David Westin leaving as president of ABC News, no successor named
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David Westin, the longtime president of ABC News who spent much of his tenure managing newsroom upheaval and most recently a round of brutal cuts, announced he is leaving the network at the end of the year.
In a memo to his staff, Westin, 58, acknowledged the challenges the broadcast news business is facing and what it has meant for his own team and said the time is right for him to resign.
‘I’ve always admired those few who know when it is time to move on,’ Westin wrote, adding ‘we went through a very difficult transformation made necessary by changes in our business and its economics,’ but that he feels he is leaving ABC News ‘better positioned for the future than it has been at any time since I came here in March of 1997.’
Westin’s departure comes at a time of great change in the broadcast news business. Ratings for evening news telecasts have been on a steady decline for decades as viewers shift to cable. Furthermore, all the broadcast networks have been cutting costs in their news units, particularly ABC. Earlier this year, the news division trimmed more than 20% of its staff.
The forced belt-tightening was brought on by the weak advertising market, erosion of network news ratings and ABC’s precarious position in the market. Unlike NBC, which can amortize the costs of its news division over two cable channels -- MSNBC and CNBC -- ABC must absorb all of the costs at the network level.
Although rumblings that Westin may be leaving have been kicking around ABC News for the last few months and Westin himself said in his memo that he told his bosses -- Bob Iger, the president of ABC parent Walt Disney Co., and Anne Sweeney, the president of the Disney/ABC Television Group -- in August of his plans to leave, no successor for him was immediately named.
In a statement, Sweeney praised Westin for his 13 years on the job ‘through some of the most seismic industry, and divisional, changes imaginable.’ She said she would announce a new president ‘in the near future.’ There is no clear-cut No. 2 at ABC News right now. Senior executives likely to be considered for Westin’s position include senior vice presidents Paul Slavin and Bob Murphy.
However, if recent history is any guide, ABC may look to go outside its news division to find a successor. There have been several high-profile departures at the company as of late and their replacements have not been traditional choices. For example, Dick Cook, the longtime chief of Disney’s movie studio was replaced by Rich Ross, the chief of Disney Channel who had no movie experience. More recently, Steve McPherson, the head of ABC’s entertainment operations, abruptly quit and was succeeded by Paul Lee, who had been running ABC Family, but had no broadcast experience. Just last week, Disney named the head of its radio unit, Michael Riley, to replace Lee at ABC Family.
Westin’s decision to leave will no doubt again spark speculation that ABC News will look to find a partner to help it better compete in the digital age. Over the years, ABC has flirted with Time Warner’s CNN about possibly creating a partnership, but those talks have never led to a deal. More recently, ABC has been linked to Bloomberg LP, the business news conglomerate that is looking to expand its reach.
A lawyer who also once clerked for Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, Westin had a stint as ABC’s general counsel and as head of an in-house production unit before he was tapped to succeed legendary producer Roone Arledge as the day-to-day boss of ABC News. An unusual choice, Westin had to win over the newsroom, who had doubts that a lawyer with no journalism experience could lead the division.
Eventually, Westin made the transition from lawyer to news president and during his run dealt with some very trying challenges, including the death of the network’s longtime anchor Peter Jennings. He was replaced by the team of Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas. Soon after, Woodruff was seriously wounded in Iraq. Vargas left her post for personal reasons, and ABC News veteran Charlie Gibson took over as anchor. He stepped down last year and was replaced by Diane Sawyer. While ABC News is in second place, it has not seriously challenged NBC News for the top spot in many years.In the mornings, ‘Good Morning America’ was once a serious competitor to NBC’s ‘Today’ but it has been enduring its own rocky transition with George Stephanopoulos replacing Sawyer as one of the primary anchors of that show. ABC’s ‘Nightline’ has never really regained the journalistic credibility it had under Ted Koppel, although its ratings performance has been respectable. However, one of that show’s key hosts -- Martin Bashir -- recently defected to MSNBC.
Westin, who has been with ABC for almost 20 years, told his staff there are other things he wants to do professionally that he said he can’t pursue while still working at the network. Already there is speculation that Westin could end up at CNN, which has many challenges of its own in its battle against Fox News and MSNBC. However, a person close to CNN downplayed that scenario as industry gossip.
-- Joe Flint and Meg James