In Depth

Gwen Ifill: A Journey From Print to Network to Pubcasting

Gwen Ifill is the moderator and managing editor of PBS’ “Washington Week,” the longest-running prime-time news and public affairs program on television, and a senior correspondent for “PBS NewsHour.” In December, she also became one of the rotating co-anchors of the nightly newscast when the program went to a two-anchor format.
 
Ifill, a New York City native and graduate of Simmons College in Boston, started her career in newspapers, reporting for the Baltimore Evening Sun and the Boston Herald American before she joined The Washington Post, where she covered both local and national politics. In 1991 she joined The New York Times, where she was a White House correspondent.

But in 1994, her career took a left turn when she jumped into television as chief congressional and political correspondent for NBC News. She joined the elite ranks of journalists with a weekend Washington talk show in 1999 when she made the switch to the PBS programs.

A veteran of six presidential campaigns, she moderated the vice presidential debates during both the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections.

In her 2009 book, “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama,” Ifill chronicled the impact of Barack Obama’s presidential victory and profiled some of the African-American politicians who are making an impact in the country.

A member of the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Ifill will also host the duPont-Columbia Awards on Jan. 21.

She recently discussed her career with NewsPro correspondent Elizabeth Jensen.


NewsPro: You’ve said that your ‘first love’ is newspapers, and you worked at some of the best, including The Washington Post and The New York Times. Why did you switch to TV?

Gwen Ifill: I was talked into switching to television by the late Tim Russert [of NBC News and ‘Meet the Press’]. I’d been a frequent guest on ‘Meet the Press’ as well as on ‘Washington Week,’ and he literally dared me to try television full time. He promised me training, support and the chance to learn a new craft. When other networks caught wind of NBC’s pitch they followed suit, and by then I felt I had little choice but to pursue the opportunity to try something new.

NewsPro: Is there anything you miss about newspapers?

Ifill: I miss the writing. I discovered when I was working on my book that I missed having the time and latitude to play with words and build a narrative, even without pictures to help tell the story.

NewsPro: Some in the business were surprised when you jumped to PBS in 1999 from a top NBC News job, because of the smaller audience. Are there things you can do in public broadcasting that you can’t in commercial TV?

Ifill: Tim was once again one of the first people to convince me that the PBS offer would be a good one for me. ‘Washington Week’ gave me the chance to anchor my own program, and ‘NewsHour’ gave me an outlet to dig deep, substitute for Jim [Lehrer], and learn the art of the in-studio interview. No combination like that existed in commercial broadcasting.


NewsPro: The ‘NewsHour’ has recently undergone a makeover, putting you in the co-anchor chair several nights a week. The show has been dealing with a well-chronicled budget challenge in recent years. What was behind the changes and is the program in danger of disappearing?

Ifill: The reality for all of television news — not just public broadcasting — is that we have to adjust to our audiences, not expect them to adjust to the way we have always done things. Responding to that challenge has revitalized the ‘NewsHour,’ quickening our pace and timeliness. Our coverage of the Haiti earthquake disaster provided a case in point of how our new integration has made us a better product on multiple platforms. We’re quite excited.

NewsPro: You already have an influential place in the Washington talk show world at ‘Washington Week,’ but your name keeps coming up as a possible host of ABC’s ‘This Week’ or CNN’s Sunday ‘State of the Union.’ Are you about to make another switch?

Ifill: Not that I know of. But life can surprise.