Fiscal Crisis Hits The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer

As noted in a November 2007 Message column, few folks know about the Colorado branch of The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, PBS’ weeknightly news staple, even though it’s celebrating its 25th year of existence and continues to contribute mightily to the program as a whole. Two correspondents, Tom Bearden (pictured) and Betty Ann Bowser, are permanently based here, as is managing producer Patti Parson, who helped open the Colorado facility in 1983.

Now, however, NewsHour is in the midst of what may be its most serious funding crunch to date. Could the situation doom the Denver operation? Rob Flynn, the program’s vice president of communication and marketing, emphasizes that if there are any plans for cutting back or even closing down the Colorado branch, “I’m not aware of what they are.” Still, he admits that “I’d be lying" if he said the Denver office hasn't been part of discussions about how to proceed if the present situation continues for too long.

The New York Times first reported about NewsHour money woes – fallout from the decision last summer by longtime sponsor Archer Daniels Midland to pull its donations; ADM typically provided as much as a quarter of the show’s budget, which has been in the $25 million-plus range of late. In acknowledgement of the resulting crisis, salaries were frozen and PBS contributions to retirement accounts stopped at least temporarily as of May 1 – moves said to have been made at the suggestion of the employees directly affected.

When contacted for a local take on these topics, Parson deferred to Flynn, who makes it clear that the Colorado employees play a large role in NewsHour. “The folks we have in Denver are vitally important to the program, and the Denver location seems to work out quite well in terms of serving as a central hub beyond Washington to manage crews we’re sending all over the country,” he allows. “They give a non-Beltway sensibility to a lot of the stories we cover out of there. So often we, in the Washington office, are so focused on what’s going on in the White House or on the Hill that Denver provides a little bit of a respite from that hothouse atmosphere.” He adds that “our correspondents in San Francisco and Portland and Los Angeles and Chicago are all managed through Denver,” and virtually all of the program’s science coverage, much of it funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, is overseen by Parson from her Colorado Studios desk.

Flynn hopes such grants will become a growing source of support for the program. “We’re in a lot of conversations with other institutions,” he says, be they non-profit or corporate. The pitches made to such enterprises focus as much on the kind of people the program attracts as their actual numbers, estimated at 1.2 million adult viewers per night. “By a lot of independent measures, our audience is among the most influential in America – people involved in law and science and so many other things,” Flynn says. “The funders we’re speaking to are focused like laser beams on trying to reach the influential decision-makers not only in Washington but across the country, and that’s what we’ve got.” NewsHour watchers are also highly literate, and that can have an impact on book sales. Flynn offers one recent example: “We had a woman on the other night, Frances Richey, who wrote a book called The Warrior. It’s a book composed of poems written by her to her son, who’s a Green Beret who served a couple of tours in Iraq. Immediately after the show aired, the book was at 24,000 on the Amazon sales chart. The next day, it was at 683.”

This is hardly the ideal time to be looking for more donors. “We recognize that media companies have been going through massive change over the past several years, whether it’s networks or big newspapers that have had to close bureaus all over the world and participate in massive buyouts,” Flynn acknowledges. “We really haven’t gone through that, because we’re a fairly compact organization in the first place. But the funding climate has changed.”

No wonder he’s grateful to the Starr Foundation, which pledged $1.5 million to NewsHour beginning in August – and as a bonus, the money isn’t restricted to certain uses, as the National Science Foundation stipend is; show execs can deploy it as they see fit. These bucks, in addition to those to be generated by an impending three-month sponsorship courtesy of Vestas Wind Systems, a wind-turbine manufacturer, should keep the wolf from the door, at least for a while. “We don’t have a lot of breathing room, but we’ve got a little breathing room,” Flynn says. “We’re not even close to turning off the lights.”

That’s good news for local NewsHour workers. But if things don’t turn around, the Washington, D.C. contingent may again have to consider whether or not to flip the switch in Denver once and for all. – Michael Roberts