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Inside Kim Godwin’s Challenging Tenure as ABC News President

Kim Godwin had reached a breaking point.

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The ABC News president confronted employees last March, shortly after reading an article about her tenure. The article was the latest in a series of unflattering pieces that featured anonymous comments from newsroom insiders insinuating that she was more interested in raising her own profile than running the news division.

Godwin urged staffers to focus on the work and said the leaks were undermining their efforts and ABC News overall, according to multiple people who heard her voice these sentiments.

Two weeks later, Godwin ousted much of the unit’s veteran leadership including the heads of talent relations, newsgathering, investigative journalism and other senior editorial staffers.

A few days ago, Godwin found herself at the center of another shake-up: Her contract was renewed, but a new structure was put in place that knocked the news president down a peg in the executive pecking order.

Godwin had reported to Dana Walden, the co-chairman of Disney Entertainment who is seen as a potential successor to Chief Executive Bob Iger.

Debra OConnell has been installed over ABC News.
Debra OConnell has been installed over ABC News. - Greg Doherty/Variety/Getty Images

In a move that effectively layered Godwin, Walden has put Debra OConnell, a Disney veteran of nearly 30 years, over ABC News. OConnell, who is based in New York, is expected to be a visible presence inside ABC News and is familiar with the unit , having scrutinized operations across Disney’s networks as part of an effort to find cost savings and greater efficiency, The Wall Street Journal previously reported.

A ratings leader is facing challenges

When Godwin joined ABC News from CBS less than three years ago, she had her work cut out for her. Though the news division was a ratings leader, many in the news division said it was suffering from a cutthroat and toxic culture. Two prominent executives had recently been fired: One was accused of making racially insensitive comments ; the other was accused of sexual harassment .

Now, Godwin has become a polarizing figure inside the network. Detractors say she and her inner circle are stifling discussion and dissent while failing to rise up to challenges facing the unit—including sagging ratings. Several of the ousted veterans were replaced with executives with less hard-news experience.

Godwin’s supporters counter that as the first Black person to run a broadcast network news division, she is the target of constant second-guessing by a cadre of longtime ABC News staffers who set out to undermine her from day one.

Many of the employees who were pushed out last spring were part of a clubby culture at the network, they said, and their management style clashed with the culture of inclusion and collaboration Godwin sought to build.

David Muir hosts the evening newscast, which leads other news programs in the same time slot.
David Muir hosts the evening newscast, which leads other news programs in the same time slot. - Heidi Gutman/ABC

“She has done an amazing job here under very difficult circumstances,” said Marc Burstein, a senior executive producer of special events. “She has her own leadership style that is different, but it works for the time we are living in.”

At a recent companywide town hall meeting, Iger seemed to be throwing down a gauntlet to Godwin to come up with a business plan to ensure a strong future for the unit. “Create a vision for the future of ABC News and fight like hell to get the resources from the company to support it,” Iger told employees during the event.

Inside Disney’s headquarters, the fate of ABC News pales in comparison with other issues facing the media giant including a proxy battle with activist investor Nelson Peltz, building successful streaming businesses in Disney+ and ESPN+, launching a new sports streamer with Fox and Warner Discovery and finding an eventual successor to Iger.

Still, ABC News is in many ways a face of the company, with its morning and evening news shows and daytime chat show “The View.”

ABC News’s highest-profile programs—“World News Tonight” and “Good Morning America”—still lead other broadcast programs in viewers in their respective slots, but they have been underperforming lately. In the coveted 25 to 54 demographic, “GMA” not only trails NBC’s “Today” but has also lagged behind “CBS Mornings” on multiple occasions in recent weeks.

T.J. Holmes and Amy Robach left ‘Good Morning America’ last year after news of their affair broke into the open.
T.J. Holmes and Amy Robach left ‘Good Morning America’ last year after news of their affair broke into the open. - Monica Schipper/Getty Images

The decline in ratings comes as “GMA” has lost on-air talent including Amy Robach and T.J. Holmes, the hosts of the third hour of “GMA.” The two anchors were pushed out about a year ago, after news of their affair broke into the open.

In another blow, Cecilia Vega, a “GMA” contributor and respected Washington correspondent, departed for CBS’s “60 Minutes” several months ago.

ABC’s affiliates have noticed the recent rating declines and are hoping the recent executive shake-up can help turn things around.

“I take Disney’s recent personnel moves as confirmation that it prioritizes ABC News programming in a way that will evolve the product and grow the audience in a competitive marketplace,” said Adam Symson, chief executive of E.W. Scripps, a major owner of ABC affiliates.

Seldom in the control room

​​Behind the scenes, employees have said they were frustrated by what they perceived as Godwin’s lack of involvement in day-to-day operations compared with her predecessors.

Some ABC News veterans disagree with that assessment.

“I’ve been at ABC News for 20 years now under four different presidents and I’ve never had a stronger relationship than with Kim,” said Jonathan Karl, chief White House correspondent and co-anchor of the Sunday morning political show “This Week.”

Karl said criticism that Godwin is disengaged “certainly does not reflect the reality of who she is,” adding, “she’s a crazy workaholic.” He credited Godwin with breaking down in-house competition between various news shows and instilling a one-for-all approach, improving how people treat each other, and encouraging more of a work-life balance.

Since joining ABC News, Godwin has tried to create a gentler office culture. She ends her emails with “People Are Our Priority” and is known for leading happy birthday singalongs for employees.

In the coveted 25 to 54 demographic, ‘Good Morning America’ trails NBC’s ‘Today’ and has lagged behind ‘CBS Mornings’ on multiple occasions in recent weeks.
In the coveted 25 to 54 demographic, ‘Good Morning America’ trails NBC’s ‘Today’ and has lagged behind ‘CBS Mornings’ on multiple occasions in recent weeks. - Heidi Gutman/ABC

At a lunch in New York last February, Iger was pressed by some Black talent at ABC News about what they perceived as unfair treatment of Godwin, who was also in attendance, according to people familiar with the matter. Iger reassured attendees that he and Walden had Godwin’s back and were “invested in her success.”

Godwin’s predecessors, James Goldston and Ben Sherwood, were known as round-the-clock managers who lived in the control room. Godwin’s approach has been more hands-off, and at times she has made remarks that suggest she isn’t a regular viewer of ABC News shows, staffers say.

Once at the 9 a.m. editorial meeting, Godwin said it was important for “GMA” to show Black people, particularly children, getting the Covid vaccination. Staffers of the show looked befuddled as that very morning they had aired such a segment, people at the meeting said.

A person close to Godwin noted that the network produces more than 100 hours of news content a week and said that focusing on a single shot is nitpicking.

Burstein also disputes the picture of Godwin being uninvolved. “When it is an important event, she is in the control room. She wants to know what’s going on,” he said.

Before joining ABC News, Godwin spent more than a decade at CBS News holding posts including executive vice president, senior broadcast producer and executive director for development and diversity. She cut her teeth in local news working for NBC and CBS affiliates after graduating from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, known as FAMU.

Kim Godwin attended Florida A&M University.
Kim Godwin attended Florida A&M University. - Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald/TNS/Getty Images
A big fan of FAMU

Many ABC News insiders say Godwin has been using her position to benefit FAMU, including a 2022 “GMA” segment on how the school celebrates homecoming.

Godwin also persuaded Disney to create a $1 million grant for a FAMU fellowship program. Fellows receive internships, and unlike most ABC News internships, applicants receive a stipend and housing. At one point, there were 16 FAMU interns at the network.

In announcing the fellowship program, Godwin said her attendance at the historically Black university changed her life and that Disney was “investing in the next generation of journalists.”

In a statement, FAMU President Larry Robinson praised Godwin’s philanthropic support of the school and said she remains a role model for students and alumni.

ABC News President Kim Godwin speaks at FAMU’s fall 2023 commencement.
ABC News President Kim Godwin speaks at FAMU’s fall 2023 commencement. - Justyn Thomas/FAMU Office of Communications

In a December 2023 FAMU commencement address, Godwin advised graduates on how to handle critics.

“There will be people along your journey who will try to make you doubt that you are ready, that you are prepared, that you are enough,” she said. “I stand here today as proof that if you just let the haters hate and hold on to the plans that you know are for you, you will not just survive, you will thrive.”

Write to Joe Flint at Joe.Flint@wsj.com and Isabella Simonetti at isabella.simonetti@wsj.com

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