Jim Axelrod on the new, old CBS News: ‘There is a collective spring in the step of everyone here’

By Gail Shister 

Failure was the best thing that ever happened to CBS’s Jim Axelrod.

“If you buy the premise that you learn more from failure than success, you’ve learned the most important lesson,” says Axelrod, a New York-based national correspondent and former history teacher.

Axelrod speaks from experience. A few years ago, his career – and his life — were flaming out. He learned, but it came at a steep price.

As Axelrod recounts in his new memoir, ‘In the Long Run’ (Farrar Straus Giroux), he was 30 pounds overweight, drinking too much, constantly on the road. His marriage was shaky. At work, his rabbi (Dan Rather) was gone, and then-news chief Sean McManus had as much as told him he didn’t have the stuff to be a star.

He was, in his own words, “a miserable guy in his mid-40s.” There was a gaping disconnect between what he had intended to do with his life and what he was doing.

Classic mid-life crisis? Axelrod prefers “a mid-course correction.” Instead of obsessing over his career, he focused on his family, his body and his work, crafting stories for ‘Evening News’ and ‘Sunday Morning.’ (His ‘Sunday’ piece on rock band Journey will run later this month.)

“It wasn’t like a ‘kumbaya moment,’” Axelrod, 48, says with a chuckle. “I’m a very ambitious person in my professional life, but I realized you won’t find long-term happiness by being a validation junkie. You can’t live your life measured by what number you are in the Tyndall Report at the end of the year.”

Much of his epiphany was physical. After discovering his late father’s finish times in the New York Marathon from decades earlier, Axelrod decided to begin training for the race – his first marathon,

at age 46. He finished in just under 3 ½ hours.

He hopes to run New York “every year for the rest of my life.” Except for this year’s. At his wife’s request, he’s staying home to celebrate their daughter, Emma’s, 16th birthday. Emma is too busy with crew to accompany her dad on training runs, but her two brothers sometimes tag along for a few miles, Axelrod says.

In February, seismic management changes boosted Axelrod’s stock immeasurably. McManus returned fulltime to the sports division, replaced by the tandem of ’60 Minutes’ executive producer Jeff Fager and Bloomberg’s David Rhodes. In May, ‘60’ ace Scott Pelley replaced Katie Couric, and ‘Evening News’ got a new exec producer.

“I’ve never seen a change in corporate culture like Jeff and David ushered in,” says Axelrod, whose contract runs until spring 2012. “There is a collective spring in the step of everyone here. We have a chance to re-brand who we are, and who we are is what a lot of people at CBS want to be. ‘A good story, well told’ is our mantra. It’s part of our tradition.

“Nothing against Sean, but if I’m going to take my chances with anybody in network news, it’s going to be Jeff Fager. His imperatives are old-school storytelling and broadcasting the news. It’s a refreshing return to values that drew a lot of people into the business in the first place.”

Despite the past turmoil, Axelrod still bleeds CBS. It will be 15 years in September.

“There’s something in the walls here that gets into your blood. If you’re a CBS guy, you’re a CBS guy. I want CBS to be as healthy as possible, and this feels like a healthy organization.”