Turmoil continues at troubled ABC News. Morale among employees was already low after President David Westin's recent announcement that their ranks are to be decimated as part of a "new digital day."
It plunged even further following the recent belated admission that the news division had paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for exclusive rights to reproduce family photographs and videotape of a then-missing 2-year-old to Casey Anthony, a Florida woman who now stands accused of killing her own daughter, and the hiring amidst the cutbacks of high-priced anchorwoman Christiane Amanpour as host of This Week, its Sunday public affairs show.
"We're hearing some weird rumors here," a source inside ABC News reports. "The unions are getting busted -- all Director's Guild of America PAs are getting eliminated -- and by having all productions go through the digital platforms, they can then break NABET."
Other than union busting, what might all the cost-cutting mean? Westin told NPR, "We're looking to use what technology has made possible in recent months and years, to fundamentally transform the way we both gather the news and produce the news. And yes, do it with fewer people and at a reduced cost."
But ABC workers offer another possible scenario:
"All of the above, plus tightening up the head count, plus eliminating buildings and equipment, equals sale to me," says one. "We're hearing that Bloomberg might be making a move. I can't get confirmation, but it kind of makes sense for Disney to divest itself from the news division, and it makes more sense for Bloomberg to expand."
It's important to note that no internal emails or documents that weren't released to the press have surfaced thus far, leaving ABC's workers in the dark and trading (perhaps unfounded) rumors. In fact, one source within the news divisions complains, "I've got more info about what's happening here from NPR than ABC!"
As Matea Gold recently noted in the Los Angeles Times:
"... the newsroom has been rife with rumors about the cutbacks, which are poised to be the most dramatic reshaping of ABC News since Roone Arledge revolutionized the division by recruiting a team of high-wattage anchors and launching new franchises during his 20-year tenure as news president. Anxious staffers are not only fearful about losing their jobs but also are apprehensive about, if they remain, how the restructuring will affect their ability to chase big stories and swarm major news events."
Rumors aside, here's what we do know: fulltime, non-union, non-contract employees have been offered 1.5 weeks severance pay for every year they've been employed. (DGA negotiated 3 weeks for its people.) Right now there are 1400 employees in news, but executives are planning to get rid of 25%. When the buyout period ends, they plan to go through and "re-organize". Already, research departments have been eliminated. Meanwhile, managers are trying to break the old network reporting mold (of a four person team consisting of producer/correspondent/camera/audio or producer/editor) and replace it with "one man bands" able to do everything -- shoot, edit, etc..
ABC says it intends to use the cuts to reinvent itself - and not to throw out their news baby with the bathwater. As the memo from Westin to employees announcing the changes explained, "We have a rare opportunity to get in front of what's coming, to ensure that ABC News has a sound journalistic and financial footing for many years to come, and to serve our audiences even better. But we must move boldly and promptly. In the past, we've sought out less expensive ways to replicate what we've always done. The time has come to re-think how we do what we are doing.
Does ABC's posturing and repositioning mean the division is being readied for sale to Bloomberg? Perhaps not... that firm's representatives declined to comment, and an ABC spokesman who chose to remain anonymous told me reports of a possible sale were "total nonsense." David Westin's memo to ABC News employees DID note that the new news business model "ensures we will be here for our audiences for many years to come." But one thing is for sure: hundreds of experienced and dedicated ABC news workers won't!
Follow Rory O'Connor on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rocglobal