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In Focus

Jonathan Greenberger: Behind This Week

Photographs by Heidi Gutman/ABC

March was a good month for Jonathan Greenberger. Not even a year into his job as executive producer for ABC’s flagship Sunday morning news program This Week With George Stephanopoulos and the show was on a winning streak—coming in as the leading public affairs program in the coveted adult 25 to 54 age bracket for the fourth straight week, the first time for the program in two decades. And with the show scoring high-profile interviews with the likes of President Obama and Russian President Putin, this season’s viewership is the highest This Week has had in five years. The youngest executive producer ever to lead the Sunday news staple, Greenberger, JD ’13, is just hitting his stride.

Jonathan Greenberger, JD ‘13, in the control room during the production of This Week with George Stephanopoulos

Jonathan Greenberger, JD ‘13, in the control room during the production of This Week with George Stephanopoulos

But planning this critical slice of ABC’s news programming is a big job. A self-described news nerd, Greenberger may be one of the most updated people in the United States, waking in the middle of the night “to check in” and then scouring the dailies, news blogs, and tweets before leaving his West Village apartment and heading to work. “I’m getting as read-in as possible, so by the time I walk into the office, I have some sense of what’s going on,” he says. Greenberger’s primary responsibility is to figure out what each This Week should be about—which stories should be told, which guests should be booked.  “I set the overall agenda and develop a vision for the program, looking week to week and year to year,” he says. He works closely with the show’s presenter, George Stephanopoulos, to make this happen. “We’re always pushing each other to make the program better.”

Greenberger’s career course changed from law-firm track to television executive last June. He was set to graduate from Stanford Law School and take up a position with Debevoise & Plimpton, when he got a call first from Robin Sproul, ABC News Washington bureau chief and the executive in charge of This Week, and then from Stephanopoulos too. They wanted him to take over as executive producer of the weekly Sunday news program. By the time Greenberger donned his cap and gown, he had accepted the job. “I fully expected to practice law, but this was an offer I had to consider seriously,” he says.

Law is familiar territory for Greenberger. His mother is a lawyer, as are several members of his family, so it was always a possible career path for him.  But he also enjoyed journalism and news. After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis with a degree in economics, he spent four years working in Sproul’s ABC News organization.

“In college I was editor of our campus newspaper and followed current events closely—subscribing to news feeds from ABC and others,” he explains.  “During my junior year, I saw an internship posted by ABC News, so I applied.” He had been considering a wide range of post-undergrad options—including Teach For America and investment banking. But television news was the best fit. The internship turned into a full-time job, and he rose through the ranks of the news organization and then moved over to This Week.

“I joined in 2005 at the start of the second Bush term and left in 2009,” says Greenberger. He decided to keep to a somewhat vague plan to eventually go to law school, though he wasn’t sure he wanted to practice law.  “Law school was always at the back of my mind, and I was ready for a new challenge,” he says. “D.C. sort of runs on a four-year cycle, and I had seen an entire cycle, so it felt like a natural time to leave.”

Greenberger enjoyed the challenges of law school, particularly the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic.

“Anyone who survives the 1L year is better on his feet,” he says. “I know that intellectually I took a lot away from law school. I learned to think in a much more critical way about the world and complex issues. I can express myself more clearly. I’m a better writer and I am more articulate.”

He sees strong overlaps with law and journalism—both require digging into facts to get to the truth. He’s noticed that many of his colleagues at ABC News are lawyers too, which makes sense to Greenberger.

“Journalists and lawyers spend time looking at the past—finding precedent. And then they abstract and try to tell us what may happen in the future and how we might shape the future,” he says. “We both take complex issues and distill them down to see what matters and what doesn’t.”  And Greenberger’s legal education is put to good use in his current role where he has to unravel some of the most challenging issues of our time, including Supreme Court decisions. “My favorite discussions cut across it all—law, culture, and politics,” he says.

The call from the U.S. State department came late on a Saturday night last October. A tentative deal on Iran’s nuclear program had been reached and Secretary of State Kerry was available for interviews for the Sunday morning shows. The catch was that he was only available at 1 a.m. (Kerry was still in Europe).  Greenberger didn’t flinch. His production team was just wrapping up after a long Saturday preparing for the live broadcast the next day. Normally, everyone relaxes over takeout before heading home and then rising early the next morning for a tech run-through before the 9 o’clock show. Not that night.

“I called George and actually woke him up,” says Greenberger. “I asked him to come back in, and I got the team ready.”

Greenberger loves news and the fast pace of working on a live program where big, weighty issues are analyzed and discussed.  But he wants the issues discussed to be timely too. “We could play it safe and stick with the show we come up with on the previous Tuesday or Wednesday, when things start to take shape and we are booking interviewees. But I think it’s important to include late-breaking news,” he says.  And a lot of news breaks over the weekend. The terrorist attack on a Nairobi mall happened on a Saturday. The Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán was captured on a Saturday. The Malaysian airliner went missing on a Friday night. So nothing is set until the show finally airs.

Greenberger  with Stephanopoulos  preparing for a show

Greenberger with Stephanopoulos
preparing for a show

“It’s a lot of work for that one hour,” says Greenberger. “But the Sunday morning news programs are in a category separate from other news. And the competition to book guests is very stiff—members of Congress perceive the stakes to be higher for our show because the discussion will be in depth. And what our guests say often actually becomes news.”

At the core of This Week is a small team of dedicated on-air presenters plus production and technical staff.  While working with Stephanopoulos and senior producers to come up with compelling viewing drives Greenberger, he takes the team management part of his job equally seriously. And he credits the whole team with the show’s success.

“Martha Raddatz [ABC’s chief global affairs correspondent and a guest presenter for the show] recently said that it feels like a college radio station, with a bunch of 20 and 30 somethings sticking around until late and eating pizza together,” says Greenberger. “I think she’s kind of right. The camaraderie here is key to making it work.”

Greenberger’s adopted city of Manhattan caters to the kind of all-in work schedule he now has. “A lot of my friends keep odd hours—whether they’re writers or lawyers—it’s very common here. So it’s pretty easy to find someone to go to a mid-week matinee or a late dinner,” he says. “I’ve got a weird schedule but New York is cut out for that.”

Sunday afternoon is news free for Greenberger though. “It’s one of the few times that I can really turn off,” he says.  By Monday morning, he’s back in the game fielding conference calls with the show’s on-air team and working closely with Stephanopoulos on subjects for the next week’s show. He re-watches the previous show with fresh eyes—the pressures of producing a live television broadcast behind him.

“It’s always sensory overload in the control room; there’s so much I have to be thinking about,” he says. But the challenge is to keep improving. “We want each show to be better than the last. How do we persuade people to spend an hour of their Sunday with us? We’re constantly reevaluating and trying to be worthy of their time.”

Greenberger looks at the whiteboard in his office—it’s filled with upcoming news: Senator Elizabeth Warren has a new memoir, the Supreme Court’s term ends in June, and we’re nearing the one-year anniversary of United States v. Windsor. All are possible topics for upcoming shows. He pauses when asked about his job and the 24/7 pace of news today. In our wired, minute-by-minute updated world, it can be challenging for a news junkie like Greenberger to turn off. But he doesn’t want to; he’s right where he wants to be.

“I’m paid to learn about the world and think about it critically and to find ways to help our viewers learn something. How do I present the news in a compelling and thoughtful way? That’s a fun assignment,” says Greenberger. SL

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