NBC’s Lester Holt says the coronavirus is ‘the biggest story we have ever seen’ » 89% of U.S. adults say they’re following the story closely

Your Thursday Poynter Report

March 19, 2020
Category: Newsletters

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‘This is the biggest story we have ever seen’

Lester Holt didn’t hesitate, not even for a second, when I asked him Wednesday if he had ever seen a story like the coronavirus.

“No, I haven’t,” the “NBC Nightly News” anchor said. “I always thought 9/11 would be the biggest story I would ever cover. But this is the biggest story we have ever seen.”

Stop and think about that. The biggest story we have ever seen. This coming from a seasoned journalist who has never been one for hyperbole. Yet he can’t think of a bigger story.

“This affects the entire world,” Holt said. “Each and every one of us.”

I caught up with Holt over the phone Wednesday afternoon just after he finished anchoring NBC News’ special coverage of the White House coronavirus press conference, and a few hours before anchoring “NBC Nightly News.” That has become his daily routine, if there is such a thing as “routine” in this time of coronavirus.

He also was getting ready for an NBC special airing primetime tonight about the pandemic. Well, getting ready as best he could for a show that was more than 24 hours away when we spoke. “NBC News Special Report: Coronavirus Pandemic” airs at 10 p.m. Eastern on NBC, MSNBC, and streaming services NBC News NOW and Telemundo Digital.

The special will include expert analysis and health advice from NBC’s coronavirus team, including NBC News correspondent Dr. John Torres and NBC News medical contributor Dr. Joseph Fair. What will they talk about exactly?

With changes to this story happening literally by the minute, Holt couldn’t be sure what he was going to say on Wednesday’s “NBC Nightly News,” let alone on today’s evening news and one-hour special.

“This story is moving so rapidly that all we can do is provide our viewers with the best information we can when we get it,” Holt said. “We’re doing our best to get answers.”

Holt has mentioned time and time again on his broadcasts that he understands some of the frustrations around this story. People want to know when this is all going to end, when our lives will return to normal. They want to be assured that they and their loved ones are going to be OK.

But there are no answers to those questions, and nobody can offer any assurances.

“What we’re doing is to be as people-centric as we can,” Holt said. “How are people being affected?”

So Holt and his team report on how the virus is transmitted, how people can best protect themselves and how this could impact their health and their finances.

“We’re just trying to put this into as much in perspective as possible,” Holt said. “This is one of those stories where we are literally all in this together. We’re all affected by this.”

While he’s is not looking for pats on the back, Holt is proud of the work journalists are doing. He also acknowledges that he is one of a handful of people in the country who Americans are turning to in order to make sense of what is happening.

“I’m not here to be a consoler on a regular basis, but I recognize that this is scary stuff,” Holt said. “And as I sit out there, I am picturing people around the country watching and craving answers. I do feel a responsibility to report the facts, but also to find those moments to kind of make people understand that, ‘I get it. I hear you. I’m with you. We’re all in this together and I’m going to do the best I can to get the people with the right answers in front of the camera and get them to you.’”

Following coronavirus

We have had piecemeal evidence from TV ratings and web traffic that people are paying attention to the news about coronavirus. But now we also have statistical evidence.

The latest survey from the Pew Research Center shows 89% of U.S. adults say they are following news about coronavirus very or fairly closely. In addition, 70% say COVID-19 poses a major threat to the nation’s economy and 47% say it is a major threat to the overall health of the U.S. population.

Those surveyed also believe the media are doing a decent job with coronavirus coverage — 70% say the media are doing at least “somewhat good.” However, nearly half (48%) say they’ve seen some made up news about the pandemic.

A story about the story

Perhaps the most impactful story about coronavirus so far was published online on March 14 by The Washington Post. The Post’s Harry Stevens put together graphics to help readers understand the importance and impact of social distancing. It was remarkably detailed, yet made the concept of social distancing easy to understand. It has become one of the most-read stories in the history of the Post’s website. To find out more about the Post story, check out senior multimedia reporter Alex Mahadevan’s piece on Poynter.

All a-Twitter

(Fox News)

They’re baaack. Fox News’ Twitter account, which had been dark for more than a year, tweeted something at exactly 3 p.m. Eastern Wednesday. It merely linked to FoxNews.com’s coverage of the coronavirus, so it wasn’t exactly earth-shattering. But it was a big deal because it was the account’s first tweet since Nov. 8, 2018. As of Wednesday, the account had 18.5 million followers.

Variety’s Brian Steinberg reported that Fox News is expected to be more active again on Twitter.

“Executives at the network believe the Fox News Twitter feed will help disseminate information to people who may be isolated in their homes and help answer questions about coronavirus submitted by viewers,” he wrote.

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Changing places

(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

“CBS This Morning” is going to change locations because of the coronavirus. CBS News president Susan Zirinsky told staffers that two of CBS’s buildings in New York City will be closed for a while now that six CBS News employees have tested positive for the virus.

That means “CBS This Morning” is moving over to the Ed Sullivan Theater, where “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” is usually taped.

“We all have to make daily adjustments to our lives during this health crisis,” Zirinsky told staffers in a memo. She also said the network is “deeply concerned” about those who have contracted COVID-19 “as they recover.” She said the network is awaiting more test results to see if anyone else has contracted the virus.

A quick info fix on the coronavirus

NPR is collecting its most vital reporting, features and interviews about the coronavirus pandemic and putting it all in a daily 10-minute podcast called “Coronavirus Daily.” Hosted by “Embedded’s” Kelly McEvers and including reports from NPR reporters from around the U.S. and world, the new pod will look at all aspects of the coronavirus — from public health and personal finances to the economy, politics, society and culture. New episodes are available on weekday afternoons.

Cuts at the Tampa Bay Times

More grim journalism news. The Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times had more staff reductions this week. There were 11 layoffs in the newsroom, and three others are either retiring or moving on voluntarily and will not be replaced. This comes shortly after the Times announced temporary pay cuts of 10%.

The Times is the latest paper to hit more hard times, made even harder by an economy rendered fragile by coronavirus concerns. The Plain Dealer in Cleveland laid off 22 in the newsroom earlier this month.

In a memo to staff, Times executive editor Mark Katches called the news “somber,” adding, “You may be asking: What if there is a sustained impact from COVID-19? Frankly, it is too soon to tell.”

Katches wrote that the Times is seeing “more and more reductions in advertising schedules.”

He also added, “The moves this week are part of an ongoing, larger examination of our business model. We recognize that more changes will become necessary.”

And more journalism trouble

Expect to see more stories like this: The Sacramento News & Review, a free alternative weekly in Chico, California, is suspending publishing and laying off employees. The Sacramento Bee reports it’s “a result of recent coronavirus concert cancellations and declining advertising revenue over the past several years.”

Local alternative weeklies — which rely heavily on advertising from the local culture, restaurant, bar and club scenes — likely will take a big blow from the coronavirus effectively shutting down nightlife in cities.

In a letter posted on the Sacramento News & Review website, president and CEO Jeff vonKaenel wrote that nearly the entire staff has been laid off — just temporarily, he hopes. But in the headline, vonKaenel admitted “this could be the end.”

Grounding Air Jordan

Michael Jordan. (AP Photo/Beth A. Keiser)

With no sports to show, there was hope that ESPN would move up its much-anticipated 10-part documentary “The Last Dance” about Michael Jordan’s final season with the Chicago Bulls. It is scheduled for June but the hope was it would instead appear sometime in the next couple weeks. Hope grew when ESPN ran ads over the weekend that said the documentary was “coming soon,” as opposed to the original commercials, which said “coming in June.”

But Front Office Sports’ Michael McCarthy reports that ESPN will not move up the airing because it can’t. Burke Magnus, ESPN’s vice president of programming acquisitions and scheduling, told McCarthy, “The reality is that production of the film has not yet been completed, so we are limited there at the moment. Obviously, you can’t air it until it’s done.”

Media tidbits

  • Axios had to put out a big correction Wednesday after reporting that Bernie Sanders was suspending his presidential campaign. Axios editor-in-chief Nicholas Johnston shared a statement that said, “Our incorrect report on the Sanders campaign was a big error and we apologize. This is not an excuse but the reality: our process for full approval in a fully remote newsroom broke down. That has been fixed and we are prominently correcting, and taking responsibility, for the error.”
  • This looks interesting: HBO will debut a special about disinformation tonight at 9 p.m. called “After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News.” The documentary looks at those working to expose “fake news,” as well as examining some of the high-profile cases of fake news stories from recent years. Andrew Rossi directed the documentary, while CNN media reporter Brian Stelter is an executive producer.
  • Here’s a scoop from NBC News’ Byers Market newsletter: “Axios is partnering with Malcolm Gladwell’s Pushkin podcast studio to create a new daily news podcast modeled after Mike Allen’s Axios AM morning newsletter.” The pod will launch this summer.

Hot type

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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