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News Purges Cutting Into Muscle

ABC’s massive slicing latest sign of downward slope 3/16/2010 01:31:00 PM Eastern

Last week, when ABC News
President David Westin broke
the news to employees via email
that he’d be purging as much as
25% of his division, the subject line
read: “ABC News Transformation.”

The question has now become what
ABC News will transform itself into,
amid a fractured, warp-speed media
landscape where broadcast networks
are hamstrung by limited airtime and
declining ad revenue potential.
And with ABC joining NBC and CBS
in slashes to its news division—with
ABC’s latest purge considerably larger
than the other networks’—the answer
could mean the hastening of a move
from broadcast news divisions with
millionaire-anchor overhead to digital
news with a much smaller budget.
“Can we imagine a day,” says independent
news analyst Andrew Tyndall,
“when ABC News can exist as a
standalone video-journalism institution,
whatever the status of ABC TV?”

Unlike NBC, which intermingles resources
and amortizes costs across
cable news networks MSNBC and
CNBC, ABC and CBS “operate entirely
in the old system of advertising
revenue,” says Tom Rosenstiel, director
of Pew’s Project for Excellence
in Journalism. “They can’t amortize
the cost of their producers and their
correspondents across multiple platforms.
It’s a rock and a hard place for
ABC and CBS.”

Westin vows that the sweeping
changes in the division would not
be detrimental to the final 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 says.

However, the migration in broadcast
news from a story-driven approach to
the talking-head model popularized
by cable news has been evident for
some time. Deep-dive investigations
and foreign news also have been
curtailed. ABC News will rely more
heavily on one-man-band journalists
who can produce, shoot and edit their
own material.

For the coming ABC cuts, specific
areas have been targeted for downsizing.
Among them, Good Morning
America, the news division’s profit
center, will cut back its number of
feature packages (and the staff that
produces them) in favor of more
in-studio interviews and segments,
according to sources at the morning
show.

At the newsmagazines, which still
manage a modest profit, the company
hopes to replace some full-time
contract employees with freelancers.
 “The technology has allowed some
streamlining,” Rosenstiel observes.
“You don’t need as many people
to do certain things. But this is
about having less money and fewer
people to do what you used to be
able to do.”

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