Coffey waiting in wings as Westin right-hand man

NEW YORK — After months of dodging the question of exactly when and how he will hand over the reins of ABC News, it appears that chairman Roone Arledge is making ready to announce his exit plan.

Arledge said in March 1997 that current news prexy David Westin was to be named his successor, and there has been wide speculation that Westin would take over day-to-day operations at the division by June of this year.

Over the last year the succession has been a hot-button issue with reporters. Arledge and Westin have refused to comment on the logistics of the transition, pointing instead to their joint running of the news division.

But with ratings dwindling for “World News Tonight” recently, and rumored tensions between the two men, Arledge and Westin answered questions about their relationship on Dec. 17, with Arledge saying, “David and I are a team … we finish each other’s sentences.”

Now, according to a published report, Westin (who has been in the news biz for about a year) will name former Los Angeles Times editor Shelby Coffey III as his deputy. ABC spokeswoman Eileen Murphy told Daily Variety that no deal has yet been inked, but Murphy did say that the term “deputy” is inaccurate, and she confirmed that Westin is talking with Coffey about a “senior management position that would give him a wide range of editorial control.” Insiders say the deal is “fairly close” to completion.

During his 21-year tenure at ABC News, Arledge created “Nightline” and “This Week” and for more than eight years could claim that “more Americans get their news from ABC News than from any other source.”

Insiders say that Westin will indeed begin reporting directly to ABC Inc. prexy Robert Iger in June, as expected, and that he will have to deal with a number of immediate problems, including division layoffs, jumpstarting “World News Tonight” (and possibly moving it to a new timeslot), and decisions involving ABC’s newsmags.

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