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Deep Cuts Coming at ABC News

Company to offer all non-contract, non-union employees buyout, looks to reduce staff by 300 2/23/2010 03:33:00 PM Eastern

ABC News is seeking to eliminate 300 positions or close to 25% of the 1,300-person
news division. In a company-wide e-mail that staffers have been expecting for
weeks, ABC News president David Westin announced Tuesday (Feb. 23) that there
will be a division-wide buyout offer to all non-contract and non-union
employees.

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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