ABC News Announces Staff Cuts, Restructuring

ABC News President David Westin announced Tuesday that he'll be seeking hundreds of staff cuts through buyouts being offered to most news staff. The cuts are made necessary by a bad economy and increased media competition. Westin says this is a call for transformational change in the way TV news is produced in the digital age.

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ABC News will be covering the California governor's race with a shrunken staff. Network executives say that economic pressures on the news industry are forcing them to shed up to 25 percent of the news staff - of the news source that I grew up watching. As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, ABC says it intends to use the cuts to reinvent itself.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: ABC News President David Westin says it's a new digital day.

Mr. DAVID WESTIN (President, ABC News): We're looking to use what technology has made possible in recent months and years, to fundamentally transform the way we both gather the news and produce the news.

FOLKENFLIK: But he readily acknowledges another point, too.

Mr. WESTIN: And yes, do it with fewer people and at a reduced cost.

FOLKENFLIK: And there you have it. ABC News is offering voluntary buyout packages to hundreds of journalists, hoping to reduce staff by up to a quarter of its 1,400-person workforce. The pressures arent all that new. Cable and the Web have hurt old-line news outlets. ABCs World News still draws about 8 million viewers a night, second only to "NBC Nightly News, but thats down a lot from what it used to be. So advertising revenues were hurt even before the current recession. David Westin...

Mr. WESTIN: 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. We were a bit precarious, and part of my job is to make sure that we are a robust, successful news organization going well out into the future.

FOLKENFLIK: Some of the changes wont be noticed by many viewers. For instance, the weekend editions of Good Morning America and World News have been folded into their weekday counterparts, under a single executive. But ABC is also placing great emphasis on new, digital platforms. Producers should be able to edit and transmit footage from the field. Reporters should learn how to shoot using new, compact digital cameras. ABC has already experimented with that model using younger digital reporters scattered across the globe. And Westin promises quality will be preserved. He points to the resurrection of Nightline in the ratings after it embraced a quicker-paced format, and a more nimble approach to reporting stories with digital cameras.

Mr. BOB ZELNICK (Former Correspondent, ABC News): Thats exactly what I'd expect him to say.

FOLKENFLIK: Bob Zelnick was a correspondent based in Moscow and Tel-Aviv for ABC News, and he also covered the Pentagon. He's been critical of the big networks for what he says is a liberal bias. But he says that slant is far outweighed by a proud tradition of covering the big stories, like the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and the fall of communism. Zelnick says knowledge and skill will necessarily be lost.

Mr. ZELNICK: When you do this, when you cut back on staff and start to cut down on your correspondent core, which is probably the next step in this, its like a marooned person trying to sustain himself by eating his own flesh.

FOLKENFLIK: But digital news guru Marc Glaser, of PBS, says the networks survival depends on making the significant transformation outlined by Westin yesterday.

Mr. MARC GLASER (Executive Editor, PBS): A lot of other organizations have paid a lot of lip service and said, OK, were going to do mobile content, were going to have digital journalists, were going to have mobile journalists; were going to try all these things. But, you know, it just depends on how much, you know, they really are going to make it an institution-wide change.

FOLKENFLIK: Glaser says the erosion of audiences is testing the very viability of the network news model.

Mr. GLASER: This is definitely a sink or swim, evolutionary kind of moment where, you know, its evolve or die.

FOLKENFLIK: Thats an assessment that Westin didnt really duck yesterday when asked about pressures from ABCs corporate owners.

Mr. WESTIN: You know, its funny. The folks in Los Angeles at Disney are very powerful people, but the forces were dealing with here are actually more powerful even than they are.

FOLKENFLIK: The buyouts are not offered to correspondents and anchors working under personal services contracts. But executives say they will take a harder look as those contracts expire.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.

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