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News Investment

News Investment

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

In 2007, the three network news divisions tried to meet now-familiar economic challenges in both traditional and new ways.

First, following a trend that began nearly 20 years ago, network news divisions trimmed news personnel in 2007. Most of the losses appear to have hit staff working behind the camera.

At the same time, ABC News announced in October 2007 that it had opened seven new foreign bureaus, most in Asia. Each of these bureaus, however, would rely on just one staff member to both report and produce the news. Network news executives said technology such as digital cameras and laptops would make for leaner foreign coverage.

What was not clear, however, was whether more foreign bureaus would ultimately result in more news from abroad. So far, this does not appear to have happened.

Staffing

In previous editions of the annual report, we have documented the steady decline of network news personnel, which began with cuts in the 1980s.

Since then, cable television and the Internet have eaten away at network news audiences. And the Big Three have responded by eliminating bodies — both on and off camera.

This trend appeared to continue in 2007.

In 1985, Joe Foote, now a journalism professor at the University of Oklahoma, published the first annual Network Correspondent Visibility Study, to chart the number of reporters who appeared on the air during the evening newscasts.1

By 2002, when he concluded his research, Foote found the number of reporters who appeared on network news had dropped 35%.2

After Foote retired his report in 2002, another analyst, Andrew Tyndall, employing a similar methodology, found little change in the number of on-air staffers from 2004 to 2005.

Then in the 2007 edition of this report, the Project for Excellence in Journalism used a different methodology to quantify personnel changes in the three network news divisions that also tried to measure off-air personnel.

By analyzing how the networks report their own staff listings to the News Media Yellow Book, a quarterly publication published by Leadership Directories, the Project found there had been steep declines in both the number of on- and off-air personnel from 2002 to 2006. Over all, the Project found total staff size has declined 10% over those four years. The number of on-air journalists fell 7% and producers dropped 12%.

In 2007, there were further declines, according to an examination of the winter 2008 edition of the Yellow Book. Total staff, which includes on-air correspondents, anchors, executives, producers, editors and researchers, fell 7% compared to the year before. The number of producers was down by 24% compared to the number listed the previous year. However, the number of on-air journalists dropped less than 1%.

To some, these findings may come as little surprise. In late 2006, NBC announced a broad restructuring plan — dubbed NBCU 2.0. As part of the initiative, as many as 700 jobs, or 2% of total staffing, were expected to be cut from the network’s payroll by the end of 2008. Roughly 300 of those losses were targeted for newsrooms at NBC News and its sister, MSNBC.3

In December 2007, the New York Times and Paul Gough, a Hollywood Reporter columnist, reported that NBC News (along with MSNBC) was also letting go an additional 15 to 20 employees, either through layoffs or buyouts. The New York Times reported that many staffers who left were senior employees. NBC, however, said it had added staff but it was not clear whether those replacements could compensate for earlier losses.4 Another report quoted an unnamed insider as saying there were no foreseeable plans to fill the spots.5

“There is an ongoing process at NBC News to reallocate, reorganize and right-size the division given the business pressures that every major media organization is facing,” the NBC News spokeswoman, Allison Gollust, told the New York Post in December 2007. “This process began some time ago, it continues today, and will continue tomorrow.”6

What about the staffers who work primarily online in network news divisions?

Those listings are largely absent from the Yellow Book, although CBS News did include personnel for its blogs, and 24 staffers are identified.7

Some caveats about our analysis of the Yellow book listings should be mentioned. The listings are self-reported, which means not every staff member may appear and not every network may list things the same way. Also, news divisions owned by the same parent company, such as NBC News and MSNBC, often pool resources. Staff members who contribute to NBC’s news gathering operations may be listed as an employee of MSNBC rather than NBC News. Still, the tracking of numbers year to year by network should offer some suggestions of trends.

There is also an argument, outlined in previous reports, that a reduction in staff does not directly translate into weakening the news product. With evolution in technology, fewer people may be needed to produce television programming.

But, as we have noted in past years, on balance few industry professionals contend that the level of budget cutting that has occurred in network news in the past 20 years has not changed the nature of the product, although it may not be as obvious as outsiders imagine.

There is also the possibility that the network news divisions are investing more online.

At ABC News, for instance, the network said it would cut 35 jobs and reallocate more resources to its digital operations, Broadcasting & Cable reported in September 2007.8 (For more details on how the three networks — along with PBS’ NewsHour — are investing in their online news properties, see the Online Chapter.)

Coverage from Abroad

How have network news foreign bureaus evolved over time?

Since the end of the Cold War in the 1980s, the number of foreign bureaus has dropped considerably.

In 1986, CBS News staffed 23 overseas bureaus, Ken Auletta reported in “Three Blind Mice,” his 1991 book on network television. Twenty years later that number had dropped to half a dozen. In the summer of 2003, for instance, the American Journalism Review reported that each network had six foreign bureaus.9 Since then, the networks in appear to be building new foreign bureaus, but in a new and less costly way.10

As of January 2008 CBS News told the Project it had 14 overseas bureaus, ABC News told us it had 16 and NBC News told the Project it staffed 16 bureaus.11

How have they grown?

The answer, at least for one network and perhaps others, appears to be new technology and a changing definition of what constitutes a bureau.

In October 2007, ABC News announced it had opened seven new bureaus, most in Asia.12 Each bureau is staffed by one ABC News employee, who serves as both reporter and producer. Before being shipped overseas, each staffer received training in digital photography and was expected to write, film, shoot and feed material from a laptop via a broadband Internet connection to New York, Reuters reported.13

“Technology has dramatically changed how we gather the news around the world,” said David Westin, president of ABC News. “Because our reporters can now shoot and produce their own stories, travel with more portable gear, and transmit material from anywhere, we can report more stories from more locations.”14

In other words, the networks are moving to mobile journalists, so-called MOJOs, one-person bureaus functioning as producers, camera people and occasionally on-air correspondents.

CBS declined to provide a figure for the number of people who staff each bureau. It listed the 14 bureaus as: Amman, Jordan; Baghdad; Beijing; Bonn, Germany; Havana; Islamabad, Pakistan; Johannesburg, South Africa; Kabul, Afghanistan; London; Moscow; Paris; Seoul; Tel Aviv, and Tokyo.

ABC also declined to offer figures on staffing in each bureau, but listed its 16 bureaus as being in London, Jerusalem, Baghdad, Rome, Moscow, Beijing, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Mexico City, New Delhi, Mumbai, Seoul, Jakarta, Rio de Janeiro, Dubai and Nairobi, Kenya.

NBC declined to provide either staffing or a city list for the 16 bureaus it said it had. The most recent previous accounting we have (from 2005) put bureaus in 11 cities: Amman, Baghdad, Beijing, Cairo, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, London, Mexico City, Moscow, Tel Aviv and Tokyo.

Whether and how the new bureaus alter what gets on the air remains to be seen. So far, the rise in the number of overseas bureaus that the networks describe has not necessarily translated into more foreign news.

According to research conducted by Tyndall, foreign news coverage fell sharply after the Cold War came to a close in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It rebounded somewhat after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and through 2003, the first year of the Iraq war, but slowly tapered off after that.

By 2006, the number of time devoted to foreign news coverage across all three networks was 21% lower than what it was in 2003, when the Iraq war began, and 46% lower than 1989, the year the Berlin Wall crumbled.

This was also true when Tyndall only considered the Iraq war. In 2007, Tyndall found, the three networks allocated 1,888 minutes to the war, 6% fewer than 2006, and a drop of 55% from 2003.

Time Devoted to Iraq War, 2003-2007
In Minutes
Design Your Own Chart
Source: ADT Research

PBS

One news show bucking the trend of waning investment in newsgathering – although on a relatively small scale — is the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, a PBS staple since 1983.

Over the years, there has been much controversy about how much financial support the federal government should provide the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private nonprofit corporation that helps fund PBS programming, including the NewsHour.15

Most of the NewsHour’s 2007 funding, however, did not come from Washington. According to David Sit, vice president of the NewsHour, 40% was federal funding — 60% was provided by foundation grants or underwritten by corporations.16

The show used some of that support to increase the budget for its foreign desk, from $300,000 to $467,000, according to Sit. This funding helped send Margaret Warner, a senior correspondent, to Pakistan on two occasions in 2007. On her first trip, Warner traveled to the country when Benazir Bhutto first returned to Pakistan after her purported political deal with President Pervez Musharraf, not long before her assassination. Warner then reported from Pakistan shortly after Musharraf declared martial law, Sit told the Project.

On December 17, 2007, the NewsHour began to broadcast in high definition, a digital technology that generates a much higher resolution than older television formats.17

Broadcasting in high definition has had a largely aesthetic impact on programming, according to Sit, significantly enhancing the audio and visual, particularly in taped segments on environmental and scientific issues.

According to Sit, the number of staff at the NewsHour did not change in 2007.

However, the NewsHour plans to beef up its reporting on the 2008 Presidential election. According to Sit, the program is projected to spend $5.2 million on the campaign, compared to $3.8 million during the 2004 election cycle.

Footnotes

1. Dorcas Taylor, “Networks by the Numbers,” American Journalism Review, April/May 2005.

2. Foote found that 77 reporters appeared on the air in 1985; that number had dropped to 50 in 2002. To conduct the research, Foote included correspondents and reporters but not anchors.

3. J. Max Robins, “2.0 Minus 700,” Broadcasting & Cable, October 23, 2006.

4. Bill Carter, “Staff Reductions at NBC News and CBS,” the New York Times, December 15, 2007. Paul J. Gough, “NBC News cuts 15-20 jobs,” the Hollywood Reporter, December 7, 2007. In the New York Times article, MSNBC.com is not mentioned as part of NBC News. In the Hollywood Reporter, however, cuts were reported to affect NBC Nightly News, the Today Show and MSNBC.

5. Peter Lauria, “Peacock Purge,” the New York Post, December 6, 2007.

6. Ibid

7. Online news staffers were included in the total news staffing category in PEJ’s analysis for both 2007 and 2008.

8. The news report did specify the number of positions that would be created in its digital operations. Anne Becker, “ABC News Cutting 35, Moving Assets to Digital,” Broadcasting & Cable, June 22, 2007.

9. Lucinda Fleeson, “Bureau of Missing Bureaus,” American Journalism Review, October/November 2003.

10. In 2005, the Project reported the number of bureaus for ABC (7), CBS (7) and NBC (10). In 2006, we updated those figures for CBS (11) and NBC (11).

11. Interviews conducted with representatives from either the foreign desks or media relations offices, January 14 and January 23, 2008.

12. The newly opened bureaus are in New Delhi, Mumbai, Seoul, Jakarta, Rio de Janeiro, Dubai and Nairobi. “In the largest expansion of foreign bureaus in two decades, ABC News announces the deployment of seven reporters to posts around the globe,” ABC News Media Relations, October 3, 2007.

13. Paul J. Gough, “ABC News opening one-man foreign bureaus,” the Hollywood Reporter, October 3, 2007.

14. “In the largest expansion of foreign bureaus in two decades, ABC News announces the deployment of seven reporters to posts around the globe,” ABC News Media Relations, October 3, 2007.

15. In February 2007, for instance, President Bush proposed a $114 million cut in funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting,, drawing criticism from some Democratic lawmakers. Ira Teinowitz, “Bush Proposes Steep Cuts to PBS Funding,” Television Week, February 5, 2007.

16. Interview conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s David Vaina on January 16, 2008.

17. As of January 2008, NBC News remained the only nightly commercial network newscast to broadcast in HD. Both CBS News and ABC News are expected to begin airing their nightly newscasts in the first half of 2008, representatives of the networks told the Project for Excellence in Journalism.