In Depth

Cutbacks Roil Major TV News Operations

By Hillary Atkin

It was a one-two punch that sent shockwaves through the television news industry — a grim reality check of the human toll that cost-cutting measures are taking in these recessionary times.

In early February, CBS News announced that it would once again trim staff, and although no numbers were confirmed, the layoffs reportedly affect 90 to 100 people, roughly 7 percent of the CBS News work force, mainly at its broadcast headquarters in New York and at its Washington, London, San Francisco and Los Angeles bureaus. The Los Angeles Times reported that the Moscow bureau was closed down with the dismissal of its three employees, and the Tel Aviv bureau was left with just one producer. Even the vaunted “60 Minutes,” which has been spared the brunt of a series of personnel cutbacks over the past few years, is losing some staffers.

Just weeks later, ABC News announced a much more severe downsizing, perhaps the steepest ever at a network news division. No formal numbers were given, but it’s estimated that as many as 25 percent of the roughly 1,500 network news employees may be out of a job by the end of this year.

ABC News President David Westin, who announced the cutbacks in a memo to staffers, said they were an attempt to cope with economic pressures on the business, which has suffered from audience erosion and advertising revenue shortfalls.

“The time has come to rethink how we do what we are doing,” he said in the memo. “These are forces larger than any of us — business forces, just the realities of broadcast versus digital, as well as financial forces, given the advertising market.”

“There’s no doubt we all saw some cutbacks coming because the news product is tied to advertising,” said Judy Muller, who worked as an ABC News correspondent for 15 years and is now a journalism professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “The ones who are doing alright are public broadcasters, who never relied on that model, or NBC, which put some of its eggs in cable.”

According to an ABC News employee who requested anonymity, all staff members were given the option to accept buyout offers by the end of March, and depending on how many people opt out of their jobs, further cuts will made.

“There’s a real nervousness amongst the staff, and it’s all anybody can talk about because of the uncertainty of not knowing who is going to lose their jobs,” said the staffer, who is not taking a buyout. He said Westin held several open forums with staff members to discuss the situation and told them the transitional period would last through the end of the year.

Many news staffers are also being asked to do more than one job. A crop of so-called “digi-journalists,” who shoot, edit, write and report, will replace many of the laid-off correspondents, according to Westin, who also said the network would cope with reduced manpower on breaking news stories by employing more freelancers — although a majority of stories will still be covered by traditional four-person crews.

“Some of what David Westin is advocating isn’t alarming or evolutionary,” said the ABC News staffer, who said that physically shutting down some bureaus — as has been reported but not confirmed by news executives — won’t harm news production. “Why aren’t we utilizing the real estate of our affiliates? Why aren’t we having reporters working at home with a laptop and a cell phone? Add a camera and producer and you can still make TV.”

Yet experts are questioning how all the changes will affect the newsgathering process. “The ramification is the public will not get the kind of coverage it is used to from veteran correspondents, producers and camera people,” said Muller. “If there is a major earthquake in Los Angeles, and you’ve got two video journalists covering the West Coast — good luck with that. That’s when it will become very clear that coverage requires actual people on the ground. You can’t do everything from New York.”

With experienced personnel at bureaus being put out to pasture and others being parachuted in, she said that it’s not only breaking news coverage that may suffer.

“When you live in a place, you’re more apt to report it correctly and fairly and to know the people,” Muller said. “It’s important to live where you’re reporting. Those of us based in the West, we know the issues: water, the environment — all the things that matter that may not matter to New Yorkers. At some point, the pyramid collapses when you don’t have the ground troops.”

What long differentiated network news was its highly experienced journalists, and although many high-profile “stars” are in no danger of losing their jobs, their lesser-known colleagues will be greatly affected by the cutbacks.

“What’s clear is the rise of backpack video journalists,” said Jason Samuels, associate professor of journalism at New York University and a former senior producer at ABC News. “In many ways, it’s somewhat of a young person’s gig. Running around all day to do the job of four people is physically taxing. A lot of more experienced people may not be up for it. That’s a real issue that may not be talked about — it will have an impact.”

Not only are many jobs becoming more physically demanding, there’s concern among the ranks about the issue of increased work for less pay.

“The old economic model paid folks a network salary, and that economic model is being blown up,” Samuels said. “Not only are they asking veteran reporters to shoot and edit, but also to potentially take a significant pay cut. He or she is competing with younger folks not expecting the same pay. That’s a reality. There’s a simmering kind of resentment within some of the more established producers and correspondents. They have real fear.”

Another former network news correspondent said although it is difficult and problematic to lose experienced news professionals, requiring journalists to wear several hats has its benefits in covering news.

“Working with a small camera on your own or in partnership with someone is ideal for some kinds of stories where access is problematic and you can’t come in with a big crew and a lot of gear,” said Deborah Potter, a veteran reporter who worked at CBS News and CNN and is executive director of Newslab.org, a nonprofit resource for television newsrooms focused on research and training. “There’s not such a distance between you and the person whose story you’re telling.”

Another factor that has yet to play out is the fact that it’s a rare journalist who excels at multiple aspects of newsgathering.

“There are various levels of proficiency, and the less proficient, the more support is needed,” said Samuels, who worked closely with ABC’s digital journalists beginning in 2007 when Westin launched the digital program and saw many stories come in that needed a lot of work.

“ABC News will have to figure out what rate of support is needed,” he said. “It’s hard to find a skilled person who can shoot, edit and have a producer’s eye for content. That’s not easy to do. It’s much harder to do three things well as opposed to one. In the field, you have to focus on many different things going on at the same time. It’s a real skill to manage that.”

He also noted that if digital journalists are not very good and try to replicate traditional news pieces, it can be a disaster. “If you have someone talented, their stories can be better, and might feel more immediate, less formulaic — more like a video blog or diary,” Samuels said. “If you’re a one-person band, you can sink or swim on your own. The people trying to do this will burn themselves out. It normally takes a lot of work with a team.”

Potter said time — always a precious commodity in the newsgathering business — is another thorny issue. “If you’re wearing so many hats, it’s going to take longer, no matter how experienced you are,” she said. “If you have to do all the shooting and editing the real crunch comes when you’re asked to do day-of-air. Can you shoot raw video and send it in? Sure, but if they want a fully produced piece, that’s going to take longer.”

It’s not certain that viewers will notice any changes — or care — if the standards and quality of network news reporting remain high. “If you set up for the viewer that this is digital journalism and a different approach, and the storytelling might be different, I completely think viewers will embrace it,” said Samuels. “But you have to be transparent. With one foot in, and one foot out, I’m not sure it’s possible to have it both ways. It will be a slow evolution. How much time do these networks have? The economics are becoming very difficult.”

Potter’s prediction is that the business will see more television news reporters become like their radio counterparts, who have historically gone out alone with their tape recorders — but are now also being asked to shoot Web video.

“Solo practitioners may have an advantage,” she said. “For me, part of it is to back off and zoom out. It isn’t just TV— changes are being asked across the board [in journalism]. They could be terrible and terrific. Put a camera in the hands of someone not professional and you could get yourself in trouble. You could also find someone really talented. I’m still reserving judgment, but it doesn’t make it easier to be working in any of those newsrooms.”