November 2, 2010

It’s been six years since Tom Brokaw stepped down as anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” but he’s just as committed to journalism as he ever was. 

When I spoke with him by phone last week, he was busy following conservative and liberal blogs to see what they were saying about the elections, which he helped cover Tuesday night as a special correspondent for NBC. He was also in the middle of writing a New York Times op-ed and a new book.

Tonight, Brokaw is visiting The Poynter Institute to help celebrate its 35th anniversary. In advance of his visit, I talked with the journalism legend about the changing role of the news anchor, the need for more one-subject broadcasts, and the reason you won’t find him on Facebook or Twitter.

Changing anchors, philosophies at evening news stations

The anchor position at the three evening newscasts has changed significantly during Brokaw’s years as a journalist. Most noticeably, it’s no longer dominated by men.

“I thought it was inevitable that we would sooner or later have female anchors,” Brokaw said. “The gender line has been crossed in so many areas, and it was crossed some time ago when it came to the news broadcasts.”

The outlook of the evening newscast anchors has also changed. Brokaw said Walter Cronkite, the late “CBS Evening News” anchor, believed that the evening news ought to consist of the “hottest stories of the day” and questioned the need for a mix of stories on topics such as health and science. Over time, though, it became evident that people paid attention to that type of coverage and that the evening newscasts should provide it, Brokaw said.

Reporters’ willingness to use certain words and phrases on air has also changed. Brokaw, who watches all three evening news shows, recalled a time when the “Nightly News” was reporting on the dangers of toxic shock syndrome.

“One of my colleagues said, ‘I’m not going to mention ‘tampons’ on the air.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute …’ Times have changed,” Brokaw said. “These broadcasters are doing an admirable job of getting the right mix in the evenings.”

Breadth of sources, changing consumer habits lead to lower ratings

Whether or not the evening newscasts have been offering the right mix of stories, their ratings have plummeted. Several factors have contributed to this, Brokaw said. First off, there are more blogs and start-up sites to go to for news nowadays, so there’s more competition.

“The other part is that Americans’ social habits have changed,” Brokaw said. “What happened is that we’re a much more mobile society now. Our daily patterns are far more different than they were.” He pointed out, however, that millions of people still turn to the evening newscasts as a trusted source of information. All three newscasts saw total viewer growth in the week leading up to Election Day.

Brokaw said the three major networks are trying to meet their audiences where they are — online and on their smart phones and tablets — and said he expects there will be more synergy between what’s shown on TV and what’s available online moving forward.

Devoting the evening broadcast to one subject

Brokaw said one of his mistakes as an anchor was not advocating for more one-subject broadcasts.

“We did nearly that when we were ramping up to go to war. We said, ‘tonight we’re going to take you through the critical decisions, what we know and what we don’t know,’ ” Brokaw said. “I think there could have been more one-subject broadcasts. And the value that the network news could have brought was, ‘We’re going to give you as much of this subject as we possibly can.’ ”

This could have been especially helpful for viewers when the economy was cratering, Brokaw said. And it would be an effective way for all three of the evening newscasts to dig deeper into the housing crisis — an issue that has “been underreported even though we’ve been covering it for some time.”

The evening newscasts occasionally report on a story several nights in a row. “Nightly News,” for instance, recently launched a series of stories about reinventing America as an “education nation.” It’s rare, though, for them to dedicate an entire show to one topic.

Fascinated by social media, but not convinced it has news value

There’s an @TomBrokaw Twitter account, but it’s not Brokaw’s. Despite the various ways that news organizations are using social media to tell stories, Brokaw said he thinks there’s still a lot we need to figure out about its effectiveness.

“We’re still mid-passage in determining the impact of all this new technology,” said Brokaw, who’s not on Twitter or Facebook. “We’re trying to absorb what it means to our individual lives and how it fits into a pattern that’s useful for us.”

Brokaw, who said he’s developed a growing interest in social media, recently moderated a discussion about it during Stanford University’s roundtable, “Generation Ageless: Longevity and the Boomers.” Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, talked during the discussion about how the social networking site can enliven boomers’ lives.

Still, Brokaw wasn’t convinced enough to join. “I have too many invasions of my privacy as it is,” he said. “I’m thinking about just signing up so I can share things with my granddaughters a little more, but I worry I’ll read things on their Facebook that will unnerve me.”

As for Twitter? He doesn’t believe it’s taken form yet journalistically. “I don’t get Twitter,” Brokaw said. “I know that it’s very popular and that it’s a quick way of getting a text blast out, so to speak, but an awful lot of it seems to be … just stuff that fills air.”

He pointed to the Mumbai attacks, when Twitter was flooded with news and photos of the chaos. “It alerted the world to what was going on,” Brokaw said, “but was that journalism or was it just a cry for help?”

WikiLeaks information needs to be presented in context

Context is key when reporting on military reports, said Brokaw, who has done extensive coverage of the Iraq war and created a related documentary.

“The difficulty is always when you get a flood of documents dumped on you and you feel like you have to get it on the air,” Brokaw said. “Do you give it enough time and enough meaning for your readers so they understand what’s going on?”

The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel did a good job reporting on the WikiLeaks documents, Brokaw said, but he wasn’t all that surprised by the findings.

“Most of the stuff about WikiLeaks I think we already knew,” he said. “I don’t think there was any ‘Oh my god’ moment.”

Being first on the scene of a story, writing well

When asked what advice he would give to today’s journalists, Brokaw focused on the importance of good writing and curiosity.

“Journalists: learn to write. Text messaging is not writing,” he said. “Whether you’re writing for a newspaper, online or on the air, get better at writing.”

Spacer Spacer

Brokaw, who’s written five best-selling books, says curiosity, hard work and contacts led him to a series of career “firsts.” He was the first U.S. anchor to report that the Iraq war had begun, the first American anchor to travel to Tibet to report on human-rights abuses, and the first and only anchor to report from the scene when the Berlin Wall fell.

“The line that I developed is ‘it’s always a mistake not to go.’ You can sit around and debate, ‘Should I leave for this story or not?’ If I went, I always found something happened,” Brokaw said. “There’s always a reason to turn over a rock and find out what’s under it.”

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As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website,, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the…
Mallary Jean Tenore

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