ABC News To Slash Jobs In Major 'Transformation'

ABC News president David Westin at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York in September. i

ABC News president David Westin at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York in September. Westin said Tuesday that the network seeks to shed several hundred jobs in the news division. Mark Lennihan/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Mark Lennihan/AP
ABC News president David Westin at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York in September.

ABC News president David Westin at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York in September. Westin said Tuesday that the network seeks to shed several hundred jobs in the news division.

Mark Lennihan/AP

ABC News President David Westin announced Tuesday what he is calling a "fundamental transformation" of his network's news division that will slash the payroll and re-engineer the way ABC produces news in the digital age. The network is seeking to shed several hundred jobs in the news division, or up to a quarter of the 1,400-person workforce.

"ABC News has kept its head above water, but sometimes just barely so," Westin told NPR in a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon. "Particularly last year, in a down advertising year, it drove home the concern that we were a bit precarious."

He continued, "Part of my job is to make sure that we are a robust, successful news organization, going well out into the future."

Heard On 'All Things Considered'

Voluntary buyouts are being offered to nearly all full-time news employees who are not under union contracts or personal services contracts, which include the correspondents and anchors who are on air.

But every corner of the division is said to be affected. The staffs of weekday and weekend shows have been combined, while executives have been reassigned. And as contracts come due, correspondents and anchors will be under heightened scrutiny.

Westin said the quality of the coverage need not suffer as the network takes advantage of major technological breakthroughs.

But Boston University journalism professor Robert Zelnick, a former ABC News correspondent based in Moscow and Tel Aviv for the network who also covered the Pentagon in the 1990s, disagrees.

"When you do this, when you cut back on staff, and start to cut down on your correspondent corps, which is probably the next step in this, it's like a marooned person trying to sustain himself by eating his own flesh," Zelnick says.

Broadcast television newscasts have lost viewers in recent years as people have been distracted by alternatives — not just by cable news or entertainment shows but by diversions online and game systems. Major newspapers have slashed their staffs deeply in recent years. NBC folded the workforce of its cable sister-station MSNBC into its news division, while CBS undertook the latest, if more modest, round of cuts earlier this winter. The flagging economy has only made things worse.

Westin said it was important for ABC News to seize the moment as an opportunity to redefine how it operates. Instead of maintaining expensive gold-plated bureaus dotted around the globe, ABC now relies on digital journalists in eight foreign countries who can record footage themselves or work in concert with a crew on assignment. It has added several digital national reporters as well.

Longtime digital media columnist Mark Glaser, the executive editor of PBS's Media Shift and Idea Lab, argues that the very viability of the network news model is at stake.

"A lot of other organizations have paid a lot of lip service, and said, 'OK, we're going to do mobile content, we're going to have digital journalists, we're going to have mobile journalists, we're going to try all these things,'" Glaser says.

"But, you know, it just depends on how much they are going to make it an institution-wide change," Glaser told NPR. "This is definitely a sink or swim, evolutionary, kind of moment where it's evolve or die."

If ABC does not get enough volunteers for buyouts, layoffs will follow. Every corner of the division is said to be affected. The staffs of weekday and weekend shows have been combined, while executives have been reassigned. Employees under contract will get tougher scrutiny as their contracts expire. But Westin says he finds hope in the same nimble approach that helped to ensure the survival of Nightline by keeping costs in check and enabling ABC journalists to get to stories more quickly.

"Much of the work that we do on Nightline today is shot by reporters and producers and edited by them and transmitted by the Internet by the field by them," Westin said. "Anyone watching Nightline would never think, 'Oh, they're gathering their news differently or producing it differently.'"

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