ABC News, stung by a couple recent gaffes, is in the midst of a management restructuring that ABC News President David Westin thinks will smartly reposition the news division.
In the past month, Westin has elevated two executives—Paul Slavin and Rick Kaplan—who, with Phyllis McGrady will serve as the senior editorial-management triumvirate just below Westin himself.
The structure, had it existed, might have helped ABC avoid some problems in the past, but, Westin says, "this is really about structuring ABC News for the next generation. This is a new management structure to address new business challenges, which we all face right now. TV news is expanding into new avenues and ways of reaching audiences very rapidly."
In effect, Kaplan, who spent 18 years at ABC News before jumping to CNN to head its domestic news operation in 1997, is the division's top hard-news programming executive. He'll have responsibility for the World News Tonight
broadcasts, as well as World News Now, World News This Morning, Nightline, This Week With George Stephanopoulosand the division's political unit.
McGrady will continue to oversee prime time magazines 20/20
and Primetime Thursday, development of new magazines, and Good Morning America.
But Slavin's new job is perhaps the most pivotal: He makes all the trains run on time.
Although Westin says the structural changes are just forward-looking management changes, there are a couple gaffes he'd like to make sure ABC News doesn't repeat. The network was late getting on the air to cover the shuttle disaster last February. And one crisis later, when the war in Iraq began, anchor Peter Jennings abruptly ended the network's first-night coverage at 11 p.m. after affiliates had been led to believe the network's coverage would extend later than that. Several scrambled to air their local newscasts; some stations just slapped in alternative programs because they were not nearly ready to do the news, The affiliates howled, and ABC groveled.
Officially, Slavin, who has been with ABC News since 1979 and who has run World News Tonight With Peter Jennings
since 2000, is officially in charge of worldwide newsgathering.
But here's how Westin describes the new setup: "The basic structure that I've put in place is to have one person in charge of Good Morning America
and the news magazines, one person in charge of hard news, and a third person to pull it all together. And by that I mean pull all the programs together, plus the desk, plus ABC News Radio, ABCNews.com, the news ventures we have in the broadband area, and, as important as anything else, the affiliates."
So, while McGrady and Kaplan focus on the programming, Slavin's job, in addition to overseeing the newsgathering apparatus, is to stay on top of everything, making sure all units are in sync and coordinated with one another.
Perhaps part of the reason for the Iraq mistake, as well as the slow start on the shuttle coverage, insiders say, is that neither Slavin nor Kaplan was in his new job then. Paul Friedman, former executive vice president of ABC News, had, in essence, been doing both jobs until he left around the first of the year.
To hear some tell it, the job as it was structured then was probably too broad for just one person to handle. "Some areas suffered considerably," says one source familiar with the situation. "Not the least of which were the desk and affiliate relations."
One management move directly addresses the latter. Joan Preztunik, with NewsOne, ABC's affiliate news service, is taking on a new job as executive director of newsgathering, coordinating all affiliate-related activities with the national news desk. She'll report directly to Slavin, who stressed when he took the new job that one goal was to improve relations with affiliates.
For now, affiliate executives say they're encouraged that Westin is strengthening his management team. "It's good that they're addressing that," says Bruce Baker, immediate past chairman of the ABC affiliate board of governors. "I think affiliates on the whole are going to keep an open mind, but the performance is going to have to speak a lot louder than the promises."
More management changes are still to come, says Westin, including a replacement for Slavin at World News Tonight. Speculation is that This Week
executive producer Jon Banner is the lead candidate for the post. If that does occur, it's believed that Tom Bettag, co-executive producer at Nightline
would assume the This Week
Westin's not talking beyond acknowledging that there are multiple candidates for both posts. He hopes to make final decisions in the next two to three weeks