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Shoes to Fill at ABC News

The timing of David Westin’s Labor Day resignation announcement left ABC News staffers scratching their heads. Many expected a regime change - or something more drastic, such as a merger with cash-rich Bloomberg TV - at some point, especially in the wake of a brutal 25% staff purge that Westin himself billed as a “transformation.” But sources noted that Westin’s email announcement late on Labor Day evening seemed rushed and ill-timed.

As recently as last week, Westin announced an executive realignment that included taking direct supervision of ABC News programs including World News with Diane Sawyer and Good Morning America.

Westin took the helm of ABC News from the legendary Roone Arledge, who hired past and current ABC News stars including Diane Sawyer, Peter Jennings and Barbara Walters. Arledge was a consumate showman with a producer’s gut for the theatricality of television - from sports to news. Westin hailed from the more buttoned-down confines of corporate law. Reserved, cerebral and a stranger to the control room, Westin, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, brought a high-brow tone to the news division. He arranged off-the-record briefings on the executive floor where senior staff were invited to hear luminaries from the worlds of politics, finance and foreign affairs discourse. Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi, Pervez Musharraf, Ban Ki-moon, Mohamed ElBaradei, Larry Summers, Hank Paulson, and George Soros are just a few of the boldface names that graced Westin’s couch.

And while he may not have had Arledge’s television instincts, he nevertheless venerated the newsgathering mission and in so doing constituted a kind of continuity with the old guard at ABC News, something that may be lost depending on whom Disney executives select to replace him. Westin’s relationship with Anne Sweeney, president of Disney-ABC Television Group, was cool and some might be forgiven for reading into her email announcing his departure, a hint of exasperation when she proclaimed him “a tireless advocate for ABC News.” According to staffers, his efforts to ensure that the recent cuts to the news division were done surgically, his championing of news division turf in primetime and late night with Nightline, and his claims to colleagues that Christiane Amanpour being hired for This Week was Iger’s doing and not his, may have hastened a rupture with his West Coast bosses. Within ABC News, staffers say, there was a sense that Westin’s days were numbered after the ordeal of the gut-wrenching cuts last February. Now Sweeney has the opportunity to install a news president untainted by the restructuring and unconnected to the legacies of ABC News. Sources inside the news division say that with the departure of Dave Davis - who was brought in as Westin’s second-in-command in 2008 - and announced retirement of creative development senior VP Phyllis McGrady from fulltime duties, internal candidates to replace Westin could include other executives currently at ABC News. Paul Slavin, senior VP in charge of digital, is a former producer. Amy Entelis, the senior VP for talent and recruitment, has been in place since Roone Arledge’s era. And Kate O’Brian, senior VP of news coverage, is known to have a good rapport with Anne Sweeney.  

The smart money though is betting on someone from the outside, perhaps from another unit of the Walt Disney company or the ABC station group. One name that comes up is Rebecca Campell, who was recently promoted to oversee ABC’s O&Os. Perhaps more important than news bona fides though is someone with a shrewd business sense who knows how to find the profit margins in an industry beset by shrinking audiences and ad revenue. A handle on the potential of social media and the wider cable and digital landscape that has siphoned off viewers may also be essential job criteria.

For whatever reason, Westin was unable to bring to fruition recent talks with Bloomberg LP that could have enabled ABC News to amortize its newsgathering costs. NBC News, which has the top-rated morning, evening and Sunday news programs, takes the lion’s share of available ad revenue in those day parts. But significantly, its cable business has cushioned it from the downturns in ad revenue that have afflicted ABC News and CBS News. A West Coast source with access to Sweeney and her boss Disney president Bob Iger says “entrepreneur” is a more important credential for the next news division president than “journalist.” Whoever Sweeney picks, Westin’s resignation has left some ABC News staffers unexpectedly misty-eyed. When Westin took the helm fourteen years ago, he was greeted with skepticism because he lacked a background in journalism. Over the years, his razor-sharp intellect and commitment to keeping ABC News competitive earned him widespread respect.

It has been pointed out that Arledge packed ABC News with star anchors during the expansion era of television news. But Westin reigned during the industry’s contraction and it fell to him to shed those stars. Yet, Westin could boast his share of victories and impressive accomplishments. Among them: persuading Diane Sawyer and Charles Gibson to anchor Good Morning America turning a moribund morning program into a competitor; the successful re-launch of Nightline in the wake of Ted Koppel’s departure; and shepherding no less than three anchor transitions at World News (two of which were necessitated by tragedy, first the death of Peter Jennings from lung cancer and then Bob Woodruff’s near-fatal injuries in Iraq).

A high caliber ambassador for a proud but struggling news organization, David Westin leaves a cloud of apprehension in his wake.