NEW YORK — CBS News staffers, already hit by two waves of belt-tightening that have cut 214 jobs since 1985, were told Thursday that CBS management approved a restructuring plan calling for a $30-million budget cut and 200 more layoffs, including 15 to 20 correspondents.
"There isn't anyone who doesn't feel vulnerable," one veteran newsman, asking that he not be identified, said as CBS News executives drew up lists of reporters, producers and others destined to get pink slips.
The announcement came as a news writers' strike against CBS, ABC and seven stations owned by those networks entered its fourth day.
In New York on Thursday, the first face-to-face bargaining was held by union and network negotiators since the walkout began early Monday. The talks between officials of the Writers Guild of America and management were convened by federal mediator Timothy Germany, who had requested the meeting in hopes of ending the walkout by 525 off-camera news and promotion personnel, including 72 at CBS-owned KCBS-TV Channel 2 and KNX-AM (1070) in Los Angeles.
The negotiations began at 10 a.m., continued throughout the day without a break and were still going at 7 p.m., according to a source close to the talks.
In Los Angeles, uneventful picketing continued at CBS Television City and the studios of KCBS-TV and KNX-AM on Sunset Boulevard throughout the day Thursday. A noon rally was scheduled by striking news writers at Television City today.
The strikers drew support Wednesday when CBS anchorman Dan Rather, ABC anchorman Peter Jennings and nearly 100 other network news employees signed an open letter that accused the management of CBS and ABC of taking positions in contract talks that forced the guild walkout.
Among the letter's signer was Andy Rooney, the humorist-essayist of CBS' highly rated "60 Minutes." He bemoaned the massive budget cut and layoffs at CBS News on Thursday.
Referring to corporate management, Rooney said: "They're trying to run it (CBS News) like a business. I'm sorry, it's not a business. It's a business enterprise, but it's also a moral enterprise. . . . I don't think they understand that."
The cutbacks were not unexpected, but their extent was a matter of speculation until late Wednesday, when CBS Chief Executive Laurence A. Tisch approved the reduction plan submitted to him by Howard Stringer, CBS News president.
Before the latest cutback, CBS News had a worldwide staff of 1,220--of whom 100 are correspondents--and a budget this year of $300 million.
Stringer acknowledged in a staff memo that the cuts were "painful," but he cautioned against excessive pessimism, saying in an interview Thursday that he hopes to get the job cuts done as quickly as possible.
The restructuring will result in the closing of news bureaus in Seattle, Bangkok and Warsaw, Stringer said. CBS News' other eight domestic and 11 foreign bureaus will remain open, although they too will be subject to the across-the-board staff reductions facing the rest of the division.
Evening News Important
Stringer emphasized that "CBS Evening News" will remain "the most important broadcast in our hard-news operations." Its anchor, Rather, "is understandably very upset about the layoffs," acknowledged Stringer, who once was executive producer of "CBS Evening News" and was credited with helping Rather overcome a shaky start after he succeeded Walter Cronkite.
Rather was not available for comment Thursday. One network source described him as besieged by calls from both print reporters and anxious CBS colleagues.
The latest belt-tightening comes as all three networks are trying to cut costs, citing flat advertising revenues, fewer viewers and increased competition from cable TV and independent television stations. ABC News and NBC News also are seeking ways to streamline their operations and reduce expenses.
Keeping the Format
In his staff memo, Stringer said CBS News is not "going into the packaging business"--a reference to a possible evening-news format in which an anchor and a small group of top correspondents might offer analyses of stories that off-air reporters had gathered. Such a format would allow layoffs of a number of other well-paid correspondents, thus further reducing costs.
Stringer said, however, that he thinks such a format would not work journalistically and that correspondents must continue covering their own stories. "I maintain that once you stop having your people on the scene, your credibility and authority goes."
On another matter, he declined to comment on an anonymous letter that was circulating at CBS News offices here and in Washington even before final approval of the budget cuts and layoffs. The letter called for a one-day work stoppage Monday as a protest.
"There are disturbing indications that the future of the news division is in the hands of cost-benefit specialists with little appreciation of the traditions of our organization or the responsibility upon us 'messengers' in democratic society," the letter said.
There was little indication Thursday of support for the letter's proposal to "black out" CBS News broadcasts for a day as both a protest and a show of support of the network's striking off-camera news personnel.
Times staff writer Dennis McDougal in Los Angeles contributed to this story.