Norah O'Donnell Takes On the Mission of the 'CBS Evening News'

CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell 1- CBS Publicity - H 2019
Michele Crowe/CBS

"There are very few people who are able to deliver a trustworthy broadcast without point of view," says CBS News president Susan Zirinsky. "That’s who we want to be.”

On July 15 at 6:30 p.m., Norah O'Donnell becomes the next anchor of the brand-defining CBS Evening News. It's still a heady perch — one once occupied by Walter Cronkite during seminal moments in history (the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Vietnam). But it's also one with many challenges in the always-on Trump-tweet-fueled news cycle.

CBS News president Susan Zirinsky entered the top job at the news division with an unshakable belief that O'Donnell, an aggressive and insightful broadcaster who has an instinct for newsmaking interviews, was the right person for the job. And so it is the second big anchor shake-up at the division, with Gayle King now the linchpin of CBS This Morning alongside co-anchors Anthony Mason and Tony Dokoupil.

O'Donnell has recounted a congratulatory phone call from Oprah Winfrey, who told her the Evening News is O'Donnell's "supreme destiny."

"There are so few women who get to speak about the world to the world," Winfrey told her, according to O'Donnell. "And you are now one of those people."

With the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing on July 20, the timing of the premiere installment of the CBS Evening News With Norah O'Donnell offers an opportunity to remind viewers of the division's legacy. This week's broadcast will included O'Donnell's sit-down with Caroline Kennedy and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, whose company Blue Origin is working to send humans to the moon. And on Tuesday, O'Donnell will anchor the program live from the Kennedy Space Center, the same location Cronkite broadcast from 50 years ago. On that day, the show will also include O'Donnell's interview with three female pioneers of Apollo 11: engineers JoAnn Morgan and Poppy Northcutt and MIT scientist Margaret Hamilton, who helped program the Apollo 11 lunar module for landing anticipating some of the problems that would occur and did occur just before landing. At 10 p.m, O'Donnell will also anchor a one-hour primetime special, Man on the Moon, which weaves together Cronkite's coverage of the moon landing along with Neil Armstrong's narrative in an experiential film.

Despite its storied history, the CBS Evening News has been mired in the third place in the nightly news race for more than 20 years. This season, the show is averaging 6 million viewers each night while ABC's World News Tonight With David Muir is the most-watched newscast with 8.7 million, followed by NBC's Nightly News With Lester Holt at 8.1 million. Clearly, improving the show's ratings is a goal, says Zirinsky, a four-decade veteran of CBS News. "But the most important part to me is the strength of the journalism."

O'Donnell's broadcast will have new music and graphics, while relying heavily on the network's corps of correspondents. O'Donnell also will take the Profiles in Service franchise — which highlights the work of armed services members — that she originated on CBS This Morning to the Evening News. (Her father was a military doctor and her sister Mary also serves as a military physician.)

O'Donnell's CBS Evening News will originate from the CBS News broadcast center in New York until late fall when it moves to its permanent home, Washington, D.C. O'Donnell, 45, will live in D.C. with her husband, chef Geoff Tracy, and their three children, 12-year-old twins and an 11-year-old. Kim Godwin, executive vp CBS News and Zirinksy's number two, will serve as the show's executive producer until the show moves to Washington. O'Donnell, who is also managing editor of the broadcast, will have a say in choosing her executive producer, says Zirinsky.

O'Donnell's ascendency to the job may be significant on a gender level; she is only the third woman to have one of the nightly news broadcasts to herself after Katie Couric's tenure at CBS and Diane Sawyer's at ABC. But perhaps more important for CBS News, O'Donnell may offer the stability the broadcast has lacked in recent years. Scott Pelley, who seemed well-suited for the role at the outset, was ousted in May 2017 after the previous management regime soured on him. There was no anchor transition in place; Mason spent months filling in until Jeff Glor bowed in December 2017, with scant promotional and marketing efforts. Glor endured persistent rumors about his hold on the job and left last May, days after Zirinsky announced the sweeping anchor changes to the morning and evening newscasts.

O'Donnell has said she plans to stay in the job until she retires.

Despite the decline in influence and viewership, the three evening newscasts are still watched by 23 million viewers every night. But many of those viewers are older, and it's unlikely younger viewers will establish the habit of tuning in to a half-hour of curated news at 6:30 in the evening. News divisions have responded to the tectonic shifts in viewer habits with on-demand and digital services; the CBS Evening News streams on CBSN every night at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT.

"We're in the first tank as the army moves into the future," says Zirinsky. "We really believe the Evening News is a very important broadcast, and not only from a legacy perspective."

And the cacophonous, 24-7 news cycle — much of it dominated by opinion journalism — actually gives the CBS Evening News a mission statement, asserts Zirinsky.

"I don't feel obligated to touch every story. Norah's focus and Kim's focus is going to be: What can we add in value to a story you may already know about? If a story has impact and it's been up since 7 or 8 a.m., how do we tell you something you don't know? That's the critical thought. Our goal is strong journalism, impactful journalism, breaking news, investigations that spur Congress to hold hearings.

"We see what we do as a calling," adds Zirinsky. "In this day and age there are very few people who are able to deliver a trustworthy broadcast without point of view. That's who we want to be."