The CBS Evening News is under construction. The vaulting studio set at the network’s Manhattan headquarters is strewn with naked plywood. Sitting in his office just off the set, amid the banging hammers and whining drills, executive producer Rome Hartman is a bit anxious. Understandably so. In just over a month, Katie Couric will begin anchoring CBS News’ flagship broadcast. “Let’s just hope they finish in time,” Hartman says.
A 23-year veteran of CBS, Hartman is at the helm of an evening newscast in a state of transformation. After a decade and half as a producer for 60 Minutes, he arrived at Evening News in January, just as the news division was beginning to shrug off the pall left by former anchor Dan Rather’s faulty election-year report on President Bush’s National Guard service.
After gaining viewers with interim anchor Bob Schieffer, the No. 3 newscast edged out ABC’s World News Tonight in total viewers during a week last May, the first time since 2001. With Couric’s Sept. 5 arrival promising to reinvigorate Evening News, Hartman is looking to reclaim its dominance and reassert the importance of the 6:30 newscast.
Hartman, 50, grew up around broadcasting in West Palm Beach, Fla., where his father co-owned a radio station and launched a short-lived UHF station. But broadcast journalism didn’t grab him until the summer of 1976, when an internship for a public-policy course at Duke University put him in CBS affiliate WTOP Washington (now WUSA).
After a post-college stint as everything from a reporter to a film editor at WPEC West Palm Beach, then an ABC affiliate, Hartman went on to produce newscasts at CBS affiliate WTVJ Miami. He started the same day as the Mariel boatlift, when Cuban dictator Fidel Castro began sending a flood of refugees into Miami.
Hartman returned to Washington to produce at WJLA (ABC) before joining CBS News, in 1983, as a field producer in Atlanta, covering the South and Latin America. In 1986, he was back in D.C. as CBS News’ White House producer and three years later joined Evening News as senior producer in Washington.
While on the White House beat, he began a long collaborative relationship with correspondent Lesley Stahl. In 1991, she persuaded him to be her producer on 60 Minutes, where he achieved the rare feat of producing more than 100 segments. Stahl praises Hartman’s leadership ability: “You end up wanting to please him, which is the mark of a good captain.”
When Sean McManus became CBS News president last November, inaugurating a period of reconstruction, Hartman immediately sent McManus an e-mail saying, “Sign me up.” (Both graduated from Duke in 1977 but did not know each other.)
“We had few dealings in the past,” McManus says. “But after we sat down for an hour, it was clear that his ideas and my ideas were completely in sync.”
McManus tapped him to take over for Jim Murphy (now at ABC’s Good Morning America) at Evening News and to serve as an advisor for the news division.
In defiance of claims that the evening newscast is obsolete, Hartman remains committed to its primacy. He concedes that what he calls the “command model” of the newscast (“It’s 6:30 p.m.—sit down and watch!”) has given way to a “demand model,” in which viewers dictate when and how they get their news.
“ATOMIZATION OF INFORMATION”
But Hartman maintains that the “atomization of information from so many different sources” makes a daily digest even more necessary. “I still think the evening news plays a powerful and important role in providing context, not just headlines,” he says, adding that it offers a richer, more coherent alternative to the “firehose blast” of modern media.
Recently back from a barnstorming tour with Couric, in which they engaged viewers in town-hall–style conversations about what they want in a newscast, Hartman is heartened by the input. “People are really interested in good reporting, good journalism and a broadcast that’s serious and meaningful and deep,” he says. “They don’t want fluff. They may want it from somebody, but not from us.”