In the modern world of 24-hour news and information, where bloggers are the first to question a report on the president's National Guard service and news of the pope's death is received by the media via e-mail, it's more important than ever to get the story right. "A good journalist is a good journalist," said Steve Capus, the executive producer of "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams," in a recent Web chat with employees of NBC Universal. He answered questions about everything from the present and future of network news to the use of unnamed sources. An edited transcript of the chat is below. Steve and the staff of Nightly News welcome your comments any time at email@example.com.
Guest: Steve, there's been a lot said and reported about the viability of network news over the long run. What is your prognosis for the future?
Steve Capus: I think our business is in a lot better shape than some of the pundits would have you believe. I laugh reading quotes that go back more than a decade predicting the demise of the evening newscasts. NBC Nightly News in particular is in terrific shape with roughly 10 million people watching us every night — that’s easily the biggest single audience for any news product available on any platform.
Guest: What do we do better than our competitors?
Capus: That’s a great question. Let's face it — our story selection is similar to Brands X and Y. However, we have an outstanding anchor in Brian Williams leading this broadcast. On any given night we can showcase the reporting talent of the likes of Richard Engel, Tim Russert, Andrea Mitchell, Jim Maceda and so many others. They are, without a doubt, the best in the business.
Guest: What challenges did you face in the Brokaw-Williams transition?
Capus: History was the biggest challenge for us. There had not been a change in the anchor of any of the network evening newscasts since 1981. We simply did not know how the audience would respond. In the past, the audience had not responded well to change. But, by any standard, our transition was a terrific success, and I think that’s due to the fact the Brian was known by our audience. He had been on Nightly News for 10 years anchoring and reporting. He was a member of a great team and the audience was already comfortable with him.
Guest: Is Brian Williams really as serious as he seems on the news?
Capus: Brian Williams is a serious journalist, and God love him for that. However, if you've ever seen him on "The Tonight Show," or "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," you know he's one of the funniest people you will ever meet. And we love that about him.
Guest: Steve, do you think that network news will be delivered via the Internet in the future, and if so how will that affect the content of the news?
Capus: It already is to some degree. Most of our content is being re-purposed on many platforms — including the Internet, cell phones, cable television. And there is no doubt we will continue to be a strong presence in these areas.
Guest: What is your background? How did you become executive producer of Nightly News?
Capus: Ever notice how Tom Brokaw's car is always so shiny and clean? Seriously, I grew up in the NBC system, worked in local news in Philadelphia, then moved on to the NBC Newschannel in Charlotte, N.C., where I had a blast for a year. I came to New York in 1994 for NBC News at Sunrise. Spent a brief time at the Today show before moving over to MSNBC for the launch in 1996. Spent three years as Brian's executive producer at MSNBC and came to Nightly four years ago this week (May 2001).
Guest: Newsweek had big problems this week. What is the process used by Nightly to vet stories and make sure they're accurate and credible?
Capus: The process at Nightly News — and all of NBC News — is that scripts go through a complex series of vetting every day, at every step of the way. I encourage our managers to ask a lot of questions. These open lines of communication are critical. I believe that the correspondents in the field and the producers know that they can always raise a red flag when something doesn't "seem" right. It's vitally important that we all draw on our journalistic expertise to make sure we get it right. NBC News, I should also say, has, arguably, the best policies, standards and guidelines helping us through all of these thorny issues on a daily basis.
Guest: Steve, I think it's great when Brian is out covering a story or broadcasting from location. I think it really sets Nightly apart. Will you continue to push that in the format?
Capus: Brian is a reporter first and enjoys getting out of the northeast corridor. He has been on the road a lot during his time at Nightly News. And we make sure that he's always got a bag packed and is ready to go. His quick response, for instance, on the tsunami coverage, set Nightly News apart from our competitors.
Guest: Do you believe that the demise of "60 Minutes Wednesday" (a Peabody Award-winning program) is an ominous sign for television news magazine-style programs?
Capus: I did not like the news that came out of CBS. I believe there will always be a place in prime time for strong news programs. As journalists we have to focus on the product we produce. The business side of our profession is often out of our hands.
Guest: How does Nightly help NBC keep its "Commitment to Diversity," both in story content and in behind-the-scenes decision-making?
Capus: We often remind our producers and the bureaus that Nightly News should reflect the diverse makeup of this country. So we constantly try to find new experts and cover different kinds of stories from different parts of the country and from different perspectives.
Guest: How do we ensure the safety of our reporters and crews in places like Baghdad?
Capus: Safety always comes first. Baghdad in particular is a real concern for all of us. This is an area where competitive concerns are cast aside and the three networks work together to try and ensure the safety of our people in Iraq. NBC correspondent Richard Engel has been in Baghdad for two years now, supported by a first-rate group of producers, technicians, crews and local staffers. They get frustrated at times because it is a maddeningly difficult place to work. They want to cover stories, but safety needs to come first, and it does.
Guest: In a New York Times story about you, I remember you mentioned your upbringing. How important are your middle-class Pennsylvania roots to what you do today?
Capus: I often tell people when they first come to NBC News that they should never forget their roots. They should speak up in editorial meetings, they should tell us when a loved one "back home" feels strongly about a story. This is one of the ways that our broadcast will truly appeal to a national audience. We are not producing it for ourselves, we are producing it for the country to be seen and appreciated by as many people as possible.
Guest: One hears and reads a lot these days about "erosion," lack of growth, multi-faceted competition, etc. when it comes to the evening news slot. Do you foresee any potentially radical changes in how the networks utilize this time slot?
Capus: You just witnessed over the last year the transition from Brokaw to Williams — it was a well-managed process with a lot of thought given to every detail. That’s exactly what we are doing on a daily basis at Nightly News. We are not content to sit back and do the same stories the same way all the time. We constantly try new approaches.
Guest: When one of NBC's correspondents reports a news story based on information from an unnamed source, is it your policy that the executive producer should always know the identity of the source?
Capus: We would always prefer to use named sources in our stories, but the reality is the news business overall is reliant upon unnamed sources. Each time someone suggests using one in a story, we discuss it at the senior levels of Nightly News.
Guest: Women have made significant inroads as anchors on cable news programs. Do you envision a woman ascending to the anchor desk of a major broadcast network? After all, the job is open at CBS and there is the potential of a Jennings retirement.
Capus: Yes, absolutely. We are fortunate to have people like Katie Couric and Campbell Brown who fill in and anchor Nightly.
Guest: Would you ever consider moving the Nightly News to a later time slot? A time when more people are at home?
Capus: Would we consider it? Sure. We loved having the 9 p.m. (ET) platform on MSNBC for Brian's broadcast ("The News with Brian Williams"). We know that 6:30 is a difficult time period for people. At some point, there may be a way to make it available on the television platform at a later time period in addition to its current slot. And keep in mind the answer I gave earlier about other platforms, including the Internet. I would love to know that Nielsen has come up with a way to truly measure our audience on all of these different platforms.
Guest: Are you concerned at all that new technologies (animation, editing, digital cameras, effects) could detract from overall news gathering and reporting, or do you see a way it can enhance it?
Capus: No, I am not concerned. In fact, I think the new technology simply helps us do our jobs. A good journalist is a good journalist — and that is what this is all about. But if he or she can do their job without worrying so much about the "gear," then they can focus on the journalism.
Guest: I am curious about the dedication to the foreign bureaus and the emphasis on stories from overseas. Some reports have said that domestic stories are really what viewers care more about it. What are your thoughts?
Capus: One of the reasons that Nightly News has done so well of late, especially since September 11, is that we've made a real commitment to covering international news. I believe the audience has a real appetite for international coverage in this connected, ever-shrinking world.