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 AJR  The Beat

From AJR,   July/August 1998  issue

Life After Roone at ABC News   

David Westin replaces the legendary Roone Arledge as ABC News' main man.


By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      

David Westin has his work cut out for him. Not only is he walking in the shadow of ABC News legend RooneArledge , he's assuming the reins at a time when the network faces both a ratings slump and cost-cutting concerns.

Of course, Westin, 46, has already made one great stride. One of three rumored heirs to Arledge, who announced he would relinquish the chief executive slot in late May, Westin got the final nod.

Now Westin, a lawyer who keeps his ABC News president title, stands atop a news division beset with challenges. With the exception of "20/20," ABC's news programs lag behind NBC 's in the ratings. "Good Morning America" suffers from a viewer exodus, and the network has failed to establish a cable presence.

"I think right now David's got a huge mission," says Philadelphia Inquirer TV Columnist Gail Shister . "He's got a very, very tough job." Shister's comments are echoed by many media critics.

Westin's overall goal is "to focus on exactly what it is that we do better than anyone else and make sure we're pursuing those aims and objectives," he says, citing "Nightline" as a model. With the current abundance of news sources vying for attention, "simply getting data out there the fastest is not enough," he explains. "Nightline" presents "context and meaning and perspective," and "that is where ABC needs to focus its efforts in the future."

To help carry out this daunting mission, enter Shelby Coffey III , Westin's newly appointed top deputy, who left his editor's post at the Los Angeles Times in 1997. As executive vice president, Coffey, a former editor of the now defunct Dallas Times Herald , U.S. News &World Report and the Washington Post 's Style section, will spearhead new business and cable development and oversee ABC News' Internet ventures, in addition to handling editorial duties.

Coffey is brand new to broadcast. And Westin's experience in the news division only covers the last 15 months. The lack of TV news background at the top has many ABC staffers "quite nervous," Shister says.

But ABC News Washington Bureau Chief RobinSproul says she's not worried. Westin's relatively brief stint, she says, has shown him to be "a quick study on journalism issues..also a tremendous leader of us journalistically." Westin, for his part, says he'd "much rather be judged in retrospect than prospectively."

A change in leadership style seems inevitable. Shister says Westin, unlike Arledge, is "very good about returning phone calls, much more accessible to his own people... He's a much more casual kind of guy."

Coffey, 51, says Westin impressed him with "his drive, his persuasiveness, his sincerity and his strong news values" when Westin called him shortly after his departure from the Times. As for any qualms about broadcast, Coffey says, "It is not unprecedented for people to go from print to broadcast," citing former L.A. Times Publisher Tom Johnson , who now heads CNN , as an example.

Coffey's mandate to explore new ventures clearly reflects the changing landscape of television news. "Coffey is the guy who understands synergy," says David Zurawik , television critic for the Baltimore Sun , though he doesn't see a lot of major changes in ABC News right away. "He's not a stir-'em-up, throw-people-out-the-
window kind of guy," he says of Coffey. "He moves methodically."

But there's little doubt that the new leadership team will quickly confront tough financial realities. Owner Walt Disney Co. wants and needs a reduction in spending, something Arledge was famous for ignoring. "That's probably the top priority for David Westin," says Marc Gunther , author of the 1994 book "The House that Roone Built."

Is it Westin's main concern? "I don't regard it as cost-cutting," he says, adding that ABC News will "prune in some places so we can grow in others."

The two execs face a challenge that's starkly different from the one that first confronted Arledge, who had a sports background and encountered the same skepticism over the lack of news experience as Westin. Arledge was charged with building up a weak organization, not massaging the financial outlook of a strong one. "It's always hard to take over for a legend," Gunther says, "but these are particularly difficult circumstances."

Arledge, 67, made his mark as president of ABC Sports, where he created "Monday Night Football" and "Wide World of Sports"; he also introduced the use of instant replays and underwater cameras. In 1977, he became president of ABC News and, within a decade, propelled the suffering division to the top of the ratings. Arledge lured high-profile journalists to his network, among them David Brinkley and Diane Sawyer , and was instrumental in bringing about "Nightline" and "20/20," ABC mainstays.

Arledge remains chairman, consulting the news division on "all major decisions," and becomes senior vice president of ABC, Inc., where he will work with network President Robert Iger on "company-wide programming activities and new endeavors," according to a press release.

The legend of Arledge will not soon vanish. "Roone is a broadcasting genius," says Sproul, hardly the only one to grant him such a heady title. Westin, who says he's learned a lot from his predecessor, and Coffey agree they'll draw on his wealth of knowledge.

At the top of the new management team's big issues list, Shister and TV Guide Senior Editor Max Robins agree, is fixing "Good Morning America." "One of the great brand names in television," says Robins, is "in a great downward spiral." The two critics throw in the management of merging "20/20" and "PrimeTime Live" and strengthening "World News Tonight" as musts. (Shister notes "World News Now" and "Good Morning America Sunday" are problematic, too).

And the new leadership team has to move the network into new terrain as well. "One of Coffey's main jobs is to get them a news presence on cable," says Zurawik. Coffey calls an all-news channel "not an immediate aim" and says there are other new areas to investigate. A little more than two years ago, Disney allowed Arledge to announce plans for a 24-hour all news channel but quickly axed it, citing cost concerns. Zurawik notes that the episode was one of the times management undercut Arledge. Of the recent handoff of power, he says, "The chairman thing is moving him aside as gracefully as they can manage with deference to his reputation and career." Arledge could not be reached for comment.