If you want to call PBS' venerable public affairs show NewsHour old-school, that's fine with Linda Winslow. The executive producer, who joined the program when it was The Robert MacNeil Report in 1975 and has been there continuously since 1983, believes the term is a testament to the objective, analysis-based journalism the show has been practicing for more than three decades.
“What's interesting to me from the point of view of MacNeil/[Jim] Lehrer journalism is how much the world around us has changed and how we're still doing what we set out to do in 1975,” Winslow says.
She laments the fact that her journalistic heroes are sometimes considered relics in today's more opinion-based landscape. “When I got out of school, it was the year of Walter Cronkite, Harry Reasoner…I could not in a million years imagine a time when giants like that would not roam the Earth,” she says.
Winslow's love of journalism began when she interned at her hometown paper, the Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass., during summers home from college. Her editor at the Eagle was friends with legendary CBS News President Fred Friendly, who played a large role in establishing PBS in 1967. Friendly was about to start teaching at Columbia, and Winslow's hometown editor encouraged her to pursue a master's degree. Working with Friendly instilled in Winslow a love for television.
At the end of her graduating year, she joined Friendly at Public Broadcasting Laboratory, a show that united all the public TV stations across the country one night a week for a newsmagazine. PBL went off the air after two years; Winslow then honed her skills at United Artists, WNET New York and Impact.
In 1975, she joined The Robert MacNeil Report, the precursor to The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. Other than a five-year job as VP of news and public affairs at WETA Washington, Winslow's home has been NewsHour ever since. MacNeil retired from the show in 1995.
“She struck us [Lehrer and I] immediately as extraordinarily bright in all the various dimensions that are good in broadcasting,” says MacNeil of what the pair originally saw in Winslow. “She just has an instinctive idea of what the nub of the story is and how to getit out.”
While Winslow may be comfortable with “old-fashioned,” Lehrer, NewsHour's longtime host, recently challenged her to bring new life to the show. “Jim came in one day and said, 'We have to come up with a new game plan; if we don't, we die, and that's no good because the world needs us now more than ever,'” Winslow recalls.
For three weeks, a group of the show's senior staff gathered around Winslow's dining room table and started hashing out a new format. NewsHour also developed new graphics and some small changes to the set. “We need[ed] a little window dressing,” Winslow says.
On Dec. 7, the show re-branded as PBS NewsHour, removing Lehrer's name from the title. It also moved to a multi-host format featuring Lehrer and a rotating cast of co-anchors including Gwen Ifill, Judy Woodruff and Jeffrey Brown. And NewsHour recently teamed up with foreign affairs Website GlobalPost, which will add weekly video reports both for broadcast and the NewsHour site.
Winslow's dedication—she typically puts in 10-hour days—is all the more impressive given the personal hurdle she overcame more than a decade ago when, at age 49, she was stricken with ovarian cancer. “Up until then I had been thinking, 'I'm almost 50, how awful!'” she says.
But conquering cancer gave Winslow a new perspective. Right after her chemotherapy treatments, she went to Tuscany to celebrate the big 5-0 with friends. “I was never so happy to see 50 in my life. [Now] each birthday is a gift.”
Winslow still travels and uses opera to clear her mind of the day-to-day production stresses of NewsHour. Still, there isn't anywhere she'd rather be: “I'm so glad I'm doing what I'm doing.”
Broadcasting & Cable Newsletter
The smarter way to stay on top of broadcasting and cable industry. Sign up below