NBC News Chief Anchor Lester Holt Wants To Make Each Story Count

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After a scandal knocked out his predecessor Brian Williams, last week Lester Holt become the network's chief news anchor — the first African-American to do so at a broadcast network.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Lester Holt recently traded in several jobs for one big one. Holt was the host of three NBC news programs at once - it's weekend morning and evening newscasts, plus "Dateline" NBC. Now he's got the network's top on-air job - following the scandal that knocked Brian Williams out of the anchor chair at "NBC Nightly News." Holt is the first African-American working as the solo chief anchor at a broadcast network. NPR's David Folkenflik has this profile.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Lester Holt's schedule has already taken on an improvisational feel. In just his first full week as chief anchor, he's ping-ponged from his studios in New York to stories in Washington, D.C., and Charleston, S.C., and back again to cover the news.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LESTER HOLT: Good evening. President Obama today declared his signature health care program, widely known as Obamacare, is here to stay. Just hours after...

FOLKENFLIK: As we talk in his Manhattan office, Holt says he wants to tell each story so it counts, as he says he sought to do in West Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray led to riots.

HOLT: Everyone was talking about what was happening in this neighborhood - what was planting the seeds of this unrest - and, you know, I just walked the streets, you know, I pushed the cameras back. I sat down with a mother and her three children and we sat on a stoop and, you know, we just talked about her fears for her children and what it's like. We had such huge reaction to that story and, you know, it was just a conversation, and that's kind of my style.

FOLKENFLIK: Holt at once feeds off the adrenaline of breaking news and concedes how perishable it is.

HOLT: Sometimes I do my gut check, which is OK, get over yourself a little bit here. Let's put it in perspective. People consume news in different ways. They've got their smartphones. They glance up at the crawl on the TV. So by the time, you know, I come on, they know the hits, runs and errors of the day. They want to know our take on it. They want to know what's the perspective - what the bigger meaning of it all is.

FOLKENFLIK: Indeed, his perspective is likely to differ from that of his predecessor, Brian Williams. Williams was urbane, ironic, a bit detached, a celebrity who had the tendency to exaggerate his own experiences; that, according to an internal review ordered up after U.S. military veterans objected to his account of taking fire during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Williams was suspended and then reassigned to MSNBC after lengthy deliberations by the network. Campbell Brown worked for NBC News for more than a decade. She says Holt offers NBC much needed calm after this year's drama.

CAMPBELL BROWN: I think you can compare the anchor of "Nightly News" to an editor at a newspaper who tends to be the person with that maturity, that worldliness, that level of knowledge and the ability to figure out how to articulate to an audience the bigger picture.

FOLKENFLIK: Brown, Holt's former co-host on the weekend "Today" show, now leads a news site called The Seventy Four focusing on education reform. Brown says Holt conveys the gravitas and credibility necessary for a hard news anchor...

BROWN: But also could be a complete and total goofball whenever, you know, we were doing ridiculous things on the morning show.

FOLKENFLIK: All the same, ABC's "World News Tonight" has chipped away at the NBC ratings lead and frequently won among younger viewers. As a financial proposition, the NBC "Nightly News" is as much of a drain as a source of revenue.

MICHAEL WOLFF: The network news is entirely unimportant to the networks and to the companies that own the network.

FOLKENFLIK: The media critic Michael Wolff is author of the new book "Television Is The New Television." He writes that TV networks are hugely profitable and have been wrongly written off in favor of shinier digital baubles - except for the news.

WOLFF: It has had an amount of prestige over a long period of time, but even that prestige has been seriously eroded in the last number of years.

FOLKENFLIK: Wolff considers the nightly newscast a vestige of glories past. He concedes Holt is by all accounts nice and capable, but in Wolff's view, also irrelevant.

WOLFF: We're at a moment in time when the personalities have converged with the reality of the nightly news. The nightly news is not big and the personalities are not big, so I would say officially this is the end of an era; an era, I would add, that has ending for a very long time.

FOLKENFLIK: Holt counters that millions of Americans do still rely on broadcast news programs; as many as eight million tune in to his each night. And he intends to use such new digital tools as Periscope and Facebook to help connect with them beyond the newscast. Holt, for example, has shared his passion for music. He keeps a bass guitar by his desk in his office, purchased from a pawn shop. It's one of 12 he now owns. He favors traditional jazz and jams with friends on the upright bass, too, and on occasion, on NBC itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That's the music man, Lester Holt, playing a little bass, jamming with The Roots.

FOLKENFLIK: Holt draws parallels between his music and his professional work.

HOLT: You show up somewhere and you - the camera goes up. They hand you the microphone. You're on. And you've got to, like, describe what you're seeing or what you're hearing or what, you know, may be about to happen. That's kind of like what you do when you pick up the bass. You know, very little of what I do is written. I use my ear and I have a very good ear. You put on a song and, you know, give me a few bars and I'm right into it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FOLKENFLIK: David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.