Friday, February 26, 2010

Cuts at TV-News Divisions Signal Leaner Approach

By SAM SCHECHNER The Wall Street Journal

ABC News will likely make more use of journalists like Dan Harris. shown above in Nepal in 2008, who gather news with smaller production crews.

Staff cuts at two of the biggest broadcast-television news outfits in the U.S. foreshadow a shift toward cheaper TV news gathering, as broadcast-news groups face shrinking profits and increasing competition from cable and the Internet.

ABC News, a division of Walt Disney Co., said this week it would embark on a "fundamental transformation" of its operations, a move that could cut as much as a quarter of its news staff of approximately 1,500, according a person familiar with the matter.

The move comes three weeks after CBS Corp.'s news division began to shed more than 6% of its staff of roughly 1,400 and just over three years after General Electric Co.'s NBC News began rounds of stiff cuts.

The shift raises the question of how long news organizations can continue to do more with less. "This is more, done differently," said David Westin, president of ABC News. "I'm finding out, 'Can we thrive in this new world?' "

A centerpiece of ABC's plan is to rely more extensively on a new breed of TV journalist who can produce stories using new, digital equipment alone or with much smaller teams.

In TV newsrooms, a person who can do the job of both a producer and an editor is sometimes called a "predator."

For decades, network-news divisions were almost the only source of images from the day's events. Anchors like Walter Cronkite were fixtures in tens of millions of American homes. But since the 1980s, broadcasters faced pressure to deliver consistent profit. And now they compete with a geyser of Internet updates as well as nonstop coverage from three, major 24-hour cable-news networks.

More people still watch evening news on NBC, ABC and CBS than on cable, CBS's Sunday night "60 Minutes" remains popular and NBC has seen its evening-news ratings tick up slightly this year. But the three evening newscasts' combined average audience of about 24 million this season is down more than 15% from a decade ago, according to Nielsen Co.

Richard C. Wald, a former top executive at ABC News and NBC News, says the big broadcast networks suffer, in part, from offering a mass-audience product in a news environment that has splintered into niches.

"They absolutely must change," said Mr. Wald, noting that Mr. Westin's move to wider use of "one-man-bands" could spread: "The minute he has any success, it will be widely copied," he said.

CBS and ABC are in a dicey position. Neither owns a cable-news network that brings in revenue from monthly cable and satellite-TV bills.

Time Warner
Inc.'s CNN, News Corp.'s Fox News and NBC News's MSNBC will bring in a combined $1.6 billion in U.S. subscription fees in 2010, according to research firm SNL Kagan. News Corp. also owns The Wall Street Journal.

Those fees have helped NBC News remain less reliant on advertising through the downturn. "I can't underscore enough how important MSNBC is to the overall financial well-being of NBC News," said Steve Capus, president of NBC News. "It enables everything that we do."

The cuts have unleashed a wave of uneasiness in TV newsrooms. Still, some veterans say changes to the costly way broadcast-news divisions operate—gathering footage that is already widely available, for instance—are overdue.

CBS said job cuts earlier this month were part of an effort to make "adjustments" to cope with a decline in advertising revenue. "It's just to be more efficient in the way we gather the news," Sean McManus, CBS's president of news and sports, said in an interview at the time.

NBC News went through a round of cuts in 2006, moving MSNBC into NBC's Manhattan headquarters, merging much of its infrastructure into the rest of NBC News. Those cuts, which NBC says amounted to about 5% of news staff, came after Mr. Capus saw costs rising and revenue sinking in 2005. "It was an eye-opening moment to sit there and realize our business was in trouble," Mr. Capus said.

ABC has been experimenting with smaller newsgathering teams in far-flung locations. On late-night show "Nightline," staff sometimes shoot and edit their own material, a practice Mr. Westin cited in announcing his cuts.

"Maintaining the quality, or enhancing the quality, but for much less money—I think that is a very viable business model," Mr. Westin said.

NBC News also makes use of several "backpack" reporters. But NBC has no immediate plans to change its mix of traditional- and digital-reporting techniques, Mr. Capus said: "You have to pick your spots."

Write to Sam Schechner at

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