Tuesday, February 23, 2010

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The world is going to hell in a handbasket, people are scared, government doesn't govern anymore and Tea Party Airlines is flying non-stop -- and one-way -- into your local IRS office.

We live in perilous times. The national mood is dark. There is a crisis of confidence. Tensions are rising. A cloud hangs over the land. Uncertainty has cast a shadow over fill-in-the-blank, and clichés are running rampant.

If you are a major national news operation, there is only one thing to do. Fire a s***load of people so the stockholders can enjoy a modest short-term windfall from the middling benefits to the bottom line of your corporate overlord.

THIS TIME, it's ABC News' turn to throw journalists out of work and add to national ignorance.

The New York Times blog Media Decoder has the details about a newsroom bloodletting that, for a change, isn't one of its own:
In what it called a “fundamental transformation,” ABC News said Tuesday that it was seeking to substantially reduce its staff, possibly by up to 25 percent.

Employees said they were told that the news division is seeking 300 to 400 buyouts, and would resort to layoffs if necessary. ABC News currently employs roughly 1,400 people.

The cuts at ABC, a unit of The Walt Disney Company, are among the steepest ever conducted by a network news division, and are likely to be seen as a further erosion of the company’s news-gathering arm.

ABC News employees said Tuesday that the reaction to the cutbacks was muted, mostly because the announcement had been expected for weeks. “Everyone sees the reality of the industry, and everyone wants to stay competitive,” said one employee who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized by the network to speak to other media outlets.

In a memorandum to staffers, the ABC News president David Westin said the “transformation” would result in a leaner, smaller news division. “The time has come to re-think how we do what we are doing,” Mr. Westin wrote.
IN THE LOS ANGELES TIMES, meantime, there's this:

For the last month, 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 are apprehensive about how the restructuring will impact their ability to chase big stories and swarm major news events if they remain.

ABC executives are internally casting the belt-tightening not as a retrenchment but as a repositioning. By streamlining news-gathering operations now, officials hope to stave off repeated cuts in the coming years. They argue that a smaller news division does not mean a less competitive one. With technological advancements such as hand-held digital cameras, the news division can now dispatch one person to cover a story that once required a correspondent, producer and two-person crew.

News organizations large and small have been forced to let go of staff and reduce expenses in the last few years to cope with a drop in advertising revenue caused by the global economic slowdown. Earlier this month, CBS News cut at least 90 positions, shuttering its Moscow bureau and significantly shrinking its staff in Washington, London and Los Angeles.
NOTE WELL, regarding the touting of "technological advancements such as hand-held digital cameras," that media outlets do not often pursue a grand plan of using technology to dramatically expand or improve basic news coverage. At least not out of the unfettered public-spiritedness of their selfless hearts.

Instead, it's more like this: They use technology a) to get a competitive edge on the competition, b) to cut costs or c) to look cool in front of all the other kids at the trade conventions.

If newspaper journalists paid their publishers to come to work every day and Linotypes were cheaper than computers, reporters would still be yelling "Toots, get me rewrite!" into candlestick telephones while hot lead flew in backshops unchanged since
H.L. Mencken was Jon Stewart.

And ink-stained wretches reeking of Seagram's VO and surrounded by paste pots, pica poles and soft-lead pencils still would be closing out the final edition of The Daily Blab at 2 a.m. -- not the 12 midnight made possible by our glorious technology.

REWRITE! Hold the line!

Isn't technology supposed to let us do the same with less, like the miracle it's going to work at ABC News?

Yeah, right. Ask The Daily Blab, where positions started disappearing long ago because technology allowed publishers to get three jobs' worth of work out of each digitally assisted employee. Instead of giving the public a greatly enhanced, more timely newspaper, what computerization allowed publishers to do instead was give readers the same old thing produced by lots fewer people.

It also allowed publishers to give themselves a 20- or 30-percent profit margin.

Which, I suspect, is where the 2 a.m. deadline went in an age when, theoretically, papers should have been able to push them back instead of moving them way up. It's about the cash, Nash.

It's about deciding cost efficiency dictated that you close out the morning paper at midnight with a staff of 100 instead of making deadline at 2 with a staff of 120.

TO BE SURE, paradigms and business models are shifting underneath nervous traditional-media types as I write this. To be surer, greed and corporate overreach has given scribblers and newsreaders less room to maneuver as the future bears down on them.

And to be surer still, the biggest problem is that corporations like Disney, or CBS Corporation (or pick a newspaper or radio group) have been focused on short-term profits rather than long-term survival -- and, now, squeezing the last drops of profitability out of suddenly iffy (Surprise!!!) concerns.

So save the bushwa about the wonderful journalistic efficiency of digital camcorders and one-man-band TV reporters. I might believe it if bunches of reporters, editors, cameramen and soundmen weren't getting the ol- heave-ho to make room for the Glorious Age of Technology.

Instead of, like, you know, putting two or three times as many "digital journalists" out on the streets to keep the bastards honest.

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