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June 8, 2016, 10:50 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Meet the Press host Chuck Todd on maintaining the show’s presence in a “24/7 digital journalism” world

“Sometimes when I catch myself rolling my eyes at a new platform, I say to myself, don’t be a snob. That’s how you got your big break.”

Chuck Todd doesn’t like buzzwords. In the half hour that we spoke, the Meet the Press host qualified his use of “millennial,” “old/legacy/traditional media,” and “media narrative.” Other common phrases that pepper digital journalism-speak seemed to catch in his throat.

There was one term, however, that he used liberally: “platform neutral.” Media organizations frantically chasing a millennial audience, he said, shouldn’t just panic, and should stay platform neutral. Donald Trump, he hypothesized, is a truly platform-neutral candidate, whose media ubiquity has made him more difficult for rivals to combat.

Todd, who got his start in political reporting at The Hotline, took over as host of the nearly 70-year-old Sunday morning public affairs show in 2014, replacing David Gregory and inheriting declining ratings.

Last September, Todd became the host of a new daily weekday version of Meet the Press — a show the network hoped it would become “the daily cable news show of record for the 2016 campaign,” MSNBC president Phil Griffin had wrote in a memo announcing the show. (Todd remains political director for NBC News, overseeing the network’s political polling efforts.)

The weekday show, as Todd sees it, is yet another way to try to ensure that the long-running Meet the Press doesn’t meet its demise as the political journalism environment, and audiences’ news consumption habits, fluctuate.

“It’s very hard to survive as a weekly brand. If you look at the media landscape, the first victims of this new 24/7 digital journalism world have been weekly magazines,” he told me. “I didn’t want Meet the Press to be a victim of this. I think it’s important to have a daily brand.”

I spoke with Todd about his theory on today’s pesky millennial cord-cutters potentially “aging in” to shows like his, about the increasing difficulty of getting anyone to agree to sit down with him for an interview longer than 15 minutes, and (just accept it) a little bit about Donald Trump. The transcript of our conversation is below, slightly edited for length and clarity.

Shan Wang: I want to admit up front that I don’t watch Meet the Press, on Sundays or weekdays. I know about the show’s history, and I know a lot about you and your career, but through other means — listening to podcasts, reading articles about you, reading your Twitter. Not through the show itself. I want to know, what is your pitch for your show for someone like me — and I will use the word “millennial” here —

Chuck Todd: We’ll talk in shorthand, whether we like it or not. I hear you. Trust me, as someone who’s apparently a member of Gen X, we’re the lost generation. Nobody criticizes us or praises us, because it turns out there just aren’t enough of us.

When you hear “We’ve got to target millennials!” from old or legacy or traditional media — and I hate those terms, too — or really any other news organization that’s been around since the 20th century, the biggest mistake is that the question is always, what do we need to do to make millennials watch us? How do we make them come to us?

Finally, people have decided that you can’t sit around and hope you can program your way, on a Sunday morning, to get millennials to watch. I’m a custodian for the Meet the Press brand. I’m a custodian for the political coverage from NBC, and my job is to build credibility for NBC’s political coverage and Meet the Press with everybody, including millennials. I want to build that credibility by going to them. I’m not going to sit here and expect everyone is going to watch us on Sunday morning. We’ve tried different things. We have a ComPressed edition, where you can download two minutes of highlights. Obviously we distribute Meet the Press now on every single standalone over-the-top [device] we can think of.

But the larger point is, we go to them. My feeling is, everybody ages in. When I was younger, I believed that I knew how to gather news and information better than The Washington Post, The New York Times, NBC, CNN. I felt I knew how to do it better. It was one of my jobs at Hotline — we were aggregating, we were messing around with the Internet before anybody else was. I did it myself. And then guess what? Life happens.

There comes to a point when you want to trust a source for curation. My theory is, I try to build credibility with millennials so that, when they decide they do want to turn on the TV for coverage of politics, they’ve heard me on a podcast, they’ve read NBC, they’ve seen NBC on Twitter, on Snapchat.

As life gets more complicated day-to-day in your personal life, you look for trusted sources. So that’s my view on millennials. You can’t program them to change habits. Don’t panic. Everyone thought scripted television was dead. Scripted television has never been better.

So you go to them where you can. Don’t panic. Be platform neutral. My best career break was because a bunch of other people were snobs about the Internet. When I was at Hotline, in 1995 we started a political website, with ABC News, the Washington Post, Newsweek, L.A. Times, and us little people. I was ecstatic about these big-time reporters who’ve done this for years — but none of them wanted to write for the Internet. All they expected was that we would repost their work. Suddenly we had to do additional content, and that was my big break. I got to start doing political analysis, being a political columnist on the web. I got to start breaking down polling data for people. And all because, essentially, we had older colleagues who were snobs about the platform.

Sometimes when I catch myself rolling my eyes at a new platform, I say to myself, don’t be a snob. That’s how you got your big break. That’s a key to durability in the media landscape that we’re in.

Wang: How does Meet the Press travel online? We’re in a world — and I think you’ve acknowledged this — where clips of single moments and gaffes from complex longer interviews with politicians blow up online. So what happens with your show; how do you manage?

Todd: We do want to make it easier to share interesting moments. We are slicing things up. We’ll share archived stuff. Whether we slice it up for Facebook or Twitter, wherever. I’m not going to sit here and decide which is the best one. Three years ago, I was skeptical that Snapchat could grow as big as it did and it has. And our brand is more comfortable on Facebook than on Snapchat. You have to work a little differently to be comfortable on Instagram, and I won’t say we’ve cracked the Instagram code.

That’s another reason I started a daily version of Meet the Press. I think it’s very hard to survive as a weekly brand. If you look at the media landscape, the first victims of this new 24/7 digital journalism world have been weekly magazines. I didn’t want to see Meet the Press be a victim of this. I think it’s important to have a daily brand. Ten years ago, the conventional wisdom from news executives would be, oh, you’re going to dilute your brand. Don’t do it. But I don’t think there’s such a thing as “diluting” your brand anymore, when it comes to this landscape.

Wang: I was fascinated by your Keepin’ it 1600 interview [The Ringer’s podcast hosted by former Obama advisors Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer], where you talked about how much time Obama White House comms would offer to BuzzFeed or to shows like WTF with Marc Maron, versus how much they offer you, in the name of diversifying the audience they can reach. How do you handle that environment?

Todd: Well, my criticism wasn’t of them doing it; my criticism was that you can’t sit and complain about traditional media coverage when you only work with “new” media. It’s like when people who don’t vote who complain about politicians — well, you didn’t vote!

I did pitch: Let’s do something different. You want to explain something? Let’s do an hour. Let’s do charts and graphs. I just made the case earlier for being platform neutral. If you’re in the business of political communications, you need to be platform neutral as well. I think in some cases they want to make a statement, and that’s fine. But you don’t also get to complain. That’s all.

Wang: I get that. I was wondering how that’s changed things for you: how it’s changed booking guests, how long you’re offered with people, how you talk to them. I know you famously stopped letting Trump do phone interviews, for instance.

Todd: This is something where Donald Trump may have changed the thinking on this. Hear me out on this. For the last 30 years, politicians have basically been advised by a group of political consultants who, with each year, essentially try to get more control of the — and I hate this phrase also — media narrative. More and more political strategists want to control the narrative on their elected official or candidate. And they come up with more and more ways to do it all the time.

There’s no logic with Trump. He is truly platform neutral. The White House won’t want to sit down with a major news organization, they’ll tell you, because they don’t want that one clip that gets shared over and over. Well, okay — that’s fine. I get it, that viral frenzy. But what Trump has shown is that you can survive those things if you don’t then get into your bunker and stop talking.

ChuckTrumpNHThis could be a one-time thing and Trump is Trump, but I’ve already seen a change in how the Clinton campaign wants to interact with the press, whether it’s traditional press or otherwise. They’re more open than they’ve been before — not quite as accessible yet, but there’s an increased amount of accessibility, and the more accessibility there is, the less the conversations feel like a controlled narrative. I think Trump could encourage politicians to stop hiding behind their handlers.

The biggest thing now is that it’s harder and harder to get anyone to agree to sit down for more than 15 minutes. That is still an issue. The beauty of Meet the Press used to be that you could get these guys for thirty minutes, even the full hour.

Part of this is that the viewers don’t want the full hour. I understand. But I would rather have the full hour, be able to edit it down, but have the interview also available as a full hour. It allows the interview to be more dynamic. It allows for spontaneity. It gives you time to get them off talking points. The hardest thing about the job right now is convincing people to sit longer.

Wang: Have your own news reading habits changed? Do you read BuzzFeed, Vox, these newer media outlets, to see what they’re doing, use what they’re doing?

Todd: I can’t always remember where I read stuff now. I remember what I read, of course, but now I don’t remember who did it. The whole joke is, when I first started in 1992, your goal was to read 100 percent of 10 things, and now you read about one percent of a thousand things. It’s hard to remember where those thousand things came from.

I have Twitter set up so that I follow at least one newspaper in every state, every state capital newspaper, plus major city newspapers, every political reporter and columnist I can think of. When I get up at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning, I literally go through eight hours of Twitter. It’s the best time to look at Twitter. There’s no riff-raff. It’s mostly information. That’s the one time where Twitter is the best tool in my toolbox.

The other best tool is just email. Everything comes into my inbox. Never mind we have so many internal centralized ways we do newsgathering. I bet I’m signed up to about 500 email alerts on a daily basis of just news and information sites, and it’s a little overwhelming some days. But every time I think I want to unsubscribe, that little email alert I’ve built pays off, and I think, ugh, fine.

Here’s what I’ll say: I think everybody is superficially better informed on the people they’re interviewing than ever before. Certainly, it is harder and harder to come up with research they haven’t already come up with themselves. But I don’t feel like I’m in this business to come up with shocking, “they’ll never see this coming” questions. Having an unlimited amount of resources now does allow you to set up a smarter interview outline. You know, at the end of the day, you only have eight to 12 minutes, and you’ve got to use them well. It can be overwhelming because so many questions get left on the cutting room floor, but it does allow you to make sure you can cover the most interesting topics to the viewer that Interviewee X can talk about it.

Wang: You guys produce your own original research and news, too, in the form of polls, right, and these polls are the source of other stories. Now there’s such a swell of emphasis on data, the great promise of data and also its limitations, and there are dedicated places like FiveThirtyEight that explain good polls and bad polls. Have the ways your own data gets reported on changed also?

Todd: First, we really pride ourselves on our survey data. We cut the fewest corners. I won’t say we don’t cut any — everybody tries to save some money now and then. But we try to cut the fewest, so there’s a level of trust in the professional political communities in our numbers. I’m proud of our survey data.

It’s funny — earlier I was talking about trying not to be a snob about platforms. But I’ve been a snob about polling methodology for a long time. I’m still a snob about some of it. But we also know we have not perfected the only way of polling people. We have to continue to be open-minded about different methodologies.

I do feel that sometimes we have too much data when it comes to so-called public opinion. There’s so much noise. I understand the need for aggregation of poll data, because there’s so much of it. Collectively, we in the news media, in the political polling community, have to come up with better standards of what’s acceptable and what’s not, and try to find a way to create standards so that readers and viewers know what to trust and what not. We’re at a transition, technologically, of how to do certain work. I’m getting wonky here.

I won’t put a survey on Meet the Press Daily or Meet the Press or any of our feeds if I don’t feel comfortable with the methodology. Certainly I view that as part of my credibility test. But it’s almost as if the data industry needs a Moody’s ratings system. Who’s got triple-A ratings, who’s got single-A ratings. Maybe that would improve things?

I give Nate Silver credit — he’s tried to rank the pollsters in different ways. It’s a tough thing. I don’t think you can use accuracy to judge methodology. It’s consistency over time on accuracy that you want. Poll data, whether you like it or not, has influence. It can drive news coverage.

The most dangerous thing for any journalistic organization is to create a news story. Journalism is uncovering stories. Then there is polling, and when you’re doing your own polling, you’re creating news stories. That’s a big responsibility, and it amplifies so much more now. You’re amplifying a created news story.

We’re a few minutes over the allotted thirty minutes now, and I get an email from the NBC News spokesperson saying Todd needed to leave to prepare for the weekday show.

Wang: Oh, I’m getting word you have to go — we went over.

Todd: It’s all right. I talk too much! Okay — I’ll give you a few more minutes, hit me with a speed round!

Wang: What was the most awkward, or most intense, or uncomfortable interview you’ve ever done?

Todd: Ted Cruz. I’d had a long experience with Senator Cruz over the course of his campaign, where he’s been very hard to pin down. We went round and round on whether he was for Trump. It turned out — I didn’t even realize I did this — apparently I asked nine times. I didn’t intend for it to be a thing. At the same time, I just couldn’t understand why he didn’t give a simple answer to the question.

To me, it just sums up the frustration that viewers sometimes have with all of us — that means politicians, as well as all of us in the media, and the interactions that we have, positive or negative. I’m not going to sit here and say I was on the side of the angels, or he was on the side of…that’s a subjective decision. But that conversation really summed up how our political dialogue has become so strained.

Photos of Chuck Todd interviewing Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump courtesy of NBC News.

POSTED     June 8, 2016, 10:50 a.m.
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