Noah Oppenheim was named NBC News president in 2017 after two years in charge of the “Today” show. In his role as president, Oppenheim oversees “Today,” the “NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt,” “Meet the Press” and “Dateline,” as well as NBC News Digital and streaming services, including NBC News NOW.
In our conversation, we talked about the role of network news, Oppenheim’s view of advocacy journalism, the biggest under-covered story of the past two years and what makes “Dateline” so addictive.
Here’s our lightly-edited conversation …
Tom Jones: It has been an incredibly newsy couple of years with the pandemic and protests and Donald Trump and the election and Jan. 6. Where do you see the state of network journalism these days and how do you feel you did over the past couple of years?
Noah Oppenheim: The last couple of years have been both exhausting and challenging and also a real privilege. The world around us is going through so many seismic transitions. Our country is going through such an extraordinary amount of upheaval.
The ability to spend each and every day covering that story, thinking about that story, helping our audience understand what’s going on around them — it’s a real responsibility and a real privilege for anyone who dreamed of working in journalism and now does to be living through such momentous times. I think a lot of decisions we made going back many years now have really positioned us well to rise to this moment in time.
Jones: Like what?
Oppenheim: Going back to 2016, 2017 when I was first settling into this role, one of the first big choices that we made was to invest in original journalism. For a long time, certainly network television didn’t necessarily have that roster of on-the-ground print reporters that you would normally find in a newspaper environment. The growth of our digital business gave us an outlet for that kind of work, and an opportunity to hire folks who came up via wire services or regional newspapers.
And in 2016, we started going out in the country and looking for the best of those folks and selling to them, “Hey, you might have thought your career path would lead you to The Washington Post or The New York Times, but why don’t you come here? Because we’ve got an extraordinary reach on our digital platforms. We’ve also got this great megaphone in the form of broadcast television and cable television. We’re going to be building this whole streaming thing, which is another way for you to get your work out. And we think if you want to break news and tell important stories, NBC News is the best place you can possibly be.” …
We’ve seen that investment in old-school, traditional, shoe-leather journalism really pay off in a big way.
Jones: It’s hard to talk about anything these days without looking through the prism of the pandemic. Besides covering this story, everyone is living this story. What has it been like to produce the news throughout all of this? What was the biggest challenge?
Oppenheim: Like any large organization, we’ve had to really rethink the way we operate, and we’ve had to really think hard about how to make sure our folks are taken care of physically, mentally and emotionally. All of us are living through a time of enormous uncertainty. The pandemic has presented challenges that are logistical — how do you balance remote work with child care, (for example)? It has presented emotional challenges in terms of the isolation that has come along with it.
Also, just the decision fatigue that we’re all suffering from. Like, hey, should I be going out to a restaurant? So we’ve been trying to support our folks through all of that.
I can’t say enough about our technical teams and how really from the very first days in March of 2020 when we started to shut down offices. The folks who get us on the air every day just pivoted over the course of days into home studios and remote-work arrangements and really have transformed in a matter of days and weeks how we did business for decades prior.
Jones: The country is incredibly divided right now — vaccines, masks, politics, right, left and so forth — and you can see that especially in cable news. Many viewers, it would appear, are seeking out news they want to hear. When it comes to network news — and we can talk about NBC specifically — what is their role? What is it you aim to give viewers?
Oppenheim: NBC News proper as a whole — everything that falls under the NBC News umbrella — we are ferociously defending the traditional approach to journalism. We’re ferociously defending the idea that it’s possible to hold the middle ground and be objective and nonpartisan. That’s our mission.
When we go and interview a national figure, whether it’s Vice President Harris or if it had been Vice President Pence three years ago, we’re going to go into each of those interviews with the exact same mentality, which is these are the folks who are running our country. They need to be held to account. What are the toughest questions that we should be asking in order to accomplish that?
I still believe in that old-school approach to journalism and being just as tough on both sides. And looking for truth and facts. Our mission is to illuminate and not advocate.
Jones: Let’s talk about that — advocacy journalism. How about calling out a politician if he or she lies? Or using words like “lie” and “insurrection.” Or the idea of fighting for democracy or civil rights or voting rights. What are your thoughts on that? What is your view on advocacy journalism? Does it have a place?
Oppenheim: It certainly has a place in the menu of available offerings in the world for people who are looking for it. It has a really worthwhile place. It’s not what we do, though. It’s not what NBC News does.
Now, some of those areas that you mentioned — democracy, voting rights, civil rights — these are things that I actually think we can have a great impact on. Not through advocacy, but through illumination. We, going back to the 2016 election, set up a vote watch unit. We doubled that unit’s size during the 2020 election. That’s a team of journalists, reporters, producers focused singularly on voting rights, voting access, misinformation, disinformation. We continue to build that and invest in that.
There’s no question the institutions that our democracy depends on are under threat. I don’t think it’s advocacy to say we’re going to cover that story. We’re going to cover the story of state legislatures that are changing their voting laws and procedures. We’re going to cover it when the secretary of state’s race starts talking about these issues.
I think we can cover it without taking a side per se in an overt way. I think the audience and the readers are sophisticated enough when they read what’s going on to draw their own conclusions about whether it’s good or bad for our democracy.
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Jones: Over the past year, NBC News has done theme weeks — these cross-platform series that tackle one specific story for an entire week. Tell me how that all came together and how do you think it has been executed?
Oppenheim: It came about because the news cycle has just been so insane in terms of its pace for the last several years now that it can be very easy to fall into kind of a reactive posture where you’re just kind of batting away whatever kind of insanity that is popping up each and every day. And you’re not being as thoughtful and purposeful and intentional in terms of what stories you’re covering and what issues you’re choosing to explore.
The theme-week idea was a way to say let’s, each and every week, step back from that day-to-day insanity and with real thoughtfulness pick an issue that we think is important, that we think has an enormous impact on people’s day-to-day lives, that has an impact on the fate of the country and world and let’s devote our collective resources across our various platforms to exploring that issue. We did 40 of them last year. They yielded upwards of 500 original pieces of journalism on topics ranging from the state of work in America to the state of extremism to looking into the legacy of the Tulsa Massacre to the fate of missing Indigenous women — a topic that is so undercovered.
I think it was a phenomenal success in that it enforced a certain discipline on the whole organization. It forced us to say what matters and let’s devote both resources and airtime to educating people about those issues.
Jones: COVID and politics have dominated the news the past year or two. Has there been one story that has been really undercovered? Is it climate change? Immigration? Something else?
Oppenheim: It’s always safe that the potential demise of our planet due to climate change is under-covered. … We’ve tried to account for that. I don’t know if you can ever do quite enough. We’ve made a really conscious effort to capture the voices of underserved communities in the last couple of years as well and I think we’ve made strides toward that end. I don’t think it’s work that is finished, however.
Jones: Let’s talk about your streaming platform, NBC News NOW. Who is your target audience and how do you see the future of streaming?
Oppenheim: The streaming audience at this moment tends to be a younger audience. The average age tends to be in their early 40s. They tend to, right now, watch on television-like devices if not an actual TV.
Our thesis with NBC News NOW is that as people cut the cord, as people look for news and information not on linear or cable television but in other places, they’re not signaling that they don’t want news. They just want it in a different place and a different way. And so as that mass migration of the audience continues and maybe even picks up pace, as they arrive on this new platform, we want to be there waving the NBC News flag. …
It’s been really gratifying to see when big news events happen — whether it’s Jan. 6 or election night or a trial verdict — the flood of people who come into NBC News NOW across all of those platforms and then after those big news events pass, obviously that initial spike subsides a bit, but we see a new floor. So we see a certain percentage of those people who find that they like what they see and they stick around and become more regular viewers.
Jones: Then you have digital, and podcasting and original scripted programming coming. What of that really excites you?
Oppenheim: What excites me first and foremost is the journalism and the storytelling and the enterprise pieces that our folks produce. That is the spark for everything.
You mention podcasts. One of our greatest triumphs of last year was covering the Southlake story. So the Southlake story was a story that originated as a print piece written by Mike Hixenbaugh, one of our first regional reporters that we hired. We hired him in Texas and he continues to live in Texas and that positioned him to spot this phenomenon that was happening in the suburb of Southlake where there was this heated fight at the school board level over diversity and the curriculum.
He wrote that up, it became a print story that did really well for us. That print story became a “Nightly News” and “Today” show story on television. Those stories became the basis for a podcast that reached a couple million people and was on lists for the best podcasts of 2021. It yielded a digital documentary that has been seen upwards of a million times.
Just a great example of one terrific story, well-told, we were positioned to spot it … and push it out across a variety of platforms and have an enormous impact. So the things that excite me are the things that you just can’t really predict.
Jones: I have to ask you about “Dateline.” It has an almost cult-like following. What about that show makes it so addictive and appealing?
Oppenheim: The “Dateline” team is, as far as I’m concerned, the best in the world at telling true-crime stories. They’ve been doing it for a really long time. They have great insight into what makes those stories tick. They can spot a great story from a mile away. What we’ve seen with the explosion of the true-crime genre, people trust “Dateline.” It’s not sensationalized. It’s not tabloidy. These are great stories that are well told and often have larger social ramifications than just the immediate crime they seem to be about.
Jones: There were some who wondered if you would stay after Cesar Conde was named chairman of the NBCUniversal News Group in May 2020. Some thought you might get that job. Did you ever consider leaving? And what inspired you to stay?
Oppenheim: Listen, I love my job, believe it or not. I get to work with some of the best journalists in the world. I get a front-row seat to this extraordinary story of what’s happening to our country and our world. I’ve always been a content guy. I love to tell stories in a variety of forms and the closer I am to content, the closer I am to an edit room or a debate-prep room, the happier I am. I’m really fortunate that my current seat allows me to be right in the weeds, right in the thick of that content and that work, and I love it.
Jones: What’s next for you? Three, five, seven years?
Oppenheim: I just want to continue to tell great stories. There’s nothing that excites me more than when you stumble upon some amazing story that hasn’t been told or some angle on a story that nobody has thought of. That continues to thrill me.
My thanks to NBC News president Noah Oppenheim. And now, onto other media news …
- This story caused quite the stir Tuesday. The Daily Beast’s Justin Baragona and Lachlan Cartwright with “Ex-Editor Scorches NY Post in Shocking Sexual Harassment Lawsuit.” Here’s Katie Robertson’s story for The New York Times. And, CNN’s Oliver Darcy with “Former New York Post digital chief alleges wrongful firing after privately reporting longtime Murdoch lieutenant propositioned her for sex.” And one more: New York Magazine’s Shawn McCreesh and Angelina Chapin with “The New York Post gets its own tabloid scandal.”
- Former University of Kentucky and NBA player Rex Chapman, best known now for his Twitter account including viral (and typically humorous and/or uplifting) videos, is joining CNN+. It has been quite the comeback story for Chapman, who has turned his life around after an opioid addiction. Chapman’s CNN+ show will include conversations with athletes, entertainers and other newsmakers.
- On Sunday’s “60 Minutes” on CBS, correspondent Jon Wertheim will have a story on how hedge funds and other financial firms are buying up newspapers and, eventually, slashing payrolls — and what all that means for local news. Here’s a trailer.
- The Atlantic has launched another newsletter. This one is called “Famous People” by staff writer Kaitlyn Tiffany and writer and creative strategist Lizzie Plaugic. The newsletter recap the small parties, dinners, and events the writers attended with “each other and their friends — and nobody famous.” Here’s the first one.
- The Grammy Awards, originally scheduled for Jan. 31 in Los Angeles but postponed because of COVID-19, now has a new place and time. The Grammys will be held in Las Vegas on April 3. The show will be broadcast on CBS and hosted by Trevor Noah.
- DirecTV, which is mostly owned by AT&T, is dropping propaganda channel One America News in April. Since 90% of OAN’s revenue comes from DirecTV, that could mean the end for the network. And that has one OAN personality a little riled up. Check out this video of him asking viewers for a little help digging up dirt.
- NBC News’ Brandy Zadrozny with “Escape from QAnon: How Jan. 6 changed one person’s path.”
- BBC News scientific correspondent Jonathan Amos with “Pacific volcano: Science will explain event’s ferocity.” And from The Guardian: “Tonga’s volcano eruption: in pictures.”
- New York Magazine’s Lila Shapiro with “The Undoing of Joss Whedon.”
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