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ABC News prepares major restructuring; between 300 and 400 staffers could be cut [updated]

February 23, 2010 | 12:03 pm

ABC News is poised to make a major round of cuts that will reduce the size of the news division by as much as 20% and radically reorder the network’s traditional approach to news gathering.

Forced to belt-tighten by the weak advertising market, network executives have opted to restructure the labor-heavy newsroom from top to bottom in favor of a leaner, more nimble operation, according to multiple sources. Many of those remaining in the pared-down news division will be expected to both produce and shoot their own stories, acting as “one-man bands,” a model increasingly being adopted in television news.Abcnews

The process is expected to begin Wednesday morning when employees receive a letter asking for volunteers to take buyouts and leave the company. Newsroom employees have heard that the network is seeking to shrink the newsroom by as many as 300 positions, about 20% of the 1,400-person staff. If not enough employees volunteer to leave, layoffs are likely to follow.

For the last month, the newsroom has been rife with rumors about the cutbacks, which 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. Anxious staffers are not only fearful about losing their jobs but also are apprehensive about, if they remain, how the restructuring will affect their ability to chase big stories and swarm major news events.

ABC executives are internally casting the belt-tightening not as a retrenchment but as a repositioning. By streamlining news-gathering operations now, officials hope to stave off repeated cuts in the coming years. They contend that a smaller news division does not mean a less competitive one. With technological advancements such as hand-held digital cameras, the news division can now dispatch one person to cover a story that once required a correspondent, a producer and a two-person crew.

News organizations large and small have been forced to let go of staff and reduce expenses in the last few years to cope with a drop in advertising revenue caused by the global economic slowdown. Earlier this month, CBS News cut at least 90 positions, shuttering its Moscow bureau and significantly shrinking its staff in Washington, London and Los Angeles.

ABC News has also trimmed staff in the last few years, but this round of cuts is the biggest in recent memory, network sources said, surpassing the 125 positions that the news division lost in 2001 as part of companywide job reductions by corporate parent Walt Disney Co., when correspondents such as Sheila MacVicar and Morton Dean left the network.

The industrywide 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.

[Updated at 12:52 p.m.: In a memo that went out to employees Tuesday afternoon, ABC News President David Westin confirmed that the network would undergo "a fundamental transformation," dramatically expanding the use of digital journalists and combining production staffs. "The time has come to anticipate change, rather than respond to it," he wrote. "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."]

[Updated at 1:29 p.m.: In an interview Tuesday afternoon, Westin said the cuts were not mandated by ABC's corporate parent, Walt Disney Co., but that he concluded they were necessary after "a very tough year financially."

"We have managed to keep our heads above water financially but not by much," Westin said. "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."

Read Westin's full memo to staff here.]

[Updated at 3:36 p.m.: The final number of job reductions could be between 300 and 400, sources said, a cut that would amount to a quarter of the news division's staff. Westin told The Times that he “would never want to pretend that this is going to be easy for anyone.” But, he added, technology “makes it possible for us to gather and produce the news in a different way that either maintains the editorial quality or enhances it but requires fewer people.”]

-- Matea Gold

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