News Purges Cutting Into Muscle

ABC’s massive slicing latest sign of downward slope

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.”