Norah O’Donnell has always liked the view one gets at the White House. But it’s a sight she thinks can appeal to folks living and working outside the Beltway.
“That’s where everything from the Korea trade deal to the prices for milk farmers in Iowa gets decided,” she recalls thinking when she was working the White House beat for NBC News. “It has always kind of fascinated me.”
O’Donnell, a veteran of Washington reporting, will return to her old stomping grounds in the not-too-distant future with a mandate to relate the goings-on there to a broader audience as part of a revamped “CBS Evening News.” O’Donnell will take over as anchor of the venerable program this summer and begin broadcasting from the nation’s capital in the fall. Her move is one of many that has been orchestrated by new CBS News President Susan Zirinsky in a bid to revive a CBS News that has in several instances taken a back seat to its competitors as more viewers seek out news from digital and social-media sources, despite the connection CBS has to pioneering TV journalists like Walter Cronkite, Mike Wallace and Edward R. Murrow.
The challenge for CBS News is heady. Many of its program, including “60 Minutes” and “CBS Sunday Morning,” represent the industry’s gold standard. Yet linear TV audiences declined in 2018 for nearly every kind of TV-news standby: evening news, morning news, newsmagazines and Sunday talk, according to data from Pew Research Center. Advertisers are spending the same or more on news programming, but 93% of adults are getting at least some portion of their news online, via mobile or desktop. Some of those new-tech outlets are part of the TV networks’ holdings, but TV viewership is the kind most easily monetized.
What’s more, other news operations are investing more directly in digital content. CNN and NBC News have launched daily e-mail newsletters, hired investigative staff and built more digital-first vehicles. CBS gets credit for its launch of the streaming-video hub CBSN ahead of its broadcast competitors, but there’s certainly more that can be done.
Two of CBS News’ flagship programs – “CBS This Morning” and “CBS Evening News” – have seen viewership erode over the past 18 months in the wake of anchor changes made at each. Since Zirinsky took the reins in March, there has been a steady drumbeat of speculation about the various changes she might put into action. On Monday, she laid her cards on the table, overhauling both programs.
She’s tried to ignore the chatter and headlines about which anchor is moving where, but also takes some encouragement from it. “Quite frankly, I think this brings attention back to who we are and the legacy and standard that we are all about,” Zirinsky told Variety in an interview. “I can tune out the noise because I have the mission in front of me.”
O’Donnell is part of that mission: Once she begins anchoring from D.C. in the autumn, she will give the broader country a front-row seat to the events leading up to what she calls “the most consequential presidential election in my lifetime” and a critical moment for journalism. “Journalism is under attack. Civility is under attack. Trust is under attack,” she says in an interview with Variety. “We have to fix that, not only with great reporting, but with trust in the news and trust in our brand.”
“CBS Evening News” will have teams based in both D.C. and New York City, explains Zirinsky. Viewers can still expect “Evening News” to take them to where news is happening across the nation, but “when you want to cover a story, you get closer to it.” She notes that “this is not an inside-Washington broadcast. It is holding those in Washington accountable,” she adds, with O’Donnell’s reportage. “This is about revealing America to itself.”
O’Donnell will continue to go on the road. In the past few years, she has toured disaster areas and explored scientific topics, even as she worked connections to land a series of major interviews with newsmakers ranging from New England Patriots Tom Brady to former FBI Director Christopher Wray. She expects to build on what the staff of “CBS Evening News” already has in place. “Now that Susan has turned around the battleship, we are going to turn on the engines,”says O’Donnell.
The “Evening News” revamp will be one element of a broader effort to get CBS News storytelling distributed more widely, says Zirinsky. She intends to cut different reports in various ways: “Evening News” and “CBS This Morning” can share stories that are tailored for each, and reports can live on in different fashion by being edited as longer documentary-style pieces for CBS News’ digital outlet.
Meeting those new demands calls for anchors being placed in areas where they can do their best, says Zirinsky. O’Donnell’s time covering D.C. institutions and winning tough-to-get interviews suits her for the “Evening News” role. Gayle King, says Zirinsky, helps CBS News broaden its aperture. “People trust her. They want to talk to her about important, sensitive topics. Viewers trust her, I think, because she is curious, smart and most important, relatable.” She will be paired with veteran Anthony Mason, who has logged time overseas, covered business and even made a beat out of talking to popular musicians. Tony Dokoupil, the third member of CBS’ new morning trio, has impressed executives with his writing and interviewing. He “brings a new, younger energy to the table.”
“CBS This Morning” garnered attention for its hard-news focus, and by eschewing some of the more frivolous trappings of morning TV. But there’s room to go further afield, says Zirinsky. “We can expand, because of the reach of these three people, and touch the cultural, iconic, memorable stories of the day.”
There is hope Jeff Glor, who has spent the last 18 months anchoring “CBS Evening News,” will stay with the network. “He is loved in the CBS family and he is a terrific reporter and writer,” says O’Donnell. “I know there is a lot of praise for him and the work his team has done.” Zirinsky says Glor remains in discussions with CBS News “about a couple of different roles, and I hope he stays.”
Glor is, as he has for months, soldiering on despite the swirl around him. “I have family, friends, and, in the future, far more to share with all of you,” he said to viewers at the end of Monday’s “Evening News” broadcast. “It will be great, I promise.” CBS News executives are likely saying something similar to the many observers scrutinizing them.