ABC News to Slash Staff

Network may cut hundreds — up to 25 percent

Last Updated: February 23, 2010 @ 11:02 PM

Facing a mounting pressure to adapt its cost structure to the digital realities of the media industry, ABC announced on Tuesday that it intends to make deep cuts to its staff as part of a “fundamental transformation” to its news operation.

“The time has come to re-think how we do what we are doing,” ABC News president David Westin wrote in a memo to staff announcing the impending changes. “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.”

A representative for ABC News did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

According to a pair of reports, ABC is looking to slash its headcount by as much as 25 percent.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the guillotine is expected to be unveiled on Wednesday, when employees will be asked to accept buyout packages — a similar process to what occured at New York Times late last year. ABC is looking to cut between 20 and 25 percent of its 1,400-person workforce — which would result in a much deeper round of cuts than the 125 newsroom staffers axed in 2001.

If ABC doesn’t meet that number through volunteer buyouts, the difference would be made through layoffs.

On Feb. 4, the New York Times reported that cuts at ABC were possible.

Television news — like most of the rest of the media industry — has watched its viewership shrink as the number of digital alternatives for consumers expand. Advertising, meanwhile, had eroded along with viewers.

"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," Westin wrote.

Earlier this month, CBS laid off as many as 90 employees in a cost-cutting effort.

"The time has come to anticipate change, rather than respond to it," Westin continued. "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."

Westin’s entire memo:

From: Westin, David
Sent: Tuesday, February 23, 2010 3:40 PM
To: ABCTV News ALL
Cc: Sweeney, Anne
Subject: ABC News Transformation

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.

Thank you.