First Mover Interview: David Westin

The former president of ABC News on licensing journalism—and the future of broadcast news

Adweek: What will this new News Licensing Group you’re running do?

David Westin: We have technology that will allow us to track news reports as they get posted on the Internet and appear on mobile, so news providers know who’s getting exposure to their material and how they’re coming to it. The second step will be exploring business arrangements, including things like potential joint licenses for the copyright.

AW: So aggregators stop making money off someone else’s content?

DW: It makes sense that some of that money goes back to the people paying the reporters. Otherwise reporters won’t get paid in the long run. In my prior job, one of the things that I had to do was to keep letting go of staff.

AW: What does that say about the news? Does the anchor-talent structure built around shows as appointment viewing still work?

DW: The role of the prominent TV news personality is becoming inverted from what it once was. Walter Cronkite was a generalist who was thought to know everything about everything and appear exactly one time a day. In the new world the most prominent TV personalities will be specialists who appear on all the programs and on the Internet and on mobile. It’s almost the inverse.

AW: So you have George Stephanopoulos popping up on a bajillion platforms?

DW: That’s more the model for the future. People identify him with public policy and Washington politics. He has an anchor position at GMA, but you see him on World News regularly; you see him on the special reports. He’s prominent on the Web. He tweets and he has a Facebook page.

AW: How do networks survive?

DW: Overall news consumption is at historic levels. But you see newspapers dropping off dramatically, radio and magazines dropping off, TV starting to drop off, even cable news has been down. What has skyrocketed has been Internet and mobile. If the traditional news providers don’t establish a presence in Internet and mobile, then the larger market forces say they will be out of business.

AW: What do you think your legacy at ABC News will be?

DW: You don’t get to define your legacy. Other people define your legacy. I stayed at ABC News as long as I did because I believed in what we were trying to do there. And sometimes we fell short, but I felt really good that we made a difference.

AW: Did you really want to leave?

DW: Oh, yeah. It was my decision. I had been there a long time.

AW: Is this a step down?

DW: It’s an entirely different challenge. This is more entrepreneurial. It’s growing something rather than managing a mature business. It also can make a difference, certainly in the news industry, but I think in society overall because I don’t want to see us continue to lose reporters. It’s not healthy; it’s not good.

AW: Your take on your replacement Ben Sherwood?

DW: He’s very creative and he’s very dedicated. I wish him the best.

AW: Your departure was a touching moment. You were tearful.

DW: I’d just had a detached retina. I had just been through surgery.

AW: “I wasn’t crying; I just had something in my eye,” he says.

DW: [Laughs] Exactly. But it was touching. I spent almost 14 years there. I love that institution and I feel very strongly about a lot of people who I worked with.