ABC News plans 25% cutback


Bowing to economic pressures, ABC News is launching a top-to-bottom restructuring that will shrink the staff by as much as 25% and dramatically reorient the way it gathers and produces the news.

ABC News President David Westin laid out the plan in an e-mail to employees Tuesday, saying the network “will undergo a fundamental transformation that will ultimately affect every corner of the enterprise.” The emphasis in the pared-down news division will be on “digital journalists” who can both produce and shoot their own stories, a model increasingly being adopted in television news.

Executives seek to cut between 300 and 400 staff members, about a quarter of the 1,400-person news division. All nonunion employees are being offered the opportunity to apply for voluntary buyouts, an unusual move that Westin backed as a way to cushion the dramatic changes in store. If not enough staff seek to leave on their own, layoffs will follow.

The areas hit the hardest will be the special events staff, which will be disbanded, as well as the newsmagazines “20/20” and “Primetime,” which will see many full-time employees replaced with freelancers. The weekday and weekend staffs of “World News” and “Good Morning America” will be combined and the London bureau is expected to be substantially scaled back.

Westin said the cuts were not mandated by ABC’s corporate parent, the Walt Disney Co., but he concluded they were necessary during long-term strategy discussions that followed “a very tough year financially.”

“We have managed to keep our heads above water financially but not by much,” Westin said in an interview. “It was a sobering experience for all of us. It made us think long and hard to make sure we have a successful and thriving future going out over the next five to 10 years.”

The news division president said he “would never want to pretend that this is going to be easy for anyone.” But, he added, technology offers the network the ability to generate the news more nimbly, without compromising quality.

With hand-held digital cameras, one or two people can now cover a story that once required a correspondent, producer and two-person crew. Westin said the network’s experience with its eight foreign correspondents who work as “one-man bands” persuaded him that the model produces strong journalism. “Nightline” has also found success in paring costs by relying on producers who produce, shoot and edit stories, he said.

But after decades of a labor-heavy approach to newsgathering, it will not be easy for ABC to reinvent the process. Camera operators and engineers are protected by union contracts, and will have to get leave from the union if they want to apply for the buyouts.

“I don’t see this is a light switch you flip,” said Westin, adding that the news division would still retain some traditional approaches to news production.

Still, nearly all producers are going to be asked to be “digitally fluent,” he said, and the current practice of signing producers to contracts guaranteeing their employment will be reexamined on a “case by case” basis.

The changes 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. Staffers are not only fearful about losing their jobs, but are apprehensive about how the restructuring will affect their ability to chase big stories and swarm major news events if they remain.

Richard Wald, a former top ABC News executive who teaches journalism at Columbia University, called the size of the cut “startling” on its face.

“But it is not a startling number when you consider the entire industry has changed,” he said. “The wind is blowing all of these ships into a different kind of water.”

Indeed, news organizations large and small have been forced to slash staff to cope with a drop in advertising revenue caused by the global economic slowdown and the siphoning of audiences by online media. Last month, CBS News cut at least 90 positions, shuttering its Moscow bureau and significantly shrinking its staff in Washington, London and Los Angeles.

The industry-wide 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, though has seen a recent uptick with its new anchor team.