ABC News Offers Nearly All Staffers Buyouts

ABC News has told staffers that every one of them will receive a buyout offer in the next few days. The network's news division hopes to achieve staff cuts numbering in the hundreds though no figure has been named.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

ABC News President David Westin announced today what he is calling a transformation of the network's news division. His initiative has two goals: to slash the payroll and to redefine the way ABC produces news in the digital age.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us from our studio in New York to discuss what appears to be fundamental change at ABC. David, first the cuts, how big are they?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: These are big. There's no way to camouflage that. They have been careful not to specify precise numbers. But there appear to be cuts of up to about 25 percent of the news division. Buyouts are being offered pretty much to everybody who don't fall into certain categories.

Your most famous anchors and correspondents are not among them. But they're going to be combining show staffs of, say, the weekend "Good Morning America" and the regular weekday one, same for "World News." They're going to be combining job definitions. This is a massive overhaul of the way ABC News has been structured.

SIEGEL: And why does ABC News say that these cuts are necessary?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, two obvious ones comes to mind, both financial at first. Think of both the effects hitting the news industry, as there are so many more choices on digital platforms, and cable platforms, satellite offerings, you know, that's taken a real hit. Other broadcast outlets and major newspapers have had to cut back their staffs. The economy, of course, has been battered further. I spoke earlier this afternoon to ABC News President David Westin and here was what he had to say.

Mr. DAVID WESTIN (President, ABC News): ABC News has kept its head above water, but sometimes just barely so. And looking at it in the future, I was very concerned, particularly last year in a down advertising year it drove home the concern that we were a bit precarious. And part of my job is to make sure that we are a robust, successful news organization going well on the future.

FOLKENFLIK: So, there's also though a second category or family of reasons why and it's that we're in a digital age. These major broadcast network news divisions although they've made cuts after cuts in recent decades, they are still kind of constructed around a conceit that's at least a generation old. Nowadays, you know, anybody can go out and shoot a half decent video. Think about, you know, what you can do with a handheld camera these days. And there's some pretty sophisticated and good quality ones out there that don't require the extensive crews of yore.

SIEGEL: Whenever cuts are made in a news organization, executives always say that this will not damage the quality of the product.

FOLKENFLIK: Right.

SIEGEL: Will it damage the quality of the news programs?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it could, but it doesn't have to. You know, one of the things that ABC has been experimenting with is being much more nimble. Think of some of the footage we saw from Haiti in recent weeks. Anderson Cooper of CNN among many others, holding his own camera getting exceptionally good digital footage out there. There have been number of anchors and correspondents at ABC, you think of people like Dan Harris and Bill Weir, have been experimenting with that over the last year.

And Westin, in particular, points to the reinvention of "Nightline," that stalwart. It was under the threat of cancellation as you may remember some years ago. And they gave themselves a boost not just by changing the tone and the pace of the program but the by the way they gathered the news. Here's what he said earlier today about that.

Mr. WESTIN: Much of the work that we do on "Nightline," today is shot by the correspondents and the producers and edited by them and transmitted often from the field by them through the Internet and other means.

FOLKENFLIK: And if anything, the show has done well in its ratings. And people have said, you know, maybe the network has been hidebound until now.

SIEGEL: So, what does this contribute to this seemingly endless discussion of the future of network television news?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you know, CBS has always been thought of as the weakest of the big three. And kept its float mostly by say "60 Minutes" and "48 Hours," things like that. There have been rumors in recent years of CBS, ABC, that they would outsource perhaps some of their news coverage to CNN. But clearly, you know, ABC, which is in a strong second place, had thought things aren't severe enough. They had to take action. Here's what they've done.

SIEGEL: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, thanks.

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