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Q&A with Sheryl WuDunn

The anchor of the new New York Times cable channel's signature show, Page One, on the network, her show, and whether her colleagues are making fun of her.

By Jesse Oxfeld - March 25, 2003

Two and a half years ago, in a different era—one of peace and prosperity and enormous media conglomerates growing more and more enormous—the venerable New York Times Company decided that the key to its successful future lay in electronic media. "From a business perspective," chairman and CEO Arthur Sulzberger Jr. announced in a September 2000 speech, "we will not achieve the success that can be ours without entering the world of television." It was a strategic move long in the works, but the paper's commitment to television was made apparent soon thereafter, when Washington bureau chief Michael Oreskes was recalled to New York to become the paper's first-ever assistant managing editor for electronic news (and one of only 11 editors listed on the masthead). The piece de resistance was expected to debut in the fall of 2001: The New York Times National Edition would be a half-hour nightly newscast, the smart-guy alternative to blood-and-guts local news, coproduced with MacNeil/Lehrer Productions and airing on PBS stations.

By the summer of 2001, National Edition was dead; no sponsors would line up behind it and MacNeil/Lehrer lost interest. After September 11, Oreskes was reassigned to coordinate investigative coverage. But today, finally, Times TV comes to life, both more and less than was expected in those heady, dotcommy days. When the Discovery Times Channel flickers to life at 8 o'clock tonight, it will be not just a half-hour show but an entire, stand-alone, 24-hour Grey Lady-certified television network. It's half owned by the Times Company and half by Discover Communications, and it will take over the Discovery Civilization Channel's slot in Discovery Communications' bank of digital-tier networks. (As a digital cable network, it will reach only 25 million of the 107 million television households in the United States.) The network will cover the sorts of things the paper covers, which is to say everything from world events to popular culture. There will be some very Times-focused programming, like a series starring foreign affairs columnist Tom Friedman called Searching for the Roots of 9/11, and also the usual complement of Discovery-produced documentaries.

But while the project has grown to fill a whole network, the nightly Times newscast has shrunk. Page One, which debuts at 10 o'clock tonight, will clock in at three minutes. Broadcasting from the middle of the Times' famous newsroom on West 43rd Street and previewing the next day's newspaper, Page One will be hosted by Sheryl WuDunn, who shared a 1990 Pulitzer Prize with her husband, op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof, for their coverage of the Tianenman Square uprising. It won't be a newscast, really, but just a sneak-peak at the paper; WuDunn won't interview newsmakers but rather reporters and editors working on the coverage. Last week, WuDunn took a few minutes for her schedule of test-runs to talk with mediabistro.com about Page One.

So are you excited for your big TV debut?
I certainly am. I mean, this is something that I'm coming into on the ground floor. I have very little TV experience; I've been a print journalist all my life.

What exactly is the show going to be?
It basically reflects the next day's front page. We put together the stories that are going to be going on the front page, and we interview some of the reporters and editors who help edit those stories, and we do it all for a 10 o'clock showing. So people are going to be getting a preview of what's going to be on the next day's page one.

This only going to be three minutes at 10 o'clock. What's going to be on the network the rest of the day?
The channel itself is going to have programming that is developed here at the Times. We have a new documentary—I'm not working on it, so I don't know that much about it—but basically it's a documentary that Tom Friedman has done on 9/11. And there are other programs that they have been developing over the last few months, as well as documentaries that Discovery has developed over the past few years.

But yours will be the only show coming out of the 43rd Street newsroom, right?
Not really. I mean, certainly the documentaries that we develop are things that are developed right out of the newsroom. They're not filmed in the newsroom. They'll be going to the Mideast or wherever it is that they're going to be filming the documentary, but they're developed here on 43rd street. But in terms of stuff being shot at 43rd Street, yes, Page One is actually going to be filmed here. We may have some other feeds from the Washington bureau for instance, but I don't think we're going to start out with that.

Are they setting up a little studio in a corner of the newsroom?
It's not quite in the corner, it's in the middle of the newsroom. So we sort of feel we're a race track in the middle of the newsroom, because we've got a ring of desks and a ring of cameras, literally, on the ceiling that are pointing to one little spot in the newsroom.

Are you now going to be reporting for the paper, also, or is this going to be your primary job, preparing for this show?
Exactly, just the show. I know it sounds—just three minutes, but it actually takes a long time to produce three minutes of newscast. It's not just the newscast, it's also graphics and photos and so it takes quite a bit of effort.

Walk me through a random night's broadcast, some of the things you'll talk about or how they will be covered…
We will have most of the stories on page one in the broadcast. We will have, I mean usually there's six or seven stories on the front page so we'll have a treatment of each of those stories. We will have interviews with reporters for some of them, interviews with editors for some of them, and then just anchor-casts for the rest of them. And graphics, and photos. The photos are actually really interesting because we're not going to have any video footage. We're actually going to use photos, still photographs.

Produced by the Times photo department?
Yes. It's really quite remarkable what you can do with still photographs. They won't necessarily be the same photos that appear in the paper, because what works in the newspaper won't necessarily work on video. So it's a very interesting rendition when you get the still photographs mixed with graphics, mixed with interviews, and subtext and some anchors. So it's a very interesting combination. Very eclectic combination really.

What sort of training did you go through, if any, to start doing this, because, as you say, you've only done print journalism before?
I have to do a lot of practice, that's for sure. We've been doing dry runs for the past 10 days, and we'll be actually doing dry runs every night until the actual newscast goes live.

Of course, I'm sure you're hugely qualified for this, but why you instead of any the other dozens if not hundreds of qualified people at the Times?
I ask myself that question a lot of times. I have no idea. I mean it was really, they basically screened a number of people at the Times, and it just sort of fell out that way. I mean I have a little bit of background in TV but not much. I'm obviously not a TV journalist. Just over the years, with the couple of books that I've had, and book tours and being on television just as a reporter talking about some of the areas that I'd covered when I was overseas, I'd had a little bit of exposure. But it's a good question.

So how do your colleagues feel about it? You're in the middle of the newsroom now, are they making fun of you, kidding you a little bit?
Well, they probably are, but they don't do it in front of my face.

Jesse Oxfeld is the editor-in-chief of mediabistro.com.



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