(The Root) — In 1999, journalist Gwen Ifill, then a congressional and political correspondent for NBC News, told the New York Times that she was "part terrified, part excited as you always are when you try something new." She was talking about her new post as moderator of PBS' Washington Week in Review.
Now nearly 15 years later, Ifill is taking the reins at yet another venerable PBS newscast as co-anchor and co-managing editor of the PBS NewsHour, along with veteran journalist Judy Woodruff. Ifill and Woodruff's appointment is more than deserved and also significant. They are the first women to occupy the anchor chairs at NewsHour, famously helmed for two decades by Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil.
"I am in the business of slapping together what we call the first draft of history every day," wrote Ifill in a recent blog post for PBS, "so it has been a little jarring to suddenly be making history myself."
Still, Ifill took a break from prepping for Washington Week, which she will continue to anchor on Fridays, to speak with The Root about just that — making history.
The Root: Since the news broke earlier this week of your new position, you've been asked a lot about the historical significance of the anchor role. Are you tired of talking about it yet?
Gwen Ifill: The only thing that's tiresome about it is that we keep having the conversation. I'm old enough to remember when Carole Simpson took over at [ABC], and that was probably 20 years ago. Growing up, I remember Melba Tolliver because she had this big Afro; as a kid I was kind of transfixed by it. It's a little surprising to me that I should reach this great moment in my career and look around from my left and to my right and see so few people who look like me. I'd like to fix that.
TR: How do you fix it?
GI: Everybody who's ever worked with me knows that I have this flat spot in the front of my head from banging it against the wall about newsroom diversity. And diversity isn't just black or white; it has to be from all kinds of backgrounds. It's one of the reasons I'm a lifelong member of NABJ because that's where we have the conversations. It's about covering the news better. If you're a journalist we have to want to get a broad spectrum of influence in the stories we tell. We need people in hiring positions, in newsmaking positions and sitting in front of the camera.
TR: In a recent retweet you co-signed one news site that said, "Ifill and Woodruff are basically the journalistic equivalent of a buddy comedy."
GI: I thought it was funny. Someone said to me afterwards, "Do you mean like Thelma and Louise?" And I said, "No, we're not driving off the cliff." Judy and I genuinely like each other, and, probably more importantly, we respect each other's ideas. We have the same seriousness and purpose about what journalism is. It's comedy for us because we don't know where we're going. We're just strapping ourselves in.
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.