Jim Lehrer has been delivering the news each weeknight to PBS viewers since the Gerald Ford administration. Now he says it's time to step away.
He announced Thursday that he's leaving the "NewsHour" as a regular anchor effective the week of June 6, the final step in a carefully planned retirement that included the introduction of a rotating anchor team in December 2009.
Lehrer's 77th birthday is next week. He said he will still appear many Fridays to moderate an analysis of the week's news with columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks, and offer behind-the-scenes advice to the show's executive producer, Linda Winslow.
"It's not that I'm sick or tired or anything," said Lehrer. "It's just that I wanted to step back."
The "NewsHour" has steadfastly remained a serious newscast as changes to television journalism swirled around it. Lehrer was originally partnered with Robert MacNeil on a Washington-based newscast in 1975. MacNeil retired in 1996, leaving Lehrer as the sole anchor.
Winslow said she'll remember Lehrer best for his ability to make complex topics understandable and an interviewing technique that derives strength from simplicity. She mentioned Lehrer's recent interview with CIA Director Leon Panetta about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
"He's the one who defines our mission and that is not going to change just because he is leaving," she said. "No one comes to work wondering what our job is and what we're going to do."
"NewsHour" generally airs at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m., depending on the individual market. It averaged 1.1 million viewers a night in March, the last month for which PBS had statistics available, about one-eighth the audience of the top-rated NBC "Nightly News." But in a newsy month marked by Arab uprisings and the Japan tsunamis, the "NewsHour" viewership in March was up 16 percent over 2010, the Nielsen Co. said.
Lehrer called his retirement "my big glide," a plan he formulated that began with the simple step of removing his name from the broadcast. What was the "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" became the "NewsHour."
Instead of a sole anchor, the broadcast had two anchors — usually Lehrer joined by either Gwen Ifill, Judy Woodruff, Jeffrey Brown, Ray Suarez and Margaret Warner. At first, Lehrer took Mondays off, now he's usually off Mondays and Tuesdays.
This way, PBS can make Lehrer's exit relatively seamless.
"I wanted to do it in a way that we didn't have the normal hullabaloo and the potential crashing of porcelain over my shoulder as I left," Lehrer said.
The Kansas-born Lehrer worked at newspapers as a reporter, columnist and city editor in Dallas in the 1960s and early 1970s before joining public television in Texas and eventually moving to Washington.
"It is the most constructive and graceful exit strategy I have ever seen for someone holding a coveted and senior position in today's media," MacNeil said Thursday.
The five remaining anchors will continue to rotate, two working each night, Winslow said. She said a specific pattern hasn't been set. They will start the next stage of "NewsHour" the same week that Scott Pelley takes over for Katie Couric on the "CBS Evening News."
Lehrer said he intends to write books, including novels. His first project, due this September, is nonfiction. Lehrer, who has moderated 11 presidential debates, writes about these events from the perspective of all involved. The title, "Tension City," came from a phrase uttered by former President George W. Bush when Lehrer asked what the experience was like for him.