More Network News Employees Out of the Picture

News analysts react to the ABC News cuts

The relentless drumbeat of job loss across the media industry pounded at ABC News Tuesday afternoon with word that as many as 400 positions throughout the network news division will be eliminated either through voluntary buyouts or layoffs.

The cuts, which could amount to as much as 20 percent of the news staff, come less than a month after CBS News trimmed its news division by dozens of jobs, including a raft of veteran producers in Washington and Los Angeles and the closing of the network’s Moscow bureau.

In a memo to staff obtained and published by TV Newser, ABC News president David Westin wrote 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.” He noted as well: “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.”

Although the number of jobs that potentially will be lost is somewhat shocking, industry observers considered the development less revolutionary than evolutionary, reflecting an industry that has constantly searched for ways to reduce costs while suffering eroding audience and revenue for at least two decades.

“I think it heralds that this is a difficult business and it’s been buffeted by a deep recession. Nothing has suddenly happened to network viewership or the network model that wasn’t going on before, other than a deep recession,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

As described by Westin, much of the transformation program at ABC News will involve consolidation and reduction of redundancy. Specifically, he mentioned the increased use of digital journalists; more journalists shooting and editing their own stories; combining weekday and weekend operations for morning and evening news programs, and more use of freelancers in some news programs.

“I don’t think that anyone I’ve talked to in network news believes there’s any structural change that’s going to occur that’s going to alter the trajectory,” said Rosenstiel, noting that network news still draws millions more viewers than any of the cable news programs.

Nonetheless, the loss of more journalism jobs at ABC News comes in the wake of thousands lost across all platforms in the last two years.

“It’s heartbreaking to hear about more talented people losing their jobs when there is still a critical need for good storytelling and great journalism,” said Marcy McGinnis, a former senior vice-president at CBS News. (She is now associate dean of Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism and director of the broadcast journalism program there.)

“The network news divisions are going through chaotic times because the old financial models just don’t work anymore,” she said.

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Lisa Anderson is a 2009-2010 Encore Fellow at CJR. She was the the New York bureau chief and a national correspondent for the Chicago Tribune until December 2008.