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Print Journalist Taking Over NBC's News Department

July 28, 1988|JAY SHARBUTT | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — In the second top-level network shake-up this month, NBC News on Wednesday got a new president--Michael G. Gartner, a respected print journalist and executive who is co-owner of a small newspaper in Iowa.

Gartner, a general news executive at Gannett Co. Inc. in Roslyn, Va., will succeed Lawrence K. Grossman, who is resigning after several months of rumors that he was unhappy with the way NBC was being run and planned to leave.

The change is effective Monday, the same day that former ABC News executive vice president David Burke takes over as president of CBS News, succeeding Howard Stringer. Stringer has been named president of the CBS Broadcast Group.

Gartner, 49, a former editor of the Des Moines Register and a past president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, comes to the NBC job as had Grossman--with no experience in broadcast news.

But he said in an interview Wednesday that that fact poses no major problem for him: "I think what the job calls for is a knowledge of news and management, and leadership, finance and creativity, and I think I have experience in those five areas."

Grossman, 57, the news division's head for four years, has at times been at odds with the new cost-cutting NBC management that General Electric installed after it bought the broadcast giant and its parent company, RCA Inc., in 1986.

He said he was leaving by "mutual agreement" with NBC officials, including NBC president Robert C. Wright, a former GE executive. He declined to specify why he finally was stepping down.

But in a phone interview Wednesday morning from Burbank, where he was attending network business meetings, he suggested that his differences with GE and NBC management led to his impending exit.

"It hadn't been much fun. . . . I think GE would feel more comfortable with their own guy, so I said it was time for a change," Grossman said.

With NBC's new owners, "it was a different set of priorities, a different set of personalities, a different style to the organization," said Grossman, who had been president of the Public Broadcasting Service when hired to head NBC News in 1984 by then-NBC chairman Grant Tinker.

During Grossman's stint at NBC News, the division's "Today" show has risen to first in the ratings, although its "NBC Nightly News" has usually been in third place since last September.

After the GE takeover, Grossman clashed behind the scenes with Wright, balking at doing a hypothetical 5% cut of his division's budget as an "exercise." Later, when Wright proposed that NBC employees contribute to a political action committee, Grossman criticized that proposal as improper for NBC News staffers.

With a new era of competition from cable and independent stations facing the major networks, Grossman had been under pressure to cut costs and was ordered to make the news division break even by 1990.

"There's no question that the whole business had to be brought into financial balance. . . . I thought it should be done in a certain way, and I've worked hard to do that," he said Wednesday.

Since he became its president, NBC News has gradually trimmed its staff from 1,400 when he took over to about 1,000.

The "downsizing," as some call it, has occurred on a company-wide basis, not only at NBC, but at CBS and ABC. In NBC's case, the process began under Tinker and has continued under the new management.

When asked if more personnel cuts are in store at NBC News, Grossman replied: "Bob (Wright) has made it clear there've got to be more."

Asked if more meant extensive , he declined to answer, saying, "Well, I'll leave that for the next guy."

Gartner, who will be that man, said neither GE officials nor Wright have given him marching orders on personnel and budgets.

"No," he said. "No one has told me that I have to do anything, except to work with the people at NBC to try to determine the future, and make sure that NBC News is the leader in that future."

The news division's new president began in news when he was 15, answering telephones in the sports department of the Des Moines Register. But his formal career began in 1960 with the Wall Street Journal, where he worked 14 years in various capacities, from reporter to Page 1 editor.

A lawyer as well as a news executive, and active in freedom-of-information battles, Gartner has been the president and chief executive officer of the Des Moines Register and Tribune and editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal and Louisville Times.

With the Gannett publishing and broadcast conglomerate since 1986, he also writes a syndicated, thrice-weekly column on words and language and still is on the masthead as editor of the Ames Daily Tribune, in the small town of Ames about 30 miles north of Des Moines.

Gartner, who has homes in Des Moines and Washington, said Gary Gerlach, one of two partners who own the newspaper with him, is running the paper now.

He said he'll have to see how much time, if any, his new job will leave him for writing the column, which he described as "sort of my therapy."

Until this month, Gartner knew NBC chief Wright only casually. Serious negotiations about the news division job only began "quite recently," Gartner said, with the offer made this week.

For the time being, he said, he'll probably commute from his home in Des Moines to NBC News headquarters at the RCA Building here.

He was asked what problems he expects as he exits print and enters TV news, with its changing technology, its financial constraints and its competition from cable TV and independent stations.

"I don't know what difficulties to anticipate," he said. "I've never even been in the building over there. All I know is that great change is coming and I have an opportunity to help manage, to help shape that change."

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