ABC News Announces Staff Cuts

In this image released by ABC, Diane Sawyer, host of the early morning news show, "Good Morning America," is shown with flowers on her last day on the program, Friday, Dec. 11, 2009 in New York. Sawyer will take over the "World News" anchor chair on Dec. 21, succeeding Charles Gibson, who will retire on Dec. 18. (AP Photo/ABC, Ida Mae Astute)
AP Photo/ABC, Ida Mae Astute
ABC News staffers got a memorandum Tuesday that promises to leave no part of the organization untouched, and will lead to massive personnel reductions by the end of 2010.

Although the memo from ABC News President David Westin specified no numbers, it was believed the goal for cutbacks is as high as one-quarter of the ABC News staff, which currently totals about 1,400.

"We will likely have substantially fewer people on staff at ABC News," Westin said in his memo.

He said personnel reductions would begin with voluntary buyouts to be offered employees in the days ahead. If the target number isn't reached, layoffs will likely follow.

"We anticipate 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," Westin said.

The memo listed several provisions of the news division's restructuring plan, including an expanded use of digital journalists (who both produce and shoot their own stories), the combination of weekday and weekend operations for both "Good Morning America" and "World News," and, at the newsmagazines and other long-form programming, "a more flexible blend of staff and freelancers."

"The time has come to anticipate change, rather than respond to it," Westin said in the memo.

In a phone interview, Westin would not disclose his cost-saving objective, and would say only that the projected staff reduction would exceed the 140 range.

He said the plan had been ironed out in the past three or four months, a period during which "we wanted to think it through and get it right."

He said three factors prompted Tuesday's announcement.

The economic downtown in the advertising market last year "focused the mind quickly on the business realities we face," he said.

This was followed by the realization that the newsgathering business is going through irreversible changes in the digital age.

Third, he said innovations in technology offered "not a just a challenge but an opportunity" to do more with fewer people and "get to stories you couldn't get to with a traditional crew."

"I would not be pursuing this if I thought we would be compromising the news," Westin said.

At the same time, he acknowledged that the transformation would be painful for many.

"I'm very mindful of the men and women who will be leaving us, voluntarily or otherwise, particularly in this job market," he said.

The drastic moves and cutbacks, which were not unexpected, echo those two years ago at NBC News, which also saved money by closing facilities in New Jersey and bringing CNBC and MSNBC staff to work at the company's Rockefeller Center headquarters.

CBS News is currently going through a round of layoffs.

Unlike NBC, neither CBS nor ABC have the advantage of a cable-news network to bring in additional revenue and amortize expenses.

ABC, a unit of The Walt Disney Co., is further hobbled by the fact that its news division's flagship morning and evening newscasts remain in second place in the ratings behind NBC.