ABC News President Rejects 'Soft' News Label: Going for 'Relevance'

January 9, 2012 - 6:11 PM

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — ABC News' new advertising slogan is "see the whole picture," and division President Ben Sherwood said Monday that reflects an effort to broaden his journalists' definition of what they do.

Sherwood said his goal is to make ABC News one of the world's premier providers of non-fiction content. While that doesn't mean producing cheesy reality shows, Sherwood said his journalists need to have a more entrepreneurial eye about how they present information.

"We are journalists, we are storytellers, we are interested in the world," Sherwood said. "We shouldn't be interested in the way things have always been done."

Sherwood has spoken little publicly during his year at the helm of ABC News, which is second behind NBC in ratings for its signature evening newscast. During that time "Good Morning America" and "Nightline" have improved in the ratings.

Those programs and "World News" have increased the amount of lifestyle and celebrity news they offer, leading to some criticism that ABC is emphasizing softer news at a time rivals at CBS have opted for a more meat-and-potatoes approach.

Sherwood told reporters Monday that he rejected labels like "hard" or "soft" news and said that ABC's yardstick is relevance to its viewers.

"We will cede no ground on the subject of hard-driving investigative journalism or hard-charging breaking news," he said.

He cited ABC's coverage of Bank of America's dropped plans to charge a $5 monthly debit card fee as an example of a story that might not fit a traditional hard news agenda but is one that is important to viewers.

Gone are the days when the "priests" of journalism dictate the day's most important stories, in order of importance, he said. People set their own agendas now, and news organizations must be conscious of that.

"We have so much data that tells us how consumers are using information and how they're reacting to certain stories," he said. "We try to let that help guide us. It doesn't determine our choices, but it helps guide us."

Sherwood said he's pleased that ABC News has begun to speak more as "one voice" across its platforms. ABC within the past year signed a deal with Yahoo that has greatly expanded its reach online, and is part of his effort to become a news division "that has put creativity and innovation first."

The improvement in ratings at "Good Morning America" leads Sherwood to believe it will reach its goal of being the No. 1 network morning newscast. NBC's "Today" show hasn't lost a week in the ratings in more than 15 years in the morning.

A familiar voice returned to ABC News this past weekend. Charles Gibson, the former "World News" and "GMA" anchor who retired at the end of 2009, gave the voiceover introducing George Stephanopoulos as Stephanopoulos returned to his hosting job on Sunday morning's "This Week." Sherwood said he would love to see Gibson be a presence at ABC News during the election year.

He also said that while Katie Couric will fill a variety of roles at ABC News, one won't be as a substitute host for Diane Sawyer on "World News." Couric left last year as anchor of the "CBS Evening News." Sherwood said ABC has a full bench of subs for Sawyer, and it wasn't something Couric was interested in.