Women

09.09.13

‘It’s a New Adventure’

Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff talk to Sandra McElwaine about their on-screen mojo and how they’re going to bring the ‘NewsHour’ to a new generation of viewers.

Last year, when Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill—two of Washington’s most well-respected high-profile journalists—teamed up to anchor PBS’s coverage of the Democratic and Republican national conventions, as well as November’s election night, “we had a blast,” says Woodruff in a phone conversation. “Sitting next to each other hour after hour really worked. We clicked.”

Management took note.

Last month, in an effort to charge up the lackluster NewsHour, PBS announced that the two would become co-anchors and co-managers of the program, stating, “This will mark the first time a network broadcast has had a female co-anchor team.”

Both women say they are “thrilled” by the assignment, which Woodruff calls a “surprise. I’d heard rumors, but did not know when or if it was coming, but Gwen and I are buddies, and it feels very natural.”

“I couldn’t imagine the stars would align this way,” adds Ifill in a separate phone conversation. “It’s not often you get to work closely with a person you like, respect, and admire.”

Starting tonight, the duo will share the anchor desk Mondays through Thursdays. On Fridays, Ifill will take off to host her own Washington Week broadcast.

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The dual anchor concept was launched when Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeill created the The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour in the 1970s. The two helmed the program until MacNeill retired in 1995. Lehrer went solo until he retirement in 2011, and the program turned to collection of rotating anchors, which seemed to unsettle and confuse viewers.

As Wodruff and Ifill prepare for their new assignment, Jim Lehrer, who played a role in the decision-making process to select the co-hosts, told The Daily Beast, “Judy and Gwen are top professionals. I have no doubt that they will be terrific as the NewsHour's anchor team.”

Though both women consider themselves “hard-core newsies,” as Ifill puts it, they come from very different backgrounds with a broad range of interests.

Woodruff, 66, a native of Tulsa, Oklahoma, graduated from Duke University and began her career at a CBS affiliate in Atlanta. She joined NBC News and covered the 1976 campaign of then-governor Jimmy Carter before moving to Washington to cover Carter’s White House years. “I lobbied so hard for that, and when I got there, I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” she says.

She first came to the NewsHour as chief White House correspondent in 1983 and stayed for 10 years before moving on to CNN to become the host of Inside Politics. In 2007 she returned to PBS to work on a series of documentaries, and she ultimately rejoined NewsHour as a senior correspondent and substitute anchor. “They welcomed me back, and I kept thinking, how can a person be this lucky?” she says.

She considers the NewsHour “a treasure” and aims it make it the go-to place for new ideas and backstories on politics, health, and the environment.

“Stories that make you understand why things happen,” she explains. “If we can help people understand the world better and bring a smile to their faces, I’ll consider it a success.”

Ifill, 57, was born in New York City, the fifth child of an African Methodist Episcopal minister, and graduated from Simmons College. She began her journalism career as an intern at the Boston Herald American and later worked for the Baltimore Evening Sun, The Washington Post, The New York Times and NBC before becoming the moderator of PBS’s Washington Week and a senior correspondent for the NewsHour in 1999.

In 2004 she moderated the debate between Republican Vice President Dick Cheney and Democratic candidate John Edwards. She reprised her role in the 2008 vice-presidential debate between Gov. Sarah Palin and Sen. Joe Biden.

Since the announcement of the new format, Ifill has been most surprised by the reaction of young women. “So many have reached out through email, Twitter to express emotional satisfaction,” she says. “‘Role models’ is too small a way to define it. It’s far more important than that. They are taking something special away for this. It’s like turning a corner for them.”

To expand the NewsHour beyond its approximate 1 million viewers, both journalists realize they will have to go to where the eyeballs are and invest more in social media and experiment with change.

Executive producer Linda Winslow does not believe the program is broken and says, “We’re not trying to ‘fix’ anything. We hope that it will continue to be the strong launchpad for PBS primetime programming that it is today. Our goal is to keep growing our audiences, on air and especially online.”

Ifill is counting on the sense of familiarity to ensure continuity. “Viewers already know us, which is excellent for us.”

“It’s a chemical thing,” she observes. “When we’re sitting side by side, we can change the rhythm of the show, not the hard-news base. We will keep bringing the news to curious people.

"It’s a new adventure,” she adds. “We have to strap ourselves in and go for the ride. It’s a good thing I’ll have my girlfriend by my side to grab onto.”