Deep Cuts Coming at ABC News
Company to offer all non-contract, non-union employees buyout, looks to reduce staff by 300
By Marisa Guthrie -- Broadcasting & Cable, 2/23/2010 3:31:00 PM
If the company does not get enough volunteers, layoffs will commence. The process is expected to take a month, according one executive.
The cuts are not just the latest round of layoffs that have plagued an industry reeling from declining audience share and a recession battered advertising market. Rather they are intended to facilitate a "fundamental transformation" of ABC News, according to Westin.
That transformation will include an increasing reliance on digital one-man-band journalists. ABC News has had digital reporters in several foreign locales including South Korea, Indonesia, Brazil and Kenya since 2007 and last year added domestic digital reporters in several cities.
Staffs for weekday and weekend editions of programs including Good Morning America and World News will be merged. And the newsmagazines will rely more heavily on freelancers.
"The time has come to anticipate change, rather than respond to it," wrote Westin. "We have a rare opportunity to get in front of what's coming, to ensure that ABC News has a sound journalistic and financial footing for many years to come, and to serve our audiences even better. But we must move boldly and promptly. In the past, we've sought out less expensive ways to replicate what we've always done. The time has come to re-think how we do what we are doing."
Westin singled out Nightline, which has producers shoot and edit their own material in the field, as an example of how the network's newsgathering would change.
But he stressed that the cuts would not impact the on-air product.
"If I thought that what we were doing would compromise the value of our content in any way editorially or creatively, I wouldn't do it," he told B&C.
Digital reporters - predominantly young journalists who shoot, edit and transmit stories - have enabled news organizations to cut down on personnel and travel costs associated with a multi-person crew. Westin stressed that the news division would not completely supplant traditional newsgathering for the more bare-bones digital approach.
"I'm not suggesting that we're going to flip a switch and it's going to be 100%, far from it. It will still be a minority of what we do, a significant minority, but a minority of what we do," he said. "I do believe that we've proven to ourselves that some of the new technology, and the proper use of it, is not only appropriate but necessary for a number of stories and allows us to do a better job in covering much of the news."
Asked if the disparity between highly compensated anchors and rank-and-file employees who will inevitably bear the brunt of the cuts created a morale problem inside ABC News, Westin said: "Time will tell."
He then pointed to ABC News' fiscal responsibility in negotiating salaries.
"We have been taking into account the economic realties of our business as we have been negotiating senior people's contracts both on air and off air for several years now," said Westin. "If you take a look at positions, both on-air and senior positions in production, and how much they're paid today versus how much they were paid five years ago, you would find remarkable differences. It's not something that I think is appropriate to go in to the details of. But people would make a terrible mistake if they thought we were just making adjustments in producers and associate producers. That is not true."
News rooms have been under increasing pressure to trim costs at a time when media companies are watching profits sink amid the economic downturn. Many companies embarked on streamlining initiatives years ago. But the recession has made the belt tightening much more painful.
Earlier this month CBS News laid off 91 people including many long-time producers.
And while the impending cuts at ABC News are the deepest by far, they are only the latest at a news division which has endured a series of them as far back as second quarter 2007, when layoffs began at the network's Washington, D.C. bureau.
Last month, ABC broadcast operations and engineering eliminated 31 positions. At the time Preston Davis, the head of BOE at ABC, said he expected to eliminate more jobs bringing the total loss for that department to about 70 positions out of 575.
Last spring, about 20 people from the finance and operations units in New York lost their jobs.
In January 2009, 35 staffers were let go at the newsmagazines, News Now and digital as well as marketing, research and sales. Also, 60 unfilled positions were eliminated and political staff hired to cover the 2008 presidential was thinned. Last October, about 20 staffers at ABC News Radio in New York and Washington, D.C. were let go in the division's editorial, production and technical divisions.
In closing his Feb. 23 e-mail to staff, Westin noted: "I won't pretend that all of this will be easy. But I do truly believe that it will be good for ABC News."
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