CBS News Chief Susan Zirinsky: ‘Our Job Is to Reveal America to Itself’

She spoke at Adweek's Convergent TV summit about her network's multiplatform approach to coverage

susan zirinsky
"Linear is not dead. I want advertisers to embrace us," said CBS News president Susan Zirinsky. Adweek
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The coronavirus pandemic has placed every news organization in a difficult spot. But CBS News had an extraordinary disadvantage relative to its competitors: It was without a home for several months.

During Tuesday’s Adweek Convergent TV summit, CBS News president Susan Zirinsky discussed her network’s “creative adaptivity” during these surreal times, especially in the several months when the CBS Broadcast Center in New York was shut down after multiple staffers tested positive for Covid-19.

Zirinsky, who spoke with Adweek editor and svp of programming Lisa Granatstein, conceded that this has been the most challenging era of her career.

“CBS This Morning ended up coming out of the Ed Sullivan Theater [which is usually the home of Late Show With Stephen Colbert] for more than 100 days. If you told me that [would have happened], I would ask you to share whatever you were smoking,” Zirinsky said. “We have really done miraculously well, with very limited facilities. But what was most important was to stay on the air.”

But staying on the air hasn’t meant doing so exclusively on linear. It has also meant delivering CBS News content on CBSN, its 24/7 streaming news service, and on its award-winning CBS News Radio platform.

Zirinsky noted the fortuitous timing of Tuesday’s Convergent TV discussion: that day’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing for Judge Amy Coney Barrett was being covered during an hourlong live broadcast on CBS, led by CBS Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell. After the hour, CBS stations had the option of moving to regularly scheduled programming, or they could stick with continuing coverage of the hearing by airing the CBSN feed, which featured top CBS News personalities, including O’Donnell, joining forces with the CBSN team.

“The basis of our journalism is strong and steady, but it’s our job to adapt it to a more modern form of conveyance so that we are on every platform on every device,” Zirinsky said. “Linear is not going to go away, but what we are responsible for is taking the content which embodies the principles of CBS in terms of fair, unbiased journalism, and morphing it into more CBSN digital.”

She added: “We have to listen to all voices, and in this election, whether it’s linear or digital or on the radio, our job is to reveal America to itself.”

Zirinsky stressed the multiplatform nature of the network’s upcoming election coverage. The election night coverage will originate from CBS, but all data will be shared with CBSN, which will have its own digital streaming show. Zirinsky said the information flow and talent are going to go back and forth between platforms.

While it’s important for news to be spread on myriad platforms, strong journalism wins the day.

“We have vehicles to transmit our information, we have platforms to share our programming,” Zirinsky said. “But what it comes down to is the quality of the content that we are providing our viewers, our audiences, regardless of platform.”

Zirinsky also spoke about making sure CBS News becomes a more inclusive place to work. “We have to be intentional on the efforts of inclusivity and inclusive society and an inclusive group of journalists,” she said. “I really do feel that there is nothing more important [than] to be combating systemic racism. It’s driving me, and I did have many realizations that had never, never been realized by me before. …The world is a very, very different place. We’re done with talking. Yes, you have to talk to find out some answers. But unless there are concrete actions, we’re not going to have changed.”

@ajkatztv A.J. Katz is the senior editor of Adweek's TVNewser.