in Washington and is going to use the resources here to deliver the smartest and newsiest broadcast.

B+C: How do you grade yourself on the evening newscast so far?

NO: I’m really, really proud of this broadcast. It’s a 30-minute broadcast, so it has to be tight. We can’t tell every story every night. It’s a venerable newscast and a legacy broadcast. And so, it’s a high bar every night about what we put on the air. I’m really proud of everything we’ve done. I also feel like we’re just getting started. It’s a new team and it’s a really strong team and we’re just beginning to evolve.

B+C: How is the newscast different from what it was six months ago?

NO: I don’t ever compare myself to anybody else or compare the broadcast.

It’s not unlike what we were doing in the morning; we always said, more real news. We always said, the news is back in the morning, and that’s how I approach the evening news. We want to be the smartest, most trusted broadcast out there. There’s a survey out today that says Americans feel like they’re bombarded by a lot of information. They don’t know which ones to trust. I want our audience to know that they can trust CBS News.

The broadcast networks all think that. We’ve got probably the newsiest broadcast. We had [correspondent] Charlie D’Agata out of Syria most of last week [Nov. 11-15], almost every night. That’s different than our colleagues. Our London bureau is absolutely superb; the correspondents are top notch. I hope we’re doing more international and foreign news than our colleagues. Syria is at the top of the list because that involves our American forces, and people do care about our military. They care about where our forces are stationed, they care about where we’re spending money overseas in terms of where we put our military resources.

B+C: How else is CBS Evening News different from the competition?

NO: NBC and ABC do a great job. I have a lot of friends over there. But the correspondents that we have are superb reporters. We’ve got honestly the best editors and cameramen. 60 Minutes would be a great example, where you see it in a longer format, but I see it on our air every night, too. The way we shoot and tell a story from a production standpoint is just exemplary. What I wanted to do in coming over as the anchor and managing editor is, how do we showcase better? We’re trying to better showcase the correspondents that we have and all the journalists that work with a correspondent, from the production team to the photographers.

B+C: What’s next for the newscast besides the new address?

NO: We’re playing the long game. I take it day by day. I just say, “How do we put on the best broadcast every day?”

We have a new executive producer [Jay Shaylor], and with Z [Susan Zirinsky] and the incredible executive team that we have, it’s how do we grow the broadcast? How do we put the broadcast in front of an audience that doesn’t know us or doesn’t know me? That’s their job, the business side of it. From the journalism side, it’s just, how do we do the newsiest, smartest broadcast and how do we take this really complex story and all the players that, for instance, are involved in the impeachment process, and how do we tell it in a smart, digestible way? Make it clear, and remind people of the importance of it.

B+C: Tell me about your new executive producer.

NO: Oh, he’s terrific! Jay has started taking the reins this week. He was on the on-boarding process up until now. There were dozens of people who were interested in the job. When I agreed to take the [anchor] job, Z already had a binder full of candidates. People had taken a lot of time to write detailed memos about not only what they would do at the broadcast, but how to maximize my reporting and journalistic skills, how to grow the broadcast. We met with a lot of incredible journalists. We really wanted Jay and luckily he had a window in his contract at CNN.

We’re thrilled. He’s super-smart and he has the kind of management experience, executive experience, that we wanted.

The thing that really interested me, other than his excellent credentials, was that he talked about building a culture of camaraderie and a culture of winning, and culture is incredibly important. If there’s anything I’ve learned in the last year, it’s that culture starts at the top and it can transform an organization. With Z, I’ve never seen so much cultural change in such a short period of time. Her positivity, being in touch with everybody at CBS, caring so deeply — it has changed everything.

We’re finding a place where we can do the job we need to do and grow, and Jay is going to take us to the next level.

B+C: Tell me about a recent Evening News story that you’re particularly proud of.

NO: My pet passion is “Profiles in Service.” I’m from a military family and we had done maybe half a dozen stories on CBS This Morning. But they’re intensive. I’ve been talking about it, but I was new to the Evening News and there were so many things we were getting going. And I just said, “Look, Veterans Day is coming up. It would mean the world to me for us to do a ‘Profiles in Service’ piece every single night [during the week of Veterans Day] on the broadcast.”

We put it on the broadcast every night, including one about the all-female black unit in the Army, the only one. They were called the 6888, and they were in charge of essentially sorting the mail, which was so important: No mail, no morale. They were supposed to do it in six months, and they did it in three months. And the woman in the piece is still alive, at 96 years old. They’re up for a congressional medal. I’m like, this should be a movie, like Hidden Figures! I was really, really proud of the work that the whole team did.

B+C: Do you think much about getting into second place or do you figure, just do your job every day and the numbers will fall how they fall?

NO: I think about just doing my job. I don’t see the ratings. They don’t talk about them with me. What I can focus on is what is on the air every day. I read every script, I look at intros. If somebody says, “I need help reporting something out,” I can help make phone calls. So my day is pretty busy.

B+C: Do you miss doing mornings?

NO: I loved the mornings, yes! I miss Gayle [King]. She’s always calling me about stuff, and I’m texting her. I saw her last night. It is a totally different format. I don’t get to do as much with authors and celebrities. But I see those guys, obviously, all the time. It’s a fabulous job.

B+C: Which anchors do you consider as influences?

NO: Bob Schieffer. I talk to Bob Schieffer a lot. He weighs in a great deal, ever since I joined CBS. When The Early Show transitioned to CBS This Morning, Bob Schieffer and I actually anchored it for a week in Iowa.

Oh my gosh, what a pro. He taught me a lot; he’s like, “You know this stuff, just relax.” I went to him with a binder. I’m like, “Here’s all this research. What should we do?” He said, “You know what, Norah, let’s just have a good time. We’re going to be just fine.”

I can do my Bob Schieffer impression pretty well!

He was really a big advocate of moving the broadcast to Washington. He’s been an enormous influence in my career, just in terms of being a booster, but also giving me advice behind the scenes about what to do.

B+C: What have you learned from covering President Trump?

NO: I try to remind myself every day not to get distracted by what might be a daily development and instead stay focused on the depth of the story and the actual real meaning of it. I do not follow the president’s Twitter feed. I do think it’s an important way for him to communicate directly to the American people, but I don’t follow it that closely because I really want to stay focused. Instead of just following everything the president says, I want to stay focused on what’s the actual story in our investigative work.

I covered the White House with [President] George W. Bush and he used to say, “You guys are the filter. I hate talking to the filter.”

So whether it’s Twitter, or whether it’s when he’s walking up on the South Lawn to Marine One and he just speaks directly, [President Trump] has managed to find a way to bypass what George W. Bush used to call the filter. That’s a new way of communication.

So what does the press need to do? We obviously cover what the president does, what he says; he is the commander in chief. But we also have to stay focused on fact-checking what he says and providing depth and clarity and context. Those words are something that I’ve talked about not only with our Evening News broadcast, but also when we met with all of our affiliates and people would say, what’s going to be different? I said, Look, you get the headlines and alerts on your phones. Everyone has phones. You’re in the car, and even if you’re listening to music, you’re getting the headlines via the radio. So what can we do at 6:30 if you already know the headlines? We can provide depth, context, clarity, that type of analysis from trusted journalists. That’s our goal, to go beyond the tweets and the headlines, and actually give some context, clarity and depth.

B+C: What about CBS News’s impeachment coverage has stood out?

NO: Things require more than just our attraction, they require our attention. The attention to detail is important in any career, and it’s really important in journalism. We have timelines. Just this morning, I worked with my producers [to] make sure these dates are also in the timeline: every meeting that someone had; the memos and the emails, added to the timeline. Every detail we’re trying to follow to get the fullest picture of exactly what happened.

I really recoil when people say, “oh well, the hearings lacked pizzazz” or “they were boring.” I thought they were fascinating! And there was enough good detail that even Saturday Night Live thought it was worth doing.

People are busy during the day, I get it. That’s why we can give a recap at 6:30 on the Evening News, 10 o’clock at CBSN, and the additional feeds of the Evening News. And certainly online. I’m trying to tweet out the headlines and the pieces so that there are additional ways to find our superb reporting.

B+C: What are you watching for fun these days?

NO: I’m excited to catch up on The Crown. Believe it or not, I had never seen Veep until recently, so that has been perfect for the shuttle rides back and forth to New York.

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.