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.
" 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.
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. 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. — Matea Gold