CBS News Chief Susan Zirinsky: ‘We Are Building the CBS News of the Future’

Susan Zirinsky
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 A lot of TV-news correspondents flocked to the southern U.S. border a year ago when migrant families were being separated. Manuel Bojorquez is doing the same after relatives have been reunited.

The CBS News correspondent has for several weeks worked to meet with families split during last year’s U.S. crackdown at the border with Mexico. Last week, on “CBS Evening News,” he spoke to a 7-year-old girl who reunited with her immigrant father 326 days after being separated. He is slated to present soon a report about a father who was separated not from one child, but two.

“This is really gauging the impact of the policy in a way we couldn’t really do before,” says Bojorquez, in an interview. “We have found for the most part that families are eager to share their stories, to share what has happened to them.”

But there’s more going on here than journalism. There’s also business at hand.

Bojorquez’ reports are part of a CBS News series, “Separated and Counting,” that plays across the CBS unit’s many programming arms: “CBS Evening News,” “CBS This Morning” and video-streaming hub CBSN, to name a few. There are also chances for the reports to appear on CBS News’ radio extensions and for local affiliates to contribute stories of their own. Identifying “tent pole” topics that can be explored across multiple outlets is key to how new CBS News President Susan Zirinsky sees the news division changing in days to come.

“We really understand that the future of CBS News is a 24-hour brand,” Zirinsky said in an interview, noting that CBS Acting CEO Joe Ianniello “is inspiring us to think of the network in a bigger way.”

CBS News has ties to the most revered legacy in TV news. This is, after all, the news division that put Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Mike Wallace on the air, and the one that continues to air blue-chip programming like “60 Minutes” and “Sunday Morning.” And media companies are placing new emphasis on programming that is of-the-moment, often live. Witness the various networks’ recent decisions to clear their daytime schedules for coverage of O.J. Simpson’s final parole hearing or the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing of testimony from then-Supreme Court candidate Judge Brett Kavanaugh. TV fans can binge their favorite scripted programs with streaming video, but live news is over the minute it is transmitted to a screen.

But there are some things going on that might surprise some of those CBS News legends. Both “Evening News” and “CBS This Morning” have seen ratings slump, reversing the A.M. show’s impressive strides against NBC’s “Today” and ABC’s “Good Morning America” in recent years. The two shows have been overhauled and new anchor teams have been named for each. As NBC News gains traction overseas, Fox News nabs town-hall events with Democratic candidates and CNN builds up a host of digital platforms, CBS News needs to show it can keep up.

Since Zirinsky has taken the reins, CBS News has developed a series of enterprise reports that can travel between programs and outlets, part of an effort, she says, to break “down silos in the news division” and take ownership of bigger topics. CBS News has recently presented such reports as “Life and Debt,” about the burdens of grappling with student loans; multi-platform coverage of “Earth Day” and a look at the Columbine shootings 20 years after the fact.

She has also pressed to move some CBS News efforts into primetime, including an hour-long special based on Gayle King’s interviews with R. Kelly and another after the release of the report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Scott Pelley, Norah O’Donnell, John Dickerson and Elizabeth Palmer took part. “Did you see any special on Mueller on another network?” Zirinsky asks

The news chief says CBS News is getting something it hasn’t had in some time: more support from corporate. “We are being supported in ways that hadn’t happened in a while,” she says. “They are investing in us because we matter.”

Zirinsky says she and Kim Godwin, executive vice president of news, are increasingly interested in finding stories the news division can own and in conveying them across multiple CBS News properties. Each CBS News property “can have ownership of a tent-pole story,” she says. “We are building the CBS News of the future.”

Correspondent Bojorquez says he appreciates the chance to tell a bigger story that will likely spark reaction among Americans of all stripes. “It’s such a complex matter,” he says, but viewer reaction suggests “there is a need for these stories to be told.”