TV News Is Breaking — Can ABC Make A New Model?

ABC has begun today the process of restructuring its news operations, indicating planned layoffs of 300-400 employees.  The six-point memo from ABC News President David Westin presents the changes as an overhaul of how the network produces news to match the “revolution in the ways that people get their news and information.”

But what we need now is a revolution in how content is created, not just in how it’s consumed.  The real value isn’t in production efficiency for its own sake, and  I’m surprised Westin missed the opportunity to define how ABC News can use this restructuring as a weapon to not just serve but grow audiences.

Yes, the changes will help ABC be more competitive on the cost side of the business by shifting the workforce into more flexible (and overall, far fewer) roles — doing more with less.  Taking advantage of digital technology, the news industry no longer needs as many specialty roles to manage equipment and content.  The technology is so much more accessible, portable, and efficient now that an it can all be at he fingertips of a single content creator.

Well beyond cost reduction, however, a vision of a more flexible workforce has real implications for audience — which is far more important of a lever on ABC’s business.  If ABC can reduce the size of its working units, and evolve them to be more flexible to deploy, it should translate into the network being able to cover more stories, sooner, deeper, and better than competitors.

Additionally, if ABC can maintain its quality level of reporting in the new structure (and I think the news network should be and is deeply committed to doing so), it can scale its operations up this way, two ways:  both with its own proprietary content, but even more interestingly, allowing it to integrate third-party and user-sourced content into the conversation.

The upcoming layoffs and restructuring will be painful, but this action is a sober and proactive recognition of the changing rules of the game.  And if ABC executes right, it may not only be able to position itself as a leader of the new game, but to even establish some of the new rules of play.  They certainly are indicating the right orientation to guide them:  it is all about the audience.