NEW YORK – ABC News President David Westin, the longest-reigning network news division chief, with more than 13 tumultuous years on the job, told his staff Monday that he is resigning and will leave by the end of the year.
Westin has presided over anchor changes at three of ABC’s top news programs over the past year. Under pressure from his corporate bosses to save money during a dispiriting time in the news business, he also oversaw a cut of 25 percent in ABC News’ staff in the past few years.
Westin, who just turned 58, said he wanted to pursue other opportunities but agreed to stay on through a transition to a successor.
“I’ve always admired those few who know when it’s time to move on,” Westin wrote in a staff memo that was given to The Associated Press by a staffer. “This is the right time for me.”
Westin’s successor will be appointed soon, Disney-ABC Media Networks co-chairwoman Anne Sweeney said.
Westin, a corporate lawyer with little background in the news business, was regarded with suspicion by many at ABC when he took over in March 1997 from television legend Roone Arledge. But he stuck it out through some difficult moments, including the sudden cancer death of anchor Peter Jennings and the severe wounding of successor Bob Woodruff in an Iraq bombing.
ABC has remained a solid second in the ratings behind NBC News for its evening and morning newscasts, and “Nightline” made a strong transition from charter anchor Ted Koppel.
Within the past year, Westin has appointed Diane Sawyer to replace Charles Gibson as anchor of the signature “World News” broadcast, moved George Stephanopoulos from Washington to New York to co-host “Good Morning America” with Robin Roberts and hired Christiane Amanpour from CNN to lead the Sunday morning “This Week” political talk show.
His signature achievement may have been convincing Sawyer and Gibson to co-host “Good Morning America” a decade ago, saving the profitable morning show at a time it was in real trouble in the ratings.
Westin was praised for his guidance during the difficult period surrounding Jennings’ death. He tried to experiment with the anchor team of Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas, but that lasted less than a month before Woodruff was seriously hurt. Gibson eventually took over the broadcast.
Westin’s most embarrassing moment came in 2000, when the network sent actor Leonardo DiCaprio, instead of a journalist, to interview President Bill Clinton about global warming. He was occasionally criticized for a deliberate decision-making style that left some of his broadcasts going through lengthy periods with substitute hosts.
He is a particular champion of Stephanopoulos, who has grown comfortable as a journalist when some questioned whether he could make the switch from politics. He also has promoted the investigative work of Brian Ross.
While Arledge built up a stable of stars at ABC News during a period of growth in the news industry, Westin had the opposite job, guiding a division at a time of retrenchment in the news business as the three big broadcast networks saw their roles change with the growth of cable news. NBC had a financial advantage with the affiliation of cable news networks CNBC and MSNBC, while ABC did not have a regular cable outlet.
“We went through a very difficult transformation made necessary by changes in our business and its economics,” Westin wrote.
Sweeney, in an ABC staff memo that also was given to the AP by an employee, said Westin was a “tireless advocate” for ABC News through “some of the most seismic industry, and divisional, changes imaginable.”
“While it will be sad to see David leave,” she wrote, “his desire to pursue other professional endeavors is understandable, and commendable.”
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