Walter Cronkite held forth from New York and Washington for CBS News. His heirs at a new ViacomCBS unit will do the same, while also monitoring Sacramento, Minneapolis and Dallas.
The two executives named to head a newly fashioned division that combines the CBS local stations with CBS News and the team that manages the CBSN live-streaming news service offered their early vision for how the operation will function. Both Wendy McMahon and Neeraj Khemlani suggested in their first outreach to staffers that the company’s ultimate product will combine the national and overseas heft of CBS News with feet on the ground in various cities where CBS operates.
“We’re rooted in the idea that we have to maintain our identity, our core DNA, hard-hitting reporting and exquisite storytelling. It’s the soul of CBS News,” said Khemlani, during a meeting with staffers on Monday. “And that’s what will distinguish us from everybody else in every product we build, that’s how we’re going to cut through the clutter.”
The pair talked on Monday with employees from various parts of their unit, and seemed aware of the questions that employees might have about next steps, telling them in a memo to “please know that we’re aware you have questions about how we will operate going forward. We will be in touch very soon with more specifics.” There was no initial word about staffing or deployment of the new division’s employees.
The decision to merge CBS’ TV stations with the company’s storied news division is one of the first big moves by George Cheeks, previously a veteran of NBC’s late night and entertainment operations, since he was named to lead ViacomCBS’ CBS properties after majority owner National Amusements Inc. combined the companies in late 2019. His vision is this: News operations managed by separate executives in distinct businesses devoted to national, local and digital news can’t gain the kind of broad scale alone that they might together. Other companies have tested similar methodologies. In 2015, newspaper publisher Gannett united its national USA Today broadsheet and dozens of local newspapers into a broader newsgathering “network.”
“As audiences and business continues to change, we have an opportunity to once again reimagine what we do and how we do it, transforming to serve our existing audiences and, of course, to attract new ones,” McMahon said during Monday’s meeting.
Both executives have experience with the demands of various media venues. McMahon previously supervised ABC’s local stations for Disney, after a stint overseeing digital operations for those same outlets. Khemlani, a former producer with CBS News’ “60 Minutes,” was, most recently, executive vice president of Hearst Newspapers. He was also a senior executive at Yahoo in an earlier role.
Cheeks brings together operations that have navigated outsize public scrutiny in the recent past. CBS recently parted ways with two of its most senior local stations executives after allegations surfaced about how they treated female staffers and employees of color. Peter Dunn, the former head of CBS’ stations unit, has denied claims made against him. CBS News, meanwhile, has continued to wrangle with third-place ratings for its flagship morning and evening news programs. One of the factors in drawing audiences for those programs has long been the strength of the stations that show them.
Both executives took a moment to thank Susan Zirinsky, the outgoing CBS News president who is taking a new production deal that will have her developing a range of projects across the company. Zirinsky, a well-regarded producer who has been with CBS News for decades, took on the difficult task of boosting morale at a news unit that had been buffeted by claims about its internal culture as well as a series of talent decisions that resulted in ratings declines at some of its best-known programs. Once she took the reins of the division, she was confronted with keeping the place operating as the coronavirus pandemic forced a reworking of most procedures.
“The task we faced was daunting and we made it because of your strength and commitment,” Zirinsky said in a memo to staff on Monday. “This has been a life changing experience for all of us and I would not trade one moment. Not one.” She is expected to take a new office in CBS corporate headquarters in Manhattan.