James Goldston (Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
“It’s a really tough decision,” Goldston said in a memo to staffers. “I’ve loved every day of my 17 years at ABC News, but in recent times I’ve always assumed that after this extraordinary election cycle, which we’ve covered at a full sprint for four years, it would be time for a change. After a great deal of reflection over the last few months, I’m ready for a new adventure.”
ABC News isn’t the industry’s largest division — AT&T’s CNN and Comcast’s NBC News Group are much bigger — but under Goldston’s aegis, the Disney division has punched well above its weight. David Muir has risen to become the nation’s most-watched evening-news anchor at “World News Tonight,” and “Good Morning America” has become the nation’s most-watched morning-news program. Goldston has also presided over an expansion of the news division, which now oversees “The View” as well as a new afternoon hour anchored by Amy Robach. ABC News has also begun to extend into streaming-video and Hulu.
Walt Disney is expected to conduct a wide search for his successor, according to a person familiar with the matter.
ABC News isn’t the only national newsroom in transition. At MSNBC, Rashida Jones is taking over as president at the end of the month as longtime executive Phil Griffin steps down. The Washington Post will need to fill the shows of Marty Barron, the celebrated editor who has announced his intention to retire. The Los Angeles Times and Reuters are also seeking new top editorial executives. And the industry is waiting to hear whether Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN Worldwide, will decide to stay at the company or leave to try new options.
The timing of the announcement struck some observers as curious. In the recent past, ABC News has often quickly followed an announcement that its top executive was leaving with news of that person’s successor. When David Westin departed, Ben Sherwood was quickly brought on board. When Sherwood was promoted to a higher executive role at Disney, Goldston was known to be waiting in the wings.
Instead, a five-person “Office of the President” will start to supervise ABC News operations. Derek Medina, an ABC News executive vice president, will supervise business operations. The executive producers of “World News Tonight” and “Good Morning America,” Almin Karamehmedovic and Michael Corn, will oversee breaking news coverage. Wendy Fisher will lead newsgathering teams, while Marie Nelson, a senior vice president of content strategy, will monitor relationships with multicultural audiences.
Goldston will step away at a moment when ABC News is enjoying some wind in its sails, but there has been speculation for some time that Peter Rice, the Disney executive who oversees the company’s original entertainment assets, has begun to assert himself more at the news division. As more consumers migrate to streaming-video hubs for scripted comedy and drama, news and sports are viewed as critical components in the effort to keep the live audiences that advertisers and distributors demand. That is drawing corporate eyeballs to news units. NBCUniversal last year replaced former news chairman Andy Lack with Cesar Conde as Jeff Shell, newly arrived as NBCU CEO, put a new structure into place.
“I am incredibly grateful to James for his leadership, ” Rice said in a statement following Goldston’s announcement. “This past year redefined the 24-hour news cycle, and he led the team with an unrelenting commitment to facts and in-depth, insightful reporting.”
ABC News came under a harsh spotlight in July after allegations surfaced around Barbara Fedida, a senior ABC News executive who managed talent and recruitment, and the way she treated employees. She was accused of making racially insensitive comments, and an investigation by Disney “substantiated that Ms. Fedida managed in a rough manner and, on occasion, used crass and inappropriate language,” according to a statement made last year by Rice.
Goldston leaves as some portion of the executive suite underneath him has been in flux. ABC News in October named Galen Gordon, a former ESPN and NFL executive, to take over as senior vice president of talent strategy and development. Meanwhile, Hilary Estey McLoughin, the executive who oversees “The View,” is expected to leave in coming weeks, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Goldston was named president of ABC News in 2014, a decade after he joined the organization as senior producer of primetime specials and investigative reports. He quickly worked his way to become the top producer of “Nightline,” and then “GMA.” During his tenure, ABC News has focused on “gets” with celebrities in the news, like Kaitlyn Jenner; stories that spark a global conversation, such as a rescue of 12 boys trapped in a network of flooded caves in Thailand; and experimental broadcasts, like a 2017 broadcast of the first total solar eclipse visible in America in 38 years.
Detractors criticize the news operation for spending too much time on color and not enough on the nuts-and-bolts of the news cycle, but the formula has boosted many of the news division’s mainstay shows and its special reports. ABC News, for example, captured the biggest audience among broadcast networks during the recent inauguration of President Joe Biden. The only TV outlet to capture a bigger audience was CNN.
Variety's Brian Steinberg contributed to this post.