Rashida Jones, an up-and-coming news executive at NBCUniversal, will take the reins at the company’s MSNBC cable-news outlet in February, setting her up to be the first Black executive to run one of the nation’s big cable-news outlets at time when that business is of growing importance to the nation’s large media conglomerates.
Phil Griffin, who has worked at MSNBC since its launch in 1996 and as its president since 2008, is expected to step down at the end of January. Griffin has enjoyed close ties to many of MSNBC’s primetime stars, including Rachel Maddow, the linchpin of the network’s lineup, and Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, two of its morning hosts.
“Rashida knows and understands MSNBC, in part because it’s where she started when she first joined NBCU seven years ago,” said Cesar Conde, chairman of NBCUniversal’s news operations, in a memo to staff. “She knows that it is the people who work here that make it great, and she understands its culture. She also appreciates the impact and potential of the brand.”
The Wall Street Journal previously reported the executive move.
Jones will take the helm of an operation that has, at a time of peak digital consumption of content, become one of the main ways media companies like NBCUniversal have of catching big live linear audiences. In an era when many traditional TV viewers are migrating to streaming outlets, MSNBC anchors like Maddow, Nicolle Wallace and Joy Reid capture hundreds of thousands of viewers who watch their shows live and en masse. News networks have seen their ratings soar during the Trump administration and over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, when millions of people are staying close to home.
At the same time, MSNBC’s business lags that of its two main rivals, Fox Corporation’s Fox News Channel and WarnerMedia’s CNN. Fox News is seen securing nearly $2.98 billion in revenue from advertising and affiliate fees in 2020, according to market-research firm Kagan, part of S&P Global. CNN is seen capturing more than $1.72 billion. MSNBC, meanwhile, is expected to win just under $1.11 billion. Executives at many of the cable-news networks have been girding for a potential dip in viewership in 2021, a dynamic that is typical of coverage in the year after a presidential election.
Jones has gained traction in recent years because of her talent in devising special news reports that have encompassed everything from presidential debates to complex town halls, including one devoted to a discussion of criminal justice from the Sing Sing correctional facility in Ossining, New York, in the fall of 2019 that required security checks for all personnel and pieces of a set that had to be brought in from as far away as Las Vegas. She was most recently in charge of breaking-news coverage across both NBC News and MSNBC as well as daytime and weekend news programming at MSNBC. MSNBC recently reworked its daytime and weekend schedules in ways that give more time to Nicolle Wallace, a late-afternoon anchor who is an internal favorite at the company, and add anchors from diverse backgrounds to the network’s Saturday and Sunday schedule.
In recent months, said Conde, Jones “has masterfully guided our coverage of the global pandemic, the social justice protests and unrest, Decision 2020, and the two most-viewed Democratic presidential debates in television history. She helped lead the preparation for Kristen Welker’s role as general election debate moderator. And she has steered many of our groundbreaking editorial series.”
Jones will no doubt call upon many of those kills in her new role. The cable-news networks have in recent years come to rely more heavily on special events like town halls and one-on-one newsmaker interview. In recent months, for example, MSNBC has featured special weeks of Craig Melvin’s daytime show that call upon the anchor to hold forth from remote locations.
Placing Jones in charge of one of NBCUniversal’s best-known outlets is the latest in a series of moves Conde has made after taking oversight of NBCU’s news operations under the still-early corporate regime of NBCU CEO Jeff Shell. Since coming aboard as chairman of NBC News Group in May, Conde has outlined new goals to diversity the editorial and executive ranks and backed decisions to place former Fox News anchor Shepard Smith in CNBC’s early-evening schedule and move former MSNBC weekend anchor Joy Reid to early evenings on weekdays.
She will join a growing group of senior female executives in the TV-news business, including Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott and CBS News President Susan Zirinsky.
Many people at MSNBC may find it hard to envision the place without Griffin’s touch. Under his aegis, MSNBC embraced a more progressive lens on the news, following the popularity of former primetime host Keith Olbermann with Rachel Maddow, Chris Hayes and Lawrence O’Donnell. Griffin renewed a contract with MSNBC in 2017 for an undetermined amount of time.
During his tenure, Griffin tried to expand MSNBC into other areas, including food coverage and events, and find new voices — all with a tilt toward progressive politics. He was early to discover Ronan Farrow, the crusading New Yorker reporter who spent some time hosting an early-afternoon program on MSNBC before ultimately parting ways with NBCU in acrimonious fashion over coverage of accusations of sexual assault against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Ed Schultz, Alec Baldwin and Reverend Al Sharpton all tried their hand at MSNBC daytime or weekend programs under Griffin’s aegis.
But he has also cheered on a recent emphasis at the network on delivering hard-won information and insight. Brian Williams’ late-night “The 11th Hour” has been a cable-news hit for the network, and it relies not only on the host’s intelligent patter but on booking an array of knowledgeable journalists and experts. “Information is what people want,” he told Variety in 2017. “The great thing about Rachel Maddow is there’s as much new information in that program as on any other, and people are responding to it.”
When Andy Lack took over NBC’s news operations in 2015, he refashioned MSNBC’s daytime schedule as a place to burnish the reporting of NBC News and removed some of the lineup’s progressive-centered programming. Even so, Griffin kept ties not only to the network’s primetime lineup, but also the trio of anchors at “Morning Joe,” another signature MSNBC element. After the presidential election, “Phil and I spoke about his desire to depart at a time of his choosing and when he felt confident about the strength of the network he loves,” Conde said in his memo to staffers.
Other news outlets are bracing for a potential change in leadership. CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker has been considering whether to stay at WarnerMedia, according to people familiar with his thinking. Zucker is not believed to have made a final decision yet about whether to remain at CNN’s helm or to seek a new role.