How David Westin Ruined ABC News

The slogan of ABC News was once, “More Americans get their news from ABC News than from any other source.” Now, not a single ABC News show leads its time slot. 

What happened? ABC News President David Westin spent the past 13 years running the network news division into the ground. 

Photo – New York Daily News

Westin announced Tuesday that he was resigning (the PC term for getting fired) at the end of the year. His internal resignation email was a lame effort to leave his legacy on the network. 

“Over the last nine months, we’ve put in place new anchors on all of our programs. At the same time, we went through a very difficult transformation made necessary by changes in our business and its economics,” the email said. “I am confident ABC News is better positioned for the future than it has been at any time since I came here in March of 1997.”

Westin may be confident, but he’s dead wrong. The news division has been decimated since he arrived during the ides of March

I worked at the ABC News in the Washington, D.C., bureau when Westin was hand-picked by parent company Disney President Robert Iger (who’s now Disney CEO.) 

Even now, I remember the shock and disappointment among the journalists that a lawyer—Westin—would be running their beloved news division. 

He moved from D.C. to Manhattan when he got the ABC News job and quickly fell into an elitist, out-of-touch, mainstream media mindset. He fired the conservative Bill Kristol (who moved to Fox News) and promoted liberal journalists—Diane Sawyer, George Stephanopoulos, Fareed Zakaria and, most recently, Christiane Amanpour. 

Westin was not a news man. But, as time went on, Westin’s bigger problem was that he wasn’t a businessman. His management style was to only act out of fear for his own position. He also seemingly did Iger’s bidding without pushing back. He was risk averse. 

However, Westin’s biggest weakness was that he lacked the entrepreneurial spirit to launch innovative and creative ventures. 

ABC Didn’t Adapt

The old three-network broadcast TV industry changed with the development of cable TV and the Internet. 

Journalists like to think themselves above the fray of the business side of their industry. But media is a business like any other. When existing revenue streams are drying up (TV shows lose viewers) and there is no new revenue streams (new programs, cable outlets, digital media), then expenses have to be cut. 

The networks that have succeeded during this period did so by doing two things: creating new programs that appeal to viewers and develop a cable network outlet. ABC News, under Westin’s failed leadership, did neither. 

Furthermore, while all media has suffered in the recession, ABC News in particular was hit hard because it was trying to manage lower ad revenue with no new revenue streams to shore up the loss. 

Cable networks are the most profitable part of news divisions, but ABC did not utilize that model. Without the cable counterpart, ABC News is dependent on the dwindling viewers of broadcast news. 

Westin could have boosted profits by creating new programming or adapting to the changing media landscape. Instead, he dealt with dwindling profits by cuttings costs related to news gathering—closing bureaus and cutting staff. 

During the past two years especially, Westin made drastic staff cuts which affected ABC morale. By late April, Westin closed every domestic bureau (except Washington, D.C.), fired half of the correspondents and cut the staff by about 400 people. 

He emailed the staff after the massive cuts that “from this base, we are positioned to grow and to do even greater work than we have in the past.”

Again, he was wrong.  

Roone Arledge’s Success

Roone Arledge was one of the greatest minds in broadcast history. His talent was in creating dynamic news shows around stars such as Peter Jennings, David Brinkley, Barbara Walters, Ted Koppel and Diane Sawyer. 

Photo – LIFE

Arledge created programming to meet the audience demands. Magazine shows, derided by critics as being undignified for a news division, were the most profitable divisions at ABC News. He wasn’t elitist and met the public demand with shows such as “20/20” and “Prime Time Live.”

The late night news program “Nightline” evolved out of a nightly report on the Iran hostage crisis that was getting good ratings. 

Arledge recognized the space for competition to NBC’s “Meet the Press” so he decided to create his own Sunday public affairs show. He hired David Brinkley, who was languishing at NBC, and made him the anchor of the antiquated “Issues and Answers” show. “This Week with David Brinkley” quickly became the Sunday morning standard both in ratings and revenue.

Westin inherited the Arledge legacy and proceeded to squander it.

He never created a new show. He shuttered the once-profitable news magazine shows. He refused to move into the profitable cable TV business. 

From a management standpoint, Westin was weak and afraid of Arledge’s stars, who used their shows to promote themselves, instead of the network.

“World News Tonight with Peter Jennings” was the No. 1 evening newscast for years. Westin, however, never pushed Jennings to groom his replacement. So when Jennings died, the network scrambled for months to determine the replacement. (Compare this model to NBC which kept a content Brian Williams in the wings ready to jump in the anchor chair when Tom Brokaw retired.) 

Westin finally came up with the cockamamie plan of putting Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff rotating between the anchor desk and on-site reporting. The choice of Vargas and Woodruff was made because Westin assumed that younger viewers like watching younger anchors. His assumption was incorrect. 

Even though the co-anchor concept was prematurely broken up after Woodruff’s brain injury in Iraq, the ratings had been going down and continued to do so until Vargas was shown the door. 

Photo – ABC

Charlie Gibson, who had waited patiently his entire career to land the evening news anchor chair, seemed tired and unmotivated in the slot. He never took on a leadership role in the New York bureau so “World News Tonight” limped along for another couple years. 

Despite the economic recession and dwindling profits at ABC, Westin gave Diane Sawyer $16 million to anchor after Gibson. Sawyer’s star power has not changed the direction of the sinking ship and the broadcast is still behind Brian Williams on NBC.

Westin gave Sawyer the evening anchor chair at her demand, but the decision was short-sighted. She left an open seat at “Good Morning America” which Westin filled with George Stephanopoulos. The musical chairs continued and Stephanopoulos’ anchor chair at “This Week” was filled with CNN’s foreign affairs correspondent Christiane Amanpour.

Stephanopoulos was well regarded in the Sunday show slot, but with the switch, ratings have fallen for both “Good Morning America” and “This Week” and critics have panned both shows. Amanpour is so miscast as anchor of a political Sunday show that even ABC staff find the show unwatchable and embarrassing. 

Westin attempted—but failed—to partner ABC with CNN and Bloomberg to bring in much-needed revenue. Instead, he should have spent his time creating new shows with audience appeal and new concepts to adapt to a changed media landscape. 

Once the number one news source for Americans, ABC News is now limping to its inevitable end: getting sold to anyone willing to take on the mess left by David Westin.