Gwen Ifill: Making News of Her Own

The journalist talks to The Root about her history-making turn as co-anchor of PBS NewsHour.

TR: In terms of NewsHour’s new direction, you’ve mentioned “freshening the look and feel” of the broadcast. What can viewers expect to see when you and Judy take over in September?

GI: We don’t think there’s anything wrong with the basics. We think telling the news is still important. We think that what we’re doing online is usually ahead of the curve. We did an amazing story a couple of weeks ago that went into the gold mines of Burkina Faso, following these 9-year-old miners. It was a crazy story that I just won’t see any place else. There ought to be someplace in television and online where a story like that exists. We’re just changing the presentation, but we’re not changing the show.

TR: In the age of media taking sides with successful cable channels like Fox and MSNBC, where do you see NewsHour fitting in?

GI: I think we’ve always been pretty good at staying down the middle. I think that’s what we prize. I know that’s what our viewers prize. It’s possible to hear only one side of the story on one cable network. I don’t have any problem with opinion television, but there’s a subset of America that wants to know more than that. There ought to be a safe place to go if that’s what you want. There are fewer and fewer places to go for that and certainly not for an uninterrupted hour. That’s what we exist for.

TR: Fans of Washington Week will be happy to know you’re not going anywhere, but how will you balance both desks?

GI: [Laughs] I’m West Indian; we always have 85 jobs. I’m still figuring it out. In lots of ways both jobs are very complimentary. I have two offices but they’re across the street from one another. But I like Washington Week too much to give up. It’s my sandbox, a place I can play, at the end of the week. It’s funny, I’m supposed to be working less hard as I get older, and it’s not working out that way.

TR: Speaking of your esteemed career, since 1977 you’ve gone from interning at the Boston Herald-American to covering the White House for the New York Times to reporting on Congress for NBC. Was the anchor chair always your goal?

GI: I never wanted to be more than a newspaper reporter. If you wake me up in the middle of the night, I still think of myself as a newspaper reporter. I was talked into doing [television] by Tim Russert. I kind of edged out onto a ledge going into television. I just wanted to be in the news business, and I’m one of those journalists who’s very fortunate to still be in it. I’m very fortunate that working hard has paid off.

TR: Finally, what advice would you give to young journalists?

GI: I want young journalists — and I have mentored quite a few who I was so grateful to hear from this week — I want them to know that you get here by working hard and doing the basics: writing well and staying focused and knowing who you are and taking the opportunities when they present themselves. To me, if you’re serious-minded about it, you can thrive.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this interview misstated where Carole Simpson was anchor.  

Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter. 

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.