ABC News is ready to cut its news division by as much as 20 percent -- or 300 jobs -- and radically reorder the network’s traditional approach to news gathering, the Los Angeles Times reported today.
The Times, citing multiple unnamed sources, says the network will restructure the labor-heavy newsroom from top to bottom in favor of a leaner, more nimble operation, because of pressures caused by a drop in advertising revenues.
Journalists who survive the restructuring will be expected to both produce and shoot their own stories, acting as “one-man bands,” Matea Gold of the Times writes, a model increasingly being adopted in television news.
The process is expected to begin Wednesday morning when employees receive a letter asking for volunteers to take buyouts and leave the company. Newsroom employees have heard that the network is seeking to shrink the newsroom by as many as 300 positions, about 20% of the 1,400-person staff. If not enough employees volunteer to leave, layoffs are likely to follow.
For the last month, the newsroom has been rife with rumors about the cutbacks, which are poised to be the most dramatic reshaping of ABC News since Roone Arledge revolutionized the division by recruiting a team of high-wattage anchors and launching new franchises during his 20-year tenure as news president. Anxious staffers are not only fearful about losing their jobs but also are apprehensive about, if they remain, how the restructuring will affect their ability to chase big stories and swarm major news events.
ABC executives are internally casting the belt-tightening not as a retrenchment but as a repositioning. By streamlining news-gathering operations now, officials hope to stave off repeated cuts in the coming years. They contend that a smaller news division does not mean a less competitive one. With technological advancements such as hand-held digital cameras, the news division can now dispatch one person to cover a story that once required a correspondent, a producer and a two-person crew.
News organizations large and small have been forced to let go of staff and reduce expenses in the last few years to cope with a drop in advertising revenue caused by the global economic slowdown. Earlier this month, CBS News cut at least 90 positions, shuttering its Moscow bureau and significantly shrinking its staff in Washington, London and Los Angeles.
ABC News has also trimmed staff in the last few years, but this round of cuts is the biggest in recent memory, network sources said, surpassing the 125 positions that the news division lost in 2001 as part of companywide job reductions by corporate parent Walt Disney Co., when correspondents such as Sheila MacVicar and Morton Dean left the network.
The industrywide financial troubles have been felt keenly at ABC, whose flagship morning and evening newscasts remain in second place in the ratings behind NBC. “Good Morning America,” the main revenue generator for the network, has fallen 10% this season in the 25- to 54-year-old advertising demographic.
Dave Westin, ABC News president, released this memo:
Over the past several years, we’ve seen a lot of changes — changes at ABC News and in the news industry overall. I’m proud of the way we’ve responded both to unexpected transitions in our programs and to the economic realities of our business.
We’ve adapted quickly and effectively and — above all — put our audiences first. Our programs are stronger today than they were ten years ago. This is a credit first and foremost to the men and women at ABC News.
But all of us are good reporters. We can see that our entire society is in the middle of a revolution — a revolution in the ways that people get their news and information. The digital age makes our business more competitive than ever before. It also presents us with opportunities we couldn’t have imagined to gather, produce, and distribute the news. We can have great success in the new world — but only if we embrace what is new, rather than being overwhelmed by it.
The time has come to anticipate change, rather than respond to it. 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.
To that end, we anticipate that between now and the end of the year ABC News will undergo a fundamental transformation that will ultimately affect every corner of the enterprise. We will be guided by one central principle: In everything, we will ensure that we put our audiences first — providing them with first-rate journalism covering the things that matter the most to them in ways no one else does. And, we will do it with a business model that ensures we will be here for our audiences for many years to come.
The transformation will have six basic components:
1. In newsgathering, we intend to dramatically expand our use of digital journalists. We have proven that this model works at various locations around the world. We believe we can take it much further;
2. In production, we will take the example set by Nightline of editorial staff who shoot and edit their own material and follow it throughout all of our programs, while recognizing that we will continue to rely upon our ENG crews and editors for most of our work;
3. In structure, we will combine our weekday and weekend operations for both Good Morning America and World News;
4. In special events, we will rely upon our program staff through the day and night to cover unexpected events and marshal personnel from across the division to cover scheduled events;
5. In newsmagazines and long-form programming, we will move to a more flexible blend of staff and freelancers so that we can respond to varying demand for hours through the year; and
6. Overall, we will eliminate redundancies wherever possible.
An essential part of this intended transformation will be extensive training in the new technology — whether in the field or in-house. This is an extension of the digital bullpen training we’ve undertaken already, but it will be on a scale that we have not seen before. This training program and changes it will make possible in all of our operations will make ABC News the place to work in the digital age. We won’t just be preparing people for the new world; we will be living in it.
When we are finished, many job descriptions will be different, different skill sets may be required, and, yes, we will likely have substantially fewer people on staff at ABC News. To ease the transition, we are offering a voluntary separation package to all full-time, U.S.-based, non-union, non-contract employees. Information and details of the program will be sent to your home address in the next few days. The response to this voluntary program will determine the extent to which we will need to make further reductions. I encourage everyone to talk with their supervisor if they have any questions.
Any voluntary separation offers for union-represented employees will be in accordance with our obligations under the applicable labor agreement. Whatever changes we make overseas will be done in compliance with local laws and, where required, include management consultation in advance.
Throughout this process, I will keep you informed of where we are and where we are going with the transformation. Tomorrow, I will discuss this on the 9:30 call, and we will be holding meetings with various groups of staff in New York. Kate O’Brian and I will be in Washington next week to explain what we are planning in person and to take questions. Either Kate or David Reiter will be travelling to the bureaus in the coming days to do the same.
I won’t pretend that all of this will be easy. But I do truly believe that it will be good for ABC News. I believe in this institution. I believe in its mission and in its future. As always, I will need your help in making sure that we are as strong as we
can be for many years to come.