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ABC News Chief Westin Resigns; Who Wants to Manage Decline?

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David Westin, who has managed ABC News for nearly 14 years, is announcing his resignation, pending ABC’s naming a replacement. The resignation comes with the usual statement about pursuing other opportunities, and the specific causes of the move are arguable: The Daily Beast pegs Westin’s departure as the handiwork of Disney head Bob Iger, who’s been disappointed with network performance, while a New York Times report suggests that the financial pressures were not the prime factor. But either way, the larger context of Westin’s resignation is: running a network news division—like running many things in the media business—is not what it used to be.

ABC News recently went through a dramatic bloodletting, planning to shed about 25 percent of its staff. It’s not alone in this kind of pain: NBC and CBS have gone through their own rounds of drastic cutbacks. And ABC has been running second to NBC in the nightly-news ratings, a not-shabby performance under Diane Sawyer. Its bigger problem, financially, is that it doesn’t have a cable arm, like MSNBC, to make money, share labor and reduce costs.

In the bigger sense, the person who would do a job like Westin’s today has to accept the none-too-exciting assignment of managing decline. There are growth opportunities in media today—God knows there’s only more and more media to consume—but that growth is not in the old glamour areas of mid-twentieth-century broadcast network news, with massive audiences, a high profile and extensive resources. And even as the audiences for mainstays like the evening news have shrunk, the imperative to turn a profit on the news division—once an afterthought, if not a non-thought, at the big networks—is ever greater.

People still take jobs in the managing-decline business: the checks still clear, after all, and shows like the network evening news are still among the most-watched platforms in an environment where almost every individual audience is tinier than it used to be. (Cable news is big in the aggregate, for instance, but even the biggest individual cable news shows, like Fox’s primetime lineup, get fewer viewers than the shrinking network-news shows.) The next person to take a big job like Westin’s nowadays has to accept that, in important ways, the big job is smaller.