Ben Sherwood drove to the Triangle in a beat-up brown Saab in 1984 as a college student about to start an internship. He returned this week as president of ABC News.
Now Sherwood, who turns 50 in a few months, is working to reach viewers who are about the age he was when he was in college.
Sherwood had just finished his junior year at Harvard when he reported to The News & Observer newsroom to begin his internship. He was 20 years old. He performed a variety of intern tasks, including writing a daily weather summary.
But he did well in a succession of reporting assignments and eventually helped cover The Story of the Year – the titanic U.S. Senate race pitting Sen. Jesse Helms against Gov. Jim Hunt. “It’s where I fell in love with journalism,” said Sherwood, who grew up in Los Angeles. He knew he wasn’t at Harvard when he saw multiple cups of tobacco juice on the desk of N&O reporter Pat Stith.
Sherwood was smart, talented, hardworking, personable, an eager learner and a good colleague. After Harvard, he was a Rhodes scholar. He has also written two best-selling novels: “The Man Who Ate the 747” and “The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud,” which was made into a movie starring Zac Efron.
Sherwood and David Barrett, chairman of Hearst Television, spoke at the first Wade Hargrove Communications Law and Policy Colloquium, named for the Raleigh media lawyer. Their subject was “The Future of Television News in a Digital Age.”
TV networks face many of the same challenges that newspapers and other mass media do. There are more options for news, and audiences have fragmented. In 1991-92, ABC’s evening news had 13.6 million viewers on weeknights, according to Nielsen. In the current season, Nielsen says ABC’s evening newscast has 7.6 million viewers.
The TV news audience is aging. Viewership has dropped steeply among younger age groups. Sherwood and Barrett talked of the challenges of gaining younger viewers.
That subject was timely for Sherwood. ABC and Univision recently debuted “Fusion,” a news, pop culture and satire TV and digital network. Fusion promised to be “the first network to reflect the values of a young and changing America with content ... that is inclusive, authentic, transparent, infused with humor and full of fresh voices.”
Fusion is not your father’s TV news. Sherwood said Fusion is “aimed at younger people with different filters.” Regular shows include “No, You Shut Up!” (described as a “hard-hitting weekly public affairs discussion program”) and “Strange Medicine,” in which Dr. Juan Rivera takes viewers on a quest to find the oddest cures and most exotic medicines in the world.
As the television industry experiments with new formats and with digital storytelling, Sherwood said it was vital that ABC maintain its viewers’ trust. That means being right on breaking news. News outlets want to be first but have made some prominent mistakes recently, including NBC News reporting the death of the Los Angeles airport shooter (and then taking it back).
“Our trust with the audience is primary,” Sherwood said. With the cacophony of social media, the value of being first is going down, he said, but the value of being right is going up.
There’s no telling what Walter Cronkite and Peter Jennings would say about “No, You Shut Up!” But they’d agree with Sherwood about getting it right.
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