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ABC News concludes wrenching round of cuts with fewer involuntary layoffs than expected

Abc david westin pic A brutal round of cuts at ABC News came to a close this week when executives laid off 22 employees Tuesday, a far smaller number than they had expected.

The final tally was less than anticipated because more than 300 staff and contract employees agreed to take a voluntary buyout, according to a source familiar with the process. The larger-than-expected response to the buyout offer provided a small measure of relief at ABC, which is undergoing a radical makeover in its approach to news gathering and production in an effort to pare down costs. In all, the news division is losing 350 to 400 employees, at least a quarter of its 1,400-person staff.

Aside from some outstanding issues that need to be negotiated with the unions, the layoff notices handed out Tuesday marked the end of the cutbacks that ABC News President David Westin announced in February. Calling the cuts a response to a trying financial year in 2009, Westin told employees that it was essential to replace the news division’s traditional approach with a leaner model in order to survive.

"Many more people elected to take the voluntary package or a buyout of their contract than we anticipated when we began the process," Westin wrote in an e-mail to employees Wednesday. "Unfortunately, however, there were a few of our colleagues that we still had to lay off earlier this week. This has been a difficult time for everyone — and most especially for those who are leaving us. We wish them well and thank them for their service.

"Now it is time to look to the future. We have much yet to do as we move to make full use of what new technology makes possible and we implement fully the structural and organizational changes that we’ve begun throughout the division. The full extent of these changes will be realized over the summer and into the fall."

The cutbacks have already taken a heavy toll: The network’s special events department was essentially eliminated. The newsmagazines "20/20" and "Primetime" are replacing many full-time employees with freelancers. And ABC is significantly paring down its number of correspondents around the U.S. Those who remain, aside from correspondents with specific beats, will be expected to act as “digital journalists,” shooting and producing their own stories.

The cuts are being felt most keenly in the network’s bureaus. The London office, once the hub for ABC’s foreign coverage, is being drastically scaled back. The network also plans to eventually shut down all its brick-and-mortar bureaus in the U.S., except in Washington. Los Angeles, formerly the largest bureau in the U.S. after Washington, lost most of its 40-plus staffers, including correspondents Brian Rooney and Lisa Fletcher. San Francisco correspondent Laura Marquez was also let go, along with business correspondent Betsy Stark in New York.

In all, nine correspondents are leaving, including some who have not yet been publicly identified who are expected to exit in the coming months. Others, such as former "Good Morning America" weekend co-anchor Kate Snow, who jumped to NBC's "Dateline," have found other opportunities.

The number of correspondents laid off was fewer than the network anticipated. Westin said in February that he expected ABC would need to let go of half of its several dozen domestic correspondents. But in the end, redefining correspondents as digital journalists — along with the robust response to the buyout offer — allowed for fewer layoffs across the board.

Still, staffers within the news division describe the cutbacks as an excruciating and demoralizing chapter that has left many of them questioning how the pared-down news division will be able to compete. With many logistics functions once handled by the bureaus being moved to a centralized news desk in New York, employees fear they will not be as nimble in coordinating coverage in the field. And the move away from specialized reporters to generalists who will parachute into myriad beats worries producers, who say they will have to fill in the gaps of missing expertise. Many also question if digital journalists — even working in pairs, as most will be — can provide the same level of quality in their pieces as traditional four-person teams.

But Westin defended the changes as a part of a painful but essential realignment of priorities at a time when all news organizations are feeling the bite of the economic downturn. Rather than just cutting staff, he argued, the network has undergone a transformation, with more than three dozen staff members getting promoted as part of the restructuring.

"ABC News is now prepared for the future — prepared first and foremost editorially and creatively but also prepared economically and technically," he wrote in his e-mail. "From this base, we are positioned to grow and to do even greater work than we have in the past."

— Matea Gold (Follow me on Twitter @mateagold)

Photo: ABC News President David Westin. Photo credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (7)

Guess it was only a matter of time. ABC has been my number one choice for network programming for years. Keep up the good work.

BTW, a little less BS on the news and a little more real news would be good. And a traffic gal is useless when there's no traffic problems...seems a waste of precious air time to me. Besides, Skylord's report is pretty efficient.

It's pretty shoddy reporting to accept the ABC News executive spin that 300 people took "voluntary" buyouts and that therefore there were fewer than expected layoffs. For many of those people, perhaps a majority, there was nothing voluntary about the buyouts they took; it was made clear they were to leave smiling and with a few dollars in hand, or get axed days later.

All right. The alphabet web isn't quite as bad off as it was in the early-to-mid-'50s when John Daly, then VP for News and Public Affairs there, was the sole anchor five nights a week for the evening news, but, geez, it may be getting there. Next thing you know, the entertainment division will want its own morning show...oops! That's already happened. "Good Morning America" was spawned after the demise of the short-lived "AM America" in the '70s, and the network traded Bill Beutel for David Hartman as co-host.

The ABC cuts are demoralizing in the extreme, and should affect anchors, reporters, and producers at a number of levels, which will show up in a lesser news product for ABC, now and over the long haul.

Staff cuts, in media or any business, is the crappiest way to shave costs -- unimaginative and brutally stupid.

To lose a Brain Rooney, Betsy Stark, Kate Snow et al. is egregiously short-sighted, and remissive in how the network will be impacted in many, many ways -- subliminally and overtly.

Shame on ABC's management...

Rich Reynolds
Director Fort Wayne MediaWatch

Wow, ABC cut loose Betsy Stark but kept Brian Ross??? Someone sure was asleep-at-the-wheel when that selection happened.

It would be interesting to hear, how many executives were asked to go. There has been a trend to move toward networks have nothing but news readers, with the majority of news coming from the AP and Reuters. Perhaps they should just get some starlets in bikinis read the news from the wire. It would be just as informative and more entertaining. Its not like the on-air reporters contest the talking points of their guests.

What a shame; these are the kinds of decisions that will send me to BBC and NPR for good. Talk-show and talking head material masquerading as journalism is tedious (at best) and an insult to the profession...and the discerning viewer. You must have determined that there aren't enough of us left to be worth serving? Possibly so...but you've had a hand in "making the market", yes?

Anyway,good luck, ABC. Your evolving business model may cut costs and "work" for a year or two, but in the long run it can't possibly succeed; it won't generate revenue because, alas, there will be NO value added in your product. None.

Sadly, 'Bye.


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