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News Investment

News Investment

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

The three networks with news operations further pared their broadcasts in 2008, and additional cuts appeared to be on the horizon in 2009.

The reductions in staffing appeared to hit on-air personnel in particular. That contrasts somewhat with our estimates of a year earlier, when the impact appeared to be felt more behind the camera.

Overseas, all three networks had, by the end of 2008, eliminated all full-time reporters in Iraq—a change reflected in their news content, which shows a large drop in stories about the Iraq war for the year (Networks say they maintain bureaus in Baghdad, but others suggest the lack of a full-time correspondents suggests the term “office” would more accurately describe their presence).  Coverage of foreign affairs generally also fell in 2008 (See the Year in the News). And there were changes in geography. ABC opened a bureau in Havana. NBC shut one in Mexico City and another in New Orleans.

Staffing

After big cuts in 2007, the network’s staffs shrank at a lower rate in 2008, one that was more in line with the steady erosion that marked the early part of the decade. But most signs suggest the cuts will deepen in 2009 in response to a worsening economy.

NBC Universal, parent company of NBC, announced in December it would cut almost 500 jobs, or 3% of the company’s personnel, as part of a cost-savings plan.1 Said NBC Universal President and CEO Jeff Zucker in an internal e-mail, “We have no choice but to respond quickly to the external economic forces that are affecting the entire world economy.”

The cuts eliminated all Dateline staffers in Los Angeles and Dallas.2 According to some sources, Dateline’s entire Washington unit was cut, and the special events unit in Washington was cut perhaps by half (NBC did not return calls to confirm these cuts).    But the rest of the news division, including evening and morning news plus CNBC programs, according to the report, were to be minimally affected.3

At ABC News, President David Westin, sent an email in October warning staffers that ABC News is not “immune from the downturn” and that the news division would be implementing new “guidelines” to “reduce administrative costs,” which included canceling all of its magazine and newspaper subscriptions, forgoing holiday parties, and scaling back on travel accommodations for executives.4

In a move to cut costs mid-year, ABC also consolidated its Nightline operation in New York, cutting 12 staff from its Washington office and moved those posts to New York. That left a few producers (exact number is not available) in Washington along with correspondent John Donovan and co-anchor Terry Moran. Moran, however, already spends much of his time anchoring from New York.5

Then in January, ABC News lost 35 to 37 jobs as part of a larger 400-person layoff across all ABC divisions. The news division, already hit with cutbacks earlier in the year, most recently in the fall, was spared the worst of the 2009 cuts. Still, four units lost employees: Primetime, 20/20, ABC News Now digital service and ABCNews.com.6

CBS faced cuts late in 2008 as well, but publicly the company had only reported reductions at its Interactive Division in the wake of its $1.8 billion acquisition of CNet.com in May. The network would not disclose the number of job cuts, but in a statement said that “CBS Interactive continues its integration process, which now calls for the further combination of several portions of the division into unified groups oriented around similar content.” 7

The networks do not publicly release detailed staffing figures. The best evidence available, for domestic staffing at least, is found in the News Media Yellow Book database, published by Leadership Directories.8 This accounting comes with a caveat. These listings are self-reported by the companies, which means that not every staff member may appear and not every network may list things the same way, and that they are limited to U.S.-based employees. Also, news divisions owned by the same company, such as NBC News and MSNBC, often pool resources. Staff members who contribute to MSNBC’S newsgathering operations may be listed as an employee of NBC News.

Still, the tracking of numbers year to year by network offers a glimpse of trends.

The reductions in 2008 were largely felt among on-air staff. Anchors and correspondents, whether based in a bureau or associated with a program, dropped 6%, compared with a 1% decline in 2007, the directories show.

By contrast, the number of producers, editors, researchers, assignment managers, and other “off-air” staff listed in the directories grew by one person during 2008. A year earlier, the number of people listed in those job categories had fallen 24%.

The figures reveal some shifting among off-air jobs. There was a 10% gain in producers and a 13% decline in all other off-air positions. That, coupled with the overall 6% drop in on-air positions, suggests the networks appear to be trimming higher-paid correspondents and more specialists in off-air jobs and expanding perhaps the role of producers, who manage and direct the day-to-day work of getting programs on air.

There were also geographic shifts. News staffs were increasingly concentrated in New York. The networks’ domestic bureaus — everyone not at the New York headquarters offices — dropped 6% in 2008, according to the directories.

The relatively modest cuts in news staff does not reflect the severity of the impact,  according to one former news executive. Even though staff numbers declined moderately, many of those who left in 2008 were highly experienced managers and producers. Their replacements were for the most part less-experienced, lower-paid employees.

One bright spot in 2008:  the online operations are on the rise. Beginning in 2007, Yellow Book’s database started to measure staffing devoted to the online blogs, websites and other offerings of each network. The three networks added a combined nine positions to these staffs in 2008.

NBC

The worst of the cuts in 2008, at least according to the directory analysis, fell at NBC. The top-rated news network reduced its news personnel by 7% by this accounting.9

The number of on-air staff listed at NBC fell 15%, while the number of producers listed grew by 10%.

The network added seven producers to its Washington bureau in 2008 but eliminated seven positions in Burbank, Calif., Atlanta and Chicago. NBC News also was the only network to close a domestic bureau during the year, closing its office in New Orleans. That left it with five.

Domestic News Bureaus by Network, 2008

ABC
CBS
NBC*
Atlanta Atlanta Atlanta
Chicago Chicago Burbank (Los Angeles)
Dallas DallasLos Angeles Chicago
Los Angeles Miami Dallas
Miami New York Washington
New York San Francisco
San Francisco Washington
Seattle
Washington

Sources: The Networks. CBS’s figures are from early 2008; the network did not respond to requests for updated information
*NBC operates an office in New York but does not call it a “bureau”

ABC

The second-biggest loss of positions occurred at ABC.

The number of newsroom personnel shrank by 2%.10 Like NBC, the network cut the most from its domestic bureaus, paring staffing 12%, although it still had more staff listed in domestic bureaus than any other network. Its nine domestic bureaus was also the largest number of the three networks.

The directories listed two fewer on-air positions, and one added producer.

ABC also added more staff to its website of any network. It added three people to its ABCNews.com staff of eight.

CBS

While its rivals cut, CBS News increased its news staff by three people in 2008, according to the directory analysis.11

The news division added 15 producers, an increase of 20%, but trimmed other off-air staff, including editors, researchers and off-air reporters, by 17%.

The network also cut 6% of staffing in its eight domestic bureaus during the year.

Correspondent Counts

Another way of measuring network news investment is by tracking the number of people who appear on air during the year at least five times. This accounting, long used by researchers, may be a rough proxy of newsgathering muscle, but it has two virtues. First the numbers go back many years. Second, they are not subject to the vagaries of self- reporting, the way the Yellow Book directory estimates are.

After years of decline, the correspondent counts had leveled off and even grown slightly in recent years. In 2008, the numbers were flat.

A total of 155 people filed at least five story packages for the evening newscasts in 2008. That was unchanged from 2007, according to a newscast-by-newscast analysis conducted by ADT Research.

NBC had the most people on air, 60. ABC was second, with 50, and CBS, third at 45.

The networks reached their peak in 1985, according to these data, when they averaged 77 correspondents appearing per network.

The numbers also give a sense of the workload employees in network TV are carrying, although it does not indicate whether these people are also having to file for other shows, such as morning or magazines shows, or, in the case of NBC, cable. In general, reporters filing more stories is a sign of being stretched thinner and having less time to work on enterprise pieces.

In recent years, that workload had been relatively flat, though it lessened between 2005 and 2007, a positive sign. In 2008, it was flat again. If predictions hold true, it may rise in 2009.

Average Network Newsroom Size and Reporter Workload
Design Your Own Chart

Source: ADT Research. This chart gives the number of reporters or correspondents who filed five or more stories in 2008, and the average number of stories filed by them

Coverage from Abroad

And what happened to foreign news resources in 2008? After the Cold War, the numbers of bureaus and staffers the three networks had in foreign countries began to shrink.  By the early part of this decade, the number of overseas bureaus was roughly half what they had once been, and staffing had been reduced even more.

That began to change in the last two years. The networks were able to rebuild some of their potential international coverage by turning to one-person outposts, small bureaus where a producer could also function as a single staffer who served as a reporter, producer and videographer. That allowed the networks to claim bureaus in the mid-teens, closer to the level they had at their peak.12 Whether these are really “bureaus” or are more accurately “offices” is a matter of some semantic debate among network professionals.

Whatever their name, across the three networks the number of foreign outposts remained steady in 2008, with one closing and one opening.
As of January 2009, ABC told PEJ it had 17 overseas bureaus, including a new one opened in Havana in 2008. The others were in London, Jerusalem, Baghdad, Rome, Moscow, Beijing, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Seoul, Jakarta, New Delhi, Mumbai, Dubai and Nairobi, Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City.

NBC, as of January 2009, told PEJ it maintains 12 bureaus in the following places: Havana, Bangkok, Amman, Baghdad, Beijing, Cairo, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, London, Moscow, Tel Aviv and Tokyo. It cut one in Mexico City, relying instead on sister network Telemundo for coverage of events in the region.

In early 2008, the most recent figures available, CBS told PEJ it operated 14 bureaus: Amman, Baghdad, Beijing, Bonn, Havana, Islamabad, Johannesburg, Kabul, London, Moscow, Paris, Seoul, Tel Aviv and Tokyo. CBS did not provide PEJ with more current data on bureaus or overseas staffing.

Overseas News Bureaus by Network, 2008

ABC
CBS
NBC
South America South America South America
Havana Havana Havana
Mexico City
Rio de Janeiro
Europe Europe Europe
Rome Bonn Frankfurt
London London London
Moscow Moscow Moscow
Paris
Middle East Middle East Middle East
Jerusalem Amman Amman
Baghdad Baghdad Baghdad
Dubai Islamabad Cairo
Tel Aviv Tel Aviv
Kabul
Africa Africa
Nairobi Johannesburg
Asia Asia Asia
Beijing Beijing Beijing
Hong Kong Hong Kong Hong Kong
Tokyo Tokyo Tokyo
Seoul Bangkok
Jakarta
New Delhi
Mumbai
Changes in 2008 Changes in 2008 Changes in 2008
Added a bureau in Havana Not Available Closed bureau in Mexico City and arranged to rely on sister network Telemundo’s coverage

Source: the Networks. CBS figures were from early 2008; the network did nto respond to requests for updated information at the end of the year

The Efficacy of One-Person Bureaus

The move toward one-person bureaus has not come without controversy.
Advocates say portable digital technology allows the networks to cover the world in ways that were unthinkable a generation ago and make the concept of a bureau with a resident on-air “correspondent” less important.

“In the current logistical world of efficient jet travel and portable, digital video equipment, the historic necessity of establishing bureaus – so that immobile resources were prepositioned in a given country in advance of breaking news – is largely moot,” ADT Research’s Andrew Tyndall told PEJ. Instead, he argues reporters can be flown into to areas when a story emerges.

For example, in December 2008 when Israel-Palestinian conflicts flared in Gaza, CBS News’ lead correspondent was London-based Mark Phillips rather than a reporter from its rarely seen Tel Aviv bureau. Weeks earlier, CBS News had eliminated about a dozen staff in the Tel Aviv bureau, including an editor, the head of finance, two cameramen, a sound person, a Palestinian producer, a Palestinian fixer and a number of office administrators. Four staffers remained when the conflict erupted.13

Paul Friedman, senior vice president for CBS News, told the New York Observer that the costs of local correspondents sometimes outweigh the benefits and that stringers can often provide superior coverage.  “Does it have to be a highly paid correspondent who will get on the air once a year?” he asked. “Or can it be a local journalist who provides you with the same kind of understanding and, in many cases, better sources because they’re local?”14

Some critics worry that replacing a correspondent with a stringer, or a one-person bureau staffer who must do many jobs – or flying in personnel from elsewhere when news breaks – represents diminished coverage, and diminished understanding.

Correspondents have more influence than a less senior staff producer in one-person outposts, let alone a stringer. That translates into lobbying for stories, getting more stories on the air and also traveling to other places more often to do additional stories.

Charles Eisendrath, director of the Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellows at the University of Michigan and a former foreign correspondent for Time magazine, takes issue especially with the idea that flying in correspondents can substitute for someone who lives and works in the region year-round.

The idea that a news organization can cover a region without having staff on the ground “essentially amounts to an argument that you don’t need expertise to cover a story,” Eisendrath told PEJ. “What do you get if you don’t have expertise? You get the superficial, happenstance and the best you can do under bad circumstances. If that’s all you can afford, then it’s better than nothing. But it is certainly not better than expertise.”15

“It’s quite tragic,” said Jennifer Lawson, an independent producer and former executive vice president at PBS. “We as a nation were so surprised by what happened with 9/11. Had we known more about how others view us and our policies, I don’t think we would have been so surprised. … The news is always crisis-oriented, and then it drops off the radar screen.”16

To a significant degree, however, the debate is an academic one. Given audience and revenue trends, the prospect of more multi-person offices is realistically out of the question. A strong case could be made, some say, for one-person offices staffed with correspondents in more locations—in other words more senior staff in these one-person outposts. But that does not answer the question fully. The real issue now may be how often foreign stories get on the air. That is a judgment call that must be made at the network management level, and it will depend on the quality of the stringers or one-person bureau staffers employed, and the commitment to the subject intellectually, rather than in dollars.

The evidence here suggests that in 2008, an election year, coverage of foreign affairs on the networks dropped significantly, much of that as coverage of Iraq fell off.

As noted in the section on content above, coverage of U.S. foreign affairs -– international stories that involved U.S. interests directly—made up 11% of the coverage in 2008, down from 24%, according to PEJ’s analysis of both evening and morning news.

Much of the decline in 2008 came from diminished coverage from the war in Iraq. The war made up 3% of the coverage aired on the network nightly news over the year, down from 17% in 2007—a drop of 82%.17

Foreign news coverage has ebbed and flowed over the last two decades in relation to international events, according to the ADT studies. It fell sharply after the Cold War came to a close in the late 1980s and 1990s. It rebounded after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and through 2003, the first year of the Iraq war, but slowly tapered off after that, according to ADT Research.

By 2008, the amount of time devoted to foreign news coverage across all three networks was 49% lower than what it was in 2003, when the Iraq war began, and 65% lower than 1989, the year the Berlin Wall crumbled, according to ADT Research. Some reduction could be expected given the intensity of interest—and the implications for foreign policy—of the 2008 presidential election.

Time Devoted to Iraq War, 2008
2003 – 2008, in minutes
Design Your Own Chart

Source: ADT Research

Hours Devoted to Stories with a Foreign Dateline
1996 – 2008
Design Your Own Chart

Source: ADT Research

News Hole

In one area, the investment in news appears to be growing slightly.

The amount of time devoted to news within the 30-minute nightly newscasts – that is, time not consumed by ads, promos and teasers – has actually risen in recent years, to an average of 19.1 minutes in 2008.

This remains below what the figures were two decades ago, when the networks averaged 21 minutes a newscast. But the data show a gradual increase from a low point of 18.8 minutes in 2003. There are several explanations for this. One is that the newscasts had become so filled with commercials that it was turning viewers—and advertisers—off. Another, which may have been in part a response to this, is that the networks have experimented with selling sponsorships of the entire newscast, in some cases for multiple days at a time, to a single advertiser, including an acknowledgement from the anchor – in exchange for fewer other commercials.

NBC was the leader among the networks, with 19.6 minutes in 2008. CBS had 19 and ABC, 18.8.

Time Devoted to News on Nightly Newscasts
Design Your Own Chart

Source: ADT Research

Footnotes

1. Michele Greppi, “NBC Universal to Cut Almost 500 Jobs,” TV Week, December 4, 2008

2. Peter Lauria, “Think Pink at NBC – Holiday Layoffs Begin,” New York Post, December 5, 2008

3. Michele Greppi, “NBC Universal to Cut Almost 500 Jobs,” TV Week, December 4, 2008

4. Felix Gillette, “ABC News Contemplates Job Cuts in the New Year,” New York Observer, Dec. 5, 2008

5. John Eggerton, “ABC Moving Nightline Jobs to N.Y.,” Broadcasting & Cable, June 16, 2008

6. Nellie Andreeva, “400 jobs cut at Disney-ABC TV,” Hollywood Reporter, January 29, 2008

7. Mark Walsh, “CBS Confirms Layoffs Restructuring At Interactive Unit,” MediaPost, December 11, 2008

8. The News Media database contains contact information for journalists at more than 2,000 news services, networks, newspapers, and television and radio stations. Information is reported by the networks themselves.

9. NBC lists the fewest people of the three networks in the yellow books, 138 in 2008, down from 148 a year earlier. By almost all accounts from those inside network television, however, NBC News probably has the largest staff. One reason for the smaller count may be that its staff is listed across three organizations. MSNBC.com, which produces the network news division’s website and has a large staff in Redmond, Wash., and a smaller one in New York, is not listed. The cable channel MSNBC is listed separately and includes 36 people, though that is a fraction of the total the network says it employs. Some of the people listed appear to do work on segments for NBC News.

10. This put the ABC news staff listed in the directory for 2008 at 215 from 220 the year before

11. CBS listed 220 in the directory in 2008, up from 217 in 2007

12. In the 1970s and 1980s, the term “bureau” referred to a newsgathering operation based in a locale that included an office, photographers, producers, correspondents and other support staff. Networks sometimes still refer to one-person operations as “bureaus,” but the resources devoted to coverage are significantly diminished.

13. Felix Gillette, “Do You Know the Way to Tel Aviv? For CBS, via London,” New York Observer, January 6, 2009

14. Felix Gillette, “Do You Know the Way to Tel Aviv? For CBS, via London,” New York Observer, January 6, 2009

15. PEJ Interview with Charles Eisendrath, January 12, 2009

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

17. Similar results were found by ADT Research’s monitoring of the nightly newscasts. Using slightly different methodology, the firm said the three network evening newscasts devoted 434 minutes to Iraq in 2008, compared with 1,888 minutes in 2007, a drop of 77%. International stories in 2008 that did not directly involve the United States were basically flat, filling 8% of the coverage on the morning and evening news programs, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index.  That was down from 9% the year before.