Interview with Sara Leeder, Segment Producer for CNBC’s “Topic [A] with Tina Brown”

by: Hollis Griffin / FLOW Staff

Tina Brown had a successful career in print journalism and might be remembered for an earnest attempt at publishing the magazine Talk. What qualities of strength do you think Ms. Brown brings with her to broadcast journalism?

Tina brings a great sensibility to the editorial direction of the show. She plays a huge role (more so than any other “talent” I’ve worked with) in booking the show, and crafting each segment. I’ve learned from Tina how important “the mix” of the show is each week, i.e., getting the celebrity spot, the hard news spot, an offbeat topic, etc. And we’ve been working on fine-tuning that mix every week.

Can you describe how editor responsibilities are distributed in a 24-hour news environment? What is a segment producer? Who is pitching stories, choosing stories, assigning stories?

For me, the hardest thing about working in a 24-hour news environment is keeping myself constantly attuned to what “the news” is, when “the news” is always changing. At Topic [A], we have a really small staff, which is always a great opportunity to take on more responsibility. As a segment producer, I: book guests (depending on the week), pitch story ideas (we have daily meetings), prepare Tina with a research book for every segment, pre-interview each guest over the phone, write suggested questions, work with Tina to select which questions we’ll use, and – finally – edit the interview after it’s taped.

What sorts of technology do you use, if any? Can you describe how digital editing and video databases have changed the producer’s job?

We use NewsEdit and Avid editing systems. I personally have only worked with digital editing in my career in TV, so I can’t compare what it was like before. We also have amazing technological capabilities in screening video right from our desktops, which saves hours of going through tape libraries, etc.

How does Tina Brown’s show play into CNBC’s perception of its target audience? How and why do you feel the show appeals to particular viewers?

CNBC is known for its business news, which dominates the daytime lineup. It’s an interesting time to be at the network since CNBC is still in the process of defining its primetime lineup, including Topic [A], Dennis Miller, The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch. Right now, I think our show primarily has a metropolitan appeal – although we do get e-mail from viewers around the country. I think that’s because of that mix we strive for each week, and a lot of it comes from the buzz in big cities like New York and L.A.

How do you choose your topics and guests? Do you tailor your topics around the availability of guests? Do you invite certain guests based on the topics? In either case, what are the primary motivating factors behind these decisions?

We select our topics and guests as a reaction to the news or a pop culture event – be it the elections in Iraq or the release date of a movie. We put a lot of thought into how we can tap into an unexplored angle or voice on a particular new story. That’s a constant struggle in the era of the 24-hour news cycle. We also work to get ahead of any particular story, so that our Sunday night show is looking forward to the next week, rather than the one that’s just passed. We’re also always looking to strike the right balance between news and entertainment to put a show that people feel like watching on a Sunday night (meaning, nothing too heavy nor too fluffy). Of course, with some of the bigger name guests, a lot is tailored around when they are available, but I imagine that’s how any show works. You’ll take Tony Blair or Madonna whatever week they can.

You have worked at two of the big cable news channels. What would you say is the difference between them?

The big difference between CNN and CNBC is that CNBC is a business news channel. Just in the last year or so, CNBC has started doing news and entertainment programming in prime time. Although we don’t have the same news resources here at CNBC, we are very lucky to be able to lean on NBC and MSNBC newsgathering sources, bureaus around the world, etc.

I notice that the host, the executive producer, and many of the staff members for Topic [A] are female. Do you think this affects the work environment at Topic [A]? Has gender had an impact on your journalism career? In your opinion, is journalism becoming less of a “man’s world”?

It’s interesting that you ask this, because at CNN I had a male boss and worked with a male anchor, and I myself wondered what the difference would be working with women. I do feel lucky to be working in an era where I rarely think about how my gender affects the job I do. More often, I find that my age (or the fact that I look younger than I am) affects how people receive me. It is important, though, to have a mix of men and women on any staff/in a newsroom to reflect the different sensibilities.

Is there a typical career path for news journalists? Is J-school a prereq or do producers look more for work experience when you’re breaking into the biz? (i.e. should I go to school or go find a job if I want a position like yours?)

Great question, and a highly debated one. People seem to split into two camps on this one. I think a lot of it depends on the economy/the job market at the time. Since I graduated from J-school (May ’01), the market has been so tight, that I don’t think having the degree has necessarily helped. Meaning, I’ve paid my dues the same as if I had not gone to J-school. Although it’s certainly an enriching education, I think right now experience is valued more than a degree. But, of course, there are always the contacts made through the J-school experience (especially at a place like Columbia), which can turn out to be quite handy.

Topic [A] with Tina Brown
Columbia School of Journalism

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