Lester Holt says he has "a strong sensitivity" to the story of race and that "It's a story that, among others, we'll be going at aggressively" as newly named permanent anchor of "NBC Nightly News."
In a telephone interview as he began his role as the first African American solo anchor on a network news program, Holt said he hopes to use that coverage to provoke people to action, to "move beyond just the conversation."
Holt, who succeeded Brian Williams as host of "NBC Nightly News" on Monday, also said he expects to pay more attention to how technology affects our lives, and that there are Asian Americans and Latino journalists in the NBC pipeline who could one day follow him into the anchor chair.
As a Californian, Holt said he expects to bring a Western perspective to the newscast. Since he assumed the job, Holt says he has been touched by the number of people of color who have thanked him for "representing." "Your shoulders are a little heavier with responsibility," he said.
Following is an edited transcript of a telephone conversation held on Tuesday.
Q. The last time I saw you in person, you were working with students at a National Association of Black Journalists convention. Can you talk about that?
I am a product of some wonderful mentorship, I had a lot of people that took me under their wings. I have been thrust into some interesting positions in my life. My first newsroom was WINS [all-news radio] in New York City. I was 22 years old. I had come from several years in radio before that. Not that many, but [I found myself] suddenly being in the No. 1 market and No. 1 newsroom. I had technicians and reporters that kind of looked out for me and kept me out of trouble, and steered me in the right direction.
I was the benefit of that in a lot of the early part of my career, and so I believe it's important that those of us who've been experienced lend our ear. I don't do formal sit-downs, but I often do informational sit-downs with our interns and some of the folks in the entry level. I'm here in the Washington bureau today, and had a few brief conversations with a couple of young, budding journalists who are just starting here, and I think it's important that we extend ourselves.
In many ways, it's kind of protecting the institution of journalism, and making sure that it's going to be left in good hands.
Q. How do you view your position as a "first" — The first African American solo network anchor?
Like a lot of African Americans who've been in big positions, we often hear — I'll tell you the same thing — "We don't necessarily define ourselves by our color." But you know, it's a big deal.
To the extent that if only one kid turns on the TV and sees my name at the beginning and says, "Wow, I could do that," and "That guy looks like me," that's a great thing. I'm honored by that, but it's not like there was a big sign that said, "Black anchors need not apply."
The fact is, there are only three of these jobs, and as you and I know, they don't open up very often, they're usually held for a very long time. But the circumstances in this case, you know, allowed it. I feel like for my entire career I've been preparing myself for this moment. It's not what I expected to happen, but that door suddenly swung wide open and I was standing.
Q. Will your background make any difference in how you approach the job?
As we've certainly seen, race has been a recurring theme especially somehow in the last year, it feels like.
That's a story that, of course, everyone wants to cover. I guess it's fair to say that I have a strong sensitivity to that story by virtue of my background. It's a story that, among others, we'll be going at aggressively and try to find new ways — because often, the problem with the race story is that, as you know, ultimately someone says, "we need to have a conversation."
Well, I would argue that we need more than a conversation — we need action, we need something concrete, and to the extent that we can provoke, and tell that story, and move beyond just the conversation, I think is important. That's not to suggest that others won't be covering this story, but I do think it's fair to say that it's one that I have a sensitivity toward.
As you may know, I was down in Baltimore several times after the Freddie Gray death, talking to people in the neighborhood. That's what I like to do, I like to connect with people. I was in North Charleston, and covered the shooting of Walter Scott, so this is important.
Q. What topics will get more air time on "Nightly News" now that you are the permanent anchor? Which topics aren't getting enough air time now?
When you break it down in air time, that becomes difficult because every day is different, in terms of what the story is, and that there are no hard and fast rules, but it's far to say there are certain kinds of stories, certain themes that have always resonated with me, and that I'll be covering. Not only race, I think tech stories are becoming a bigger part of our life. We'll be covering some of those.
So much of our lives wraps around technology right now, and innovation, and making our lives easier, I think those are important stories. It's not just the newest app, the newest technology and how we get information, and so I'm trying to leverage that. I have our digital team kind of holding my hand, getting me onto Facebook, doing more little feature interviews with our correspondents, some of those stories we're trying to do, we've experimented with Periscope [the live-streaming video app], those sorts of things.
Q. Could you elaborate a little more on provoking action in covering racial stories?
Part of our job as journalists is to create awareness, and sometimes when creating awareness, we provoke action, in a good way sometimes. If people hear these stories, and hear them from all sides, perhaps it will change lives, and perhaps inspire. And I guess that's what I mean. Maybe "provoke" is too strong a term, but I think that if it inspires people to become active, and recognize a problem or issue in society, and find a way to act, and perhaps change behavior, that's a good thing.
Q. Who will be the "Lester Holt" for Lester Holt? Who will back you up?
That's a really good question, and if I had the answer, I would tell you. I don't Know. This has all come upon so quickly, and [there are] so many things left to discuss, and I'm sure that's on the list, but I haven't even heard.
Q. Are you satisfied with the diversity in various editorial and managerial roles at NBC News?
I think we have strong diversity across the board. Certainly on air, you see that, and off air. I use the word "diversity," I hope we're talking about the same thing. I'm not only talking about racial diversity, but also cultural diversity, political diversity, regional diversity, all those things. You know, the more we bring to the table, because what we do is such a collaborative process.
We have these editorial meetings, and you know, 10, 20, 30 people in the room talking about the big stories of the day, and it's interesting how people coming from a different place will have a different view. I am a Californian, and so I have a view of what it's like in the West, and one of the things I've done in the broadcast is really push to take it out West.
I've broadcast from Los Angeles a number of times since I've been on, and we're going to be doing a lot more of that because there are so many stories that are important to that part of our audience, and so I bring that sensitivity. That's the very cool thing about a collaborative newsroom. You've got all these thoughts and different ways of looking at things.
Q. You're the first African American solo anchor on the nightly news. What about Asian American and Latino journalists, who are also underrepresented? Do you think they will get their shot?
Well, I'm not sure I'm ready to give up this seat, you know, because I just got it … OK, we're not giving my job away, that's cool.
I do, and here's why. When you get to these jobs, of course, that follows many years of experience, and exposure and all that, and I look at our lineup of correspondents. I hate to go through all the names, but we've got a multi, multicultural lineup of correspondents, and any one of them are on a trajectory that could easily land them in the anchor chair someday.
I didn't even notice it — another reporter noticed — they said, "Your broadcast last night, your first two correspondents were African American." I was like, what? You know what, you're right. [It] didn't even resonate that way. Looking at people like Kristen Welker, and John Yang, and Jacob Rascon and Miguel Almaguer, any number of these people are — these are our go-to rock-star correspondents. Any one of them could be in line the next time that job opens up. [These are] three jobs that just don't become available very often, but I think the pipeline is primed for more diversity in these roles.
Q. Do you have anything you want black journalists to know?
I've had so many people of color pull me aside and just say, "thank you. Thank you for representing." And you know, I think you can appreciate what that must mean. It really strikes a chord when someone looks you in the eye and says that. You do walk away and your shoulders are a little heavier with responsibility, but everyone's been so supportive, and I'm grateful. This was not an easy start. As you know, it's not necessarily the way that you want to get a job. But I'm ready, I'm proud and ready and confident and ready to engage.
Stephen Battaglio, Los Angeles Times: Door of opportunity swings wide for new 'NBC Nightly News' anchor Lester Holt
Hadas Gold, Politico: Lester Holt starts his run
Lloyd Grove, Daily Beast: Lester Holt: NBC''s New Crown Prince
Marisa Guthrie, Hollywood Reporter: Lester Holt on 'Nightly News': "Until the End, I Accepted This as a Temporary Assignment"
Don Kaplan, Daily News, New York: NBC anchor Lester Holt breaks silence on Brian Williams
Howard Kurtz, Fox News: Why Lester Holt was scared about succeeding Brian Williams
Bobby Ross Jr., Christian Chronicle: Lester Holt a humble newsman with a serious faith (March 2015)
Michael Starr, New York Post: Lester Holt never lobbied for 'Nightly News' gig
Brian Steinberg, Variety: Lester Holt Has Progressive Ideas for 'NBC Nightly News'
Brian Stelter, CNNMoney.com: Lester Holt: NBC's 'awkward few months' are over