A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
Being the president of a broadcast TV news division: Is it a dream job or a dreadful job? A president is expected to make the right editorial calls in real time, beat the competition, juggle talent egos, stave off staff rebellions, enhance the corporate culture, grow the digital operation, balance the budget, impress advertisers, and defend real news against “fake news” lies.
These are complex jobs, which may explain why it takes a while to consider the candidates and name a successor. Disney did that on Wednesday when Kimberly Godwin was named the next president of ABC News. Another such job is currently open: CBS News president Susan Zirinsky told her staff that she’ll be stepping aside in short order. ViacomCBS is close to announcing her successor.
Zirinsky was a historic pick two years ago: The first woman to lead CBS News. And Godwin, her second in command at CBS, is making history as well: She will be the first woman to run ABC News and the first Black person to run any of America’s big broadcast news divisions.
It is a triumphant moment, a hopeful time for everyone who believes the news should look and sound more like the country it covers. And yet I’d be lying if I ended the story there. The scuttlebutt surrounding both Godwin’s appointment and the impending CBS announcement is about the changing nature of broadcast news…
Growing or shrinking?
The NBC, ABC and CBS newsrooms are still ambitious, but not the way they once were. Ratings are eroding. Audiences are gravitating to cable channels for breaking news and views. Digital efforts are a hard slog. The broadcast networks are covering the day’s top stories, but are they setting the news agenda? Is anyone, anymore?
When I asked a senior exec if it’s apt to call these “caretaker” jobs, the person responded with a different word, “undertaker.”
And yet: Millions of people still do watch, especially in emergencies. News is a public good and media CEOs want to feel that they’re doing good. The shifts in the industry (fragmentation, polarization, streaming, subscription) are bigger than any one person or outlet or platform. Despite these shifts, the networks produce standout content. There are real opportunities for expansion – if the broadcasters can get it right. For example, there are high hopes inside ABC about creating content for Hulu and other streaming outlets…
On CNN.com, we went with this: “The new president of ABC News is about to make history.” Most other outlets went with the same framing. At ABC News, every past president has been a white man. And newsrooms have been under both internal and external pressure to match their talk about valuing diversity with action. Thus, when James Goldston announced his departure plans in January, industry insiders said that Disney would make finding a person of color a priority.
During a 3pm call with staffers on Wednesday, Disney exec Peter Rice praised Godwin and indicated that she’s not being installed to “fix” ABC’s shows – “World News” and “GMA” are already “humming along,” as the AP’s David Bauder put it – but she is being charged with improving the news division’s “culture…”
Who will run CBS News?
“Several news organizations have undergone leadership changes as executives confront a drastically different news environment in the aftermath of Donald J. Trump’s presidency,” the NYT’s John Koblin and Michael M. Grynbaum wrote. “Jeff Zucker announced in February that he will step down as CNN’s president by the end of the year. Rashida Jones recently replaced Phil Griffin as the head of MSNBC.”
The next shoe to drop will be at CBS News. Page Six led with a colorful story about Zirinsky on Wednesday morning: She protested a boring CBS corporate budget meeting by writing “I hate my job” and holding it up for everyone to read, a source told the gossip column.
There’s no denying that Zirinsky disliked some of the backstage parts of the presidency. She will be getting back to full-time producing once ViacomCBS names a new president. The exec search has been underway for months, and Godwin obviously wasn’t chosen. So what’s taking so long? Yashar Ali tweeted on Wednesday, “Let me tell you, it’s been some time since a network has been able to keep a secret like this. It’s rather remarkable and frustrating. Everyone who normally would know truly doesn’t know this time…”
>> Ali also broke the news that Wendy McMahon, the president of ABC Owned Television Stations, is leaving the company with no immediate word on her replacement. Is she about to take over the CBS Television Stations?
What do viewers want?
That’s always the key question: What do news consumers want? On TV, online, in print, etcetera? Coincidentally, a new study “of the public’s attitude toward the press” came out on Wednesday and showed that “distrust goes deeper than partisanship and down to how journalists define their very mission,” per The AP.
Tom Rosenstiel said that “in some ways, this study suggests that our job is broader and bigger than we’ve defined it.” Check out the findings here. WaPo’s Margaret Sullivan said the study revealed “a troubling disconnect between core journalistic values (accountability, transparency, giving a voice to the less powerful) and the American public…”