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ABC News to cut half its domestic correspondents, close bricks-and-mortar bureaus [Updated]

February 26, 2010 | 12:39 pm

As part of the deep cuts announced this week at ABC News, the network plans to close all of its physical bureaus around the country except Washington and halve the number of its domestic correspondents.

ABC News President David Westin confirmed in an interview Friday that the network's ranks of bureau correspondents, which currently number several dozen, would be cut in half and be replaced with "digital" journalists who would be expected to shoot and edit their own stories.

“We will have as many total journalists as we do now,” he said.

Although the network will keep a minimal staff presence in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami and Boston, it will shut down its bricks-and-mortar bureaus there and ask its remaining employees to work from the local affiliates. The Washington bureau will remain open, but its size will be substantially reduced.

[Updated at 1:10 p.m.: Kate O'Brian, ABC's senior vice president of news, said that although the network eventually plans to shut down its physical bureaus in the long term, it is still examining all of its leases and is not going to immediately vacate all offices. The news division has not yet approached affiliates about housing network correspondents, but has found that model works in Denver and Detroit.]

The mood was grim in Los Angeles, the largest bureau outside of Washington. The 40-plus staffers were told this week that only a few producers would remain and only two correspondents would be assigned to cover the West, down from a total of six who work out of Dallas, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Many functions that had been done out of the bureau will be handled by a “logistics desk” in New York. Demoralized employees, who did not want to be quoted by name for fear of losing their jobs, said the severity of the cuts would make it nearly impossible to swarm major stories such as the perennial wildfires in Southern California.

Westin said the network would cope with the reduced manpower on breaking news stories by hiring freelance crews and making use of its expanded team of digital journalists, staffers who would be able to handle multiple tasks. Although a majority of stories will still be covered by traditional four-person crews, Westin said he expected a “plurality” of pieces would be done by people shooting and editing their own video. The digital journalists will be stationed in two-person teams around the country.

“I’m sure we will learn more as we go forward, but we have enough experience to be quite confident that we can not only maintain but in some cases enhance our editorial quality,” he said.

This week, the network began sending out letters offering voluntary buyouts to all nonunion employees, and is posting openings of the new digital journalism positions.

“This is a really big change,” Westin said. “Some people are going to embrace it and some people will believe it won’t work. I respect both those groups of people. It’s a question of who wants to work here in the way we’re going to change the place. ... I’m quite confident we will have enough people who are enthusiastic and up to the task.”

-- Matea Gold

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