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By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

The NewsHour, a staple of public broadcasting since 1983 whose audience numbers have been more stable than commercial broadcast news, lost viewers in 2008 and faced new financial pressures.

It was the third year in a row that the newscast has had a drop in viewership and the decline was slightly steeper than in previous years.

The NewsHour also took new steps in 2008 to attract more funding for the program. Declining corporate sponsorship and flat public funding led the program to hire a full-time fundraiser to try to attract more donations from foundations.

Online, the NewsHour added two staff positions and new features related to the election, and two microsites, one focused on health and the other on financial literacy.


The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer attracted approximately 1.1 million viewers during the average minute of programming in the season that ran from July 2007 to June 2008, according to the most recent available data from the NewsHour research department. That is down from 1.3 million during the 2006-07 and 1.4 million during the 2005-06 season.

For the 2007-08 season, the number of different people watching each week was 5.5 million, down from the previous season’s 6.1 million.

In general the NewsHour each weekday night routinely draws about one-fifth the ratings of the average commercial network news program.  The NewsHour drew a household rating of 0.8 for the 2007-2008 season, down from 1.0 the previous season. That compared with an average rating of about 5 for the network news programs. Household ratings represent the percent of American households tuned to a program during an average minute.1

Household ratings figures for the NewsHour, a staple of the Public Broadcasting Service, show the audience crept higher after the 2007-2008 season ended in June but still remained below the previous year’s average. After holding steady at a 0.8 rating in July and August, the program pulled 0.9 in September and October, the period for which the latest data are available.2

What accounted for the year-over-year drop? According to Beth Walsh, senior director of PBS research, the main factor was competition from cable news, which offers viewers the convenience of getting news updates whenever they want. And more cable channels mean more choices for consumers.3

“Like all media, PBS has felt competition from alternative sources of news, particularly cable,” Walsh said. “As we’re seeing more and more channels in the average home, due to the increased penetration of digital cable, viewing gets more fragmented across the multitude of sources available.”

PBS vs. Commercial Evening News Household Ratings
PBS Fiscal Yearl July – June
Design Your Own Chart

Source: PBS Audience Research

Audience Demographics

Compared with viewers of network news and cable news, those watching the NewsHour tend to be more educated and have higher incomes, according to survey data by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

As a group, people who watch the NewsHour “regularly” or “sometimes” are more likely to have a college degree than such viewers of cable or network news. Slightly more than 34% of NewsHour viewers have a college degree. That compares to 23% of network evening news viewers, 28% of cable news viewers and 28% of Americans generally.4

NewsHour viewers also tend to have higher incomes. About 30% of NewsHour viewers make $75,000 or more, compared with 24% of nightly news viewers, 19% for cable news, and 27% for Americans generally.


The NewsHour had a budget increase in 2008 thanks to a one-time supplemental grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which distributes federal money, to fund election-year coverage. Corporate sponsorships, however, declined during the year.

The program’s budget increased 16%, or $4.3 million, to $31.5 million for the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2009. But the gain was temporary because it included the grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which came to $5.2 million.

The NewsHour did not hire additional permanent staff with the election-year funding, but signed up temporary contract workers to manage the labor-intensive coverage of the political conventions.5

The program suffered a blow in 2007 when Archer Daniels Midland ended a 14-year relationship that was worth an estimated $4 million a year to the NewsHour. In May  2008, the program froze salaries and 401-K contributions were suspended.6

Host Jim Lehrer was quoted at the time in the New York Times as saying the financial strains were the worst in the program’s history – and that was before the full impact of the recession hit.

Looking ahead to the 2009-2010 fiscal year, the program expects to have just $26 million to spend. This would be a $5.5 million, or nearly 17%, decrease, despite two new grants the program received in 2008.

One of the grants, which is tied to coverage of global health issues, is for $3.5 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It paid for a production unit to expand the NewsHour’s broadcast and online coverage of governmental, nongovernmental and scientific approaches to combating malaria, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, measles and other diseases.

It is a three-year grant, granted in December. It is to pay for 40 to 50 packaged reports aired on the NewsHour’s PBS broadcast and its website, as well as an outreach effort to put the reporting in front of policymakers, scientists, medical professionals and others in the global health community.

The other grant is dedicated to improving financial literacy in America. It came from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fund. The $1 million financed a new series to improve public understanding in economics and finance. The coverage, which was scheduled to begin in February 2009 and run through the year, analyzes the causes and consequences of the economic turmoil and explores alternative institutional and regulatory changes for improving market performance.

Even with those grants, a decline in federal funding and worsening economy present financial challenges in 2009, according to David Sit. a NewsHour vice president.

The program still gets about 40% of its funding from the federal government, 30% from corporate underwriting and another 30% from foundations. In recent years, however, declining corporate sponsorship has forced the NewsHour to seek out more foundation money to make up the difference.7

“The fear is that foundations are in the markets like everyone else,” said Sit. “Foundations are suffering, and we’re worried for the next couple of years.” 8

News Investment

The NewsHour’s website listed 115 employees for the television program and its affiliated website,, as of January, 2009. These include 97 editors, reporters, correspondents, producers and support staff based in Washington, 5  correspondents based outside Washington, 3 people in a bureau in San Francisco and 9 in Denver.

One other issue at the NewsHour is the on-air personality of the program. Anchor and executive editor Jim Lehrer underwent heart surgery in 2008 and was off the air for two months. Although he returned to the air and said he has no plans to retire, he is will turn 75 in May 2009.

The program turned to former staffer and ex-CNN anchor Judy Woodruff to take up some of Lehrer’s anchoring duties in his absence. She joins a team that includes Gwenn Ifill, Ray Suarez, Margaret Warner and Jeffrey Brown, as well as a group of correspondents.

In October 2008 PBS began an international news program called “Worldfocus,” which airs on 190 PBS stations.9

Executive producer Marc Rosenwasser, who spent 16 years at NBC News, compared the program to ABC’s Nightline, which gives the anchor a bigger role than most network evening newscasts.

The anchor, former NBC correspondent Martin Savidge, covered both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and reported from other foreign locales.  National Public Radio reporter Deborah Amos and Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, will appear as contributors to a weekly analysis of global news.

Digital Trends

The NewHour also has tried to develop a presence online and was an early advocate of referencing additional information online during its television broadcast.

As of 2008, the NewsHour’s website,, did not register in the top 50 news websites as measured by both Nielsen Online and Comscore, placing it far behind the network news sites in unique audience.  In 2008, the website added several new features, including two related to the election, and added a mapping tool that allows users to track NewsHour coverage on a hyperlinked map of the world.

The first election feature, “The Reporter’s Blog,” ended after the election. It had provided regularly updated news and commentary about the 2008 elections by PBS reporters following the presidential, Senate and House races. The second, which remained on the program’s website early this year, was a partnership with YouTube that allowed PBS users to post videos documenting their voting experiences. The NewsHour’s “Video Your Vote” project, a partnership with YouTube (, drew 3,000 people who created and uploaded videos about their own voting experience and interviews with other voters before and on Election Day.

Also new to the site in 2008 is its “Worldview” feature ( The page is oriented around a world map. Users can scan the globe for areas of interest to them and click on hyperlinks that take them to the latest NewsHour coverage on that area.

Late in the year, the NewsHour used funds from its Gates and Sloan grants to plan two new microsites—one dedicated to global health issues and the other devoted to promoting financial literacy.10

PBS began to plan and develop the two new areas on the website and hired new two new online associate editors to produce the content. The sites will offer video of story packages created for broadcast, interviews with experts in the field and other content created solely for the Web.11

While the NewsHour’s website has not opened all of its news stories to user comments, it has created some areas that feature user-generated content and input.  A weekly insider forum, for instance, allows users to follow up with reporters with questions on broadcast interviews and reports. (

The NewsHour’s Web approach mirrors the broadcast format, which selects three to four lead stories and delivers in-depth story packages and analysis of them.  The focus is on original reporting and analysis from its own team as opposed to an aggregation of wire stories, which is the network approach.


Although different from the commercial networks in structure and content, the NewsHour on PBS in some ways shares the challenges of its commercial rivals. Both are now, in many ways, trying simply to break even economically. For the commercial networks, advertisers in difficult times are thinking hard about advertising dollars. For PBS, corporations are increasingly looking at their underwriting as an element of their marketing, rather than as an act of philanthropy.13

“Now, it’s more a marketing-driven conversation, about audiences, and delivery and engagement,” said Rob Flynn, vice president for communications and marketing for the NewsHour.14

Moreover, the NewsHour’s traditional model of seeking long-term sponsorships is becoming an anachronism. Givers are now looking for shorter-term arrangements to maximize their flexibility.

The program boasts a highly educated and relatively wealthy viewership, but like most news operations, its average viewer over 55. What’s more, the NewsHour faces the challenge, in time, of dealing with an anchor change. All of these issues will likely raise questions about whether the style and content of the NewsHour will be rethought, and in that rethinking, whether the risks outweigh the possible gains.


1. The hour-long broadcast airs each weekday on more than 300 PBS stations. It is available in 98 percent of the nation’s television households. It is also seen daily in Japan by NHK Broadcasting, via the Direct Broadcast Satellite System (Channel One); in Asia, Europe, Latin America and Africa, via the U.S. Information Agency’s WorldNet Satellite; and in 23 countries in the Middle East and North Africa, according to PBS.

2. PEJ Interview with Beth Walsh, senior director of PBS research, January 22, 2009

3. PEJ Interview with Beth Walsh, senior director of PBS research, December 15, 2008

4. “Key News Audiences Now Blend Online and Traditional Sources,” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, August 17, 2008. Figures are weighted to the general adult population

5. PEJ interview with David Sit, vice president of the NewsHour, November 17, 2008

6. Elizabeth Jensen, “Lehrer Says NewsHour Money Woes Are Worst Ever,” New York Times, May 19, 2008

7. PEJ interview with David Sit, vice president of the NewsHour, November 17, 2008

8. PEJ interview with David Sit, vice president of the NewsHour, November 17, 2008

9. Elizabeth Jensen, “NBC News Correspondent Named Anchor of New Public Television Newscast,” New York Times, August 20, 2008

10. PEJ interview with David Sit, vice president of the NewsHour, November 2008

11. PEJ interview with Leah Cramer, managing editor for education issues, NewsHour Online, December 2008

12. PEJ interview with Leah Cramer, managing editor for education issues, NewsHour Online, December 2008

13. Elizabeth Jensen, “Lehrer Says NewsHour Money Woes Are Worst Ever,” New York Times, May 19, 2008

14. Elizabeth Jensen, “Lehrer Says NewsHour Money Woes Are Worst Ever,” New York Times, May 19, 2008