Noah’s Ark

"Jackie" Washington, DC Premiere
For the first time since the 1960s, NBC News will be without a president, as Noah Oppenheim is vacating the position after a six-year run. Photo: Leigh Vogel/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
January 13, 2023

“Who drives coverage?” an NBC News executive asked me this week, with copious rhetorical flourish. Like so many people inside 30 Rock—I’ve spoken to at least 15 NBC News executives, on-air talent, producers and rank-and-file staff, as well as another half-dozen Peacock alumni—he was trying to make sense of the new leadership structure that Cesar Conde, the chairman of NBCUniversal’s news group, unveiled on Wednesday. 

For the first time since the 1960s, the height of The Huntley-Brinkley Report, NBC News will be without a president. Noah Oppenheim, widely admired internally, is vacating the position after a six-year run. Rather than replace him, Conde has created a three-headed leadership team reporting directly into him: Libby Leist will run the Today franchise and its growing e-commerce business; Janelle Rodriguez will oversee Nightly News and the network’s NBC News Now streaming service; and Rebecca Blumenstein, a broadcast neophyte hire from The New York Times, will oversee the newsgathering operation and legacy brands like Dateline and Meet the Press. Conde, as I reported Wednesday, has now consolidated his power over the network,  effectively promoting himself.

Of course, Conde, a Harvard-and-Wharton-trained corporate executive, is an operator, not a journalist. He eschews interest in directing editorial strategy—a point he has conveyed to the talent on several occasions over the years. (A brief exception was his lightning-quick trip to Ukraine, last year, which struck many inside the building as credential burnishing for the cocktail party crowd.) Conde indisputably moves in a different sphere, managing the P&L and thinking omnichannel thoughts while he traverses between executive conferences and Walmart and Pepsi board meetings, and between his homes in New York and Miami. 

Of course, this befits his position as a divisional leader for a multinational telecommunications conglomerate. But while eliminating Oppenheim’s corporate layer might have evidenced enlightened and lean management, it seemed to create a void in the minds of many on the editorial side. Post-Noah, with this triptych structure reporting into Conde, who would guide one of America’s most storied media brands through historical news moments or set an editorial agenda or manage high-maintenance talent? Leist and Rodriguez have long deftly managed their respective fiefdoms, and Blumenstein’s reputation at the Times precedes her, but it’s still not clear to anyone, save Conde, who will have the final say when the tough, cross-platform calls need to be made. “There needs to be one person directing plans for elections, for big stories,” the NBC News executive said. “And if that person doesn’t have any authority over the biggest platforms, they really have no power to drive anything.”

The Print Person

Presumably, these issues have been very carefully contemplated by leadership, and there is a coherent vision for the new structure that precludes turf wars or confusion and offers consumers a consistent experience. The available evidence suggests Conde is a brilliant and thorough businessman—how else to explain his high climb on the greasy corporate pole?—and someone who thinks carefully about the consequences of his decisions (his aforementioned ill-advised Ukraine sight-seeing blunder notwithstanding). Nevertheless, the vision has not been adequately conveyed to the content side at NBC News, where many people liked Oppenheim quite a bit and, far more importantly, liked knowing who to go to if and when they had a problem.

This is an especially pressing question for the talent and producers who work across the organization and do not fall squarely under the Today or Nightly brands. Many of those folks are anxious because their new boss, Blumenstein, is a print veteran who has no experience in television—a trade that, from talent management to newsgathering to programming, requires a drastically different skill set than that of print or digital. The world of television news is littered with cautionary tales about print veterans who ventured into television, such as Michael Gartner or Shelby Coffey

Blumenstein’s reputation is sterling, of course—the Times failure to maximize her talents after recruiting her from the Journal is its own side drama—and her mandate is, in part, helping to shepherd NBC News from its TV-centric past into the bright new digital-first, multiplatform future. But she’ll have her work cut out for her in winning the hearts and minds of the people who live and breathe television and still see it as the preeminent platform, despite the industry’s inexorable decline. People come to work at the Times, after all, because they are fulfilling a personal mission. They come to NBC News with a mission, sure, but also an ego, an agent, and sharp elbows. And many are nervous about tying their fortunes to a “print person.”

While Blumenstein tries to win over the newsroom, Leist and Rodriguez have presumably spent some time reckoning with the fact that neither of them got the job for which they both likely believe they were qualified—and never will, because that job now no longer exists. Oppenheim’s job is hardly the first top media posting to disappear or be downgraded just before a woman stepped into the role.

“You Couldn’t Pay Me Enough”

Of course, newsroom leadership has become a significantly diminished position in this time of decline, when the creative leaders of the Roone Arledege school have left or retired, and the reins have been handed over to professional managers like Conde. 

Indeed, a survey of TV newsroom leadership leaves quite a bit to be desired: At CBS News, Neeraj Khemlani is under investigation by human resources for yet another round of complaints, mostly from women, about his brusque and rude professional manner, as first reported by the New York Post. (Several CBS News sources confirmed the investigation to me; the company declined to comment.) At ABC News, Kim Godwin continues to irk the network’s veterans with a leadership style that prioritizes work-life balance. And nine months into his tenure, Chris Licht has yet to evidence any real strategy beyond cutting costs in order to help David Zaslav service his debt. “You literally couldn’t pay me enough to take those jobs,” one former television news executive told me. 

Still, it’s fair to assume that people at NBC News and its rival networks probably didn’t anticipate that Conde would put so fine a point on the diminished stature of the television news president by doing away with the position entirely. It is indeed a sign of the times, for news executives and journalists alike. “If you have a sense of where the business is headed, whether those jobs interest you actually becomes an I.Q. test,” the former news executive said. “A generation ago, everyone wanted to be Peter, Tom and Dan. Or Katie, Diane and Robin. I don’t think the next generation of budding journalists wants to be David Muir or Savannah Guthrie or Gayle King. They’re just not as prestigious or impactful as they once were. … It’s not that ‘TV’ is dead; visual journalism is as important as ever. It’s just that the brands that used to hold a near monopoly on public opinion are far less influential than they used to be and at risk of becoming Kodak or Blockbuster.”

Of course, television news is not Kodak or Blockbuster, yet—far from it. These are businesses that continue to spin off significant nine and ten figure revenue for their parent companies, even if that means charging advertisers more money every year to reach an ever-shrinking audience. Now and for the foreseeable future, there is still a business to run. And ultimately, one unintended consequence of Conde’s Cerberus-style leadership structure may be that it forces him to take greater responsibility for the job he claims not to want. 

Shortly after I published my piece about Conde’s self-promotion this week, a veteran television executive offered a counter-thesis: “I actually think Cesar unwittingly demoted himself,” the executive texted. “By eliminating the true president role, he has pulled himself closer to the shows—less chairman and more house of brands manager. … He consolidated power by reducing a layer, which has the odd effect of making the chairman of NBC News even closer to the action as opposed to above it.”

“Cesar is very shrewd,” the executive added, “but I wonder if he realizes what pain he has just brought on himself.”