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TV & Radio

May 23, 2012

'Churnalism sweatshop': ABC News journos fear review

The ABC is considering a radical shake-up of its news and current affairs departments, along the lines of a largely untested British model which has been described as a "churnalism sweatshop".

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The ABC is considering a radical shake-up of its news and current affairs departments, along the lines of a largely untested British model which has been described as a “churnalism sweatshop”.

The ABC is sitting on the report of the News Gathering Review, which canvasses a dramatic overhaul of the way it commissions and produces news and current affairs. Although the report is not public, snippets have been released in an internal email by the head of ABC News, Kate Torney, and insiders have revealed further details.

Under the new model, the ABC would commission media-neutral stories and reporters would become proficient in all forms of media production in order to deliver reports, commentary and analysis on breaking stories for online, radio and TV.

But ABC news insiders say the model shifts the focus towards “ambulance chasing” and “churnalism” because the emphasis is on breaking stories, rather than developing in-depth reports and analysis.

Under the new approach, which has been described by its proponents as “platform agnostic”, reporters would work right across the corporation and its many news outlets, rather than service individual programs.

The review, led by a pair of British news experts from Venture Consulting, mirrors an idea from the UK, where the BBC is building a new centre to accommodate this new style of newsroom.

Under the plan the ABC would reshape its newsroom around a “Central Input Area” and a “Multi Media Editor”, who would have the role of commissioning stories for all of the ABC’s programs to access.

The “Multi Media Editor” would act as an umpire or adjudicator when programs squabble about who gets access to the reporters assigned to cover particular stories. The model has also been described as a series of “spokes” radiating from a “central hub”.

“It’s along the lines of what we feared,” said one reporter this morning. “The great concern is that it will end up as a restructure and that it will minimise resources for good journalism … [in favour of] ambulance chasing.”

Reporters also fear that resources will be shifted to the channels that continually break stories, such as online, News Radio and News 24, at the expense of current affairs programs that analyse the news in greater depth. One person said that this would place ABC News programming at the mercy of those who control the daily news cycle, as it would always be preoccupied with chasing breaking stories, rather than researching and telling more complex stories.

Another insider told Crikey this morning that he fears quality, specialist programming and the unique brand of many of Aunty’s programs will suffer if the British “churnalism sweatshop” approach is adopted.

Staff have expressed concern about the implications for working conditions as reporters will be assigned to cover stories that will involve reports for online and News 24, as well as research for packaged radio and TV bulletins and current affairs — all while filing updates and doing live crosses for a multitude of programs across the various networks.

Kate Torney’s email confirmed that the new model under consideration would entail:

  • Shared filing and content priorities;
  • Revised allocation of resources;
  • An expanded team of multimedia field producers;
  • Changes to network newsgathering operations;
  • An expanded team of network reporters;
  • A central production desk to reduce duplication of content;
  • A central planning team and coordinated planning functions across the network;
  • A “best practice” newsroom framework.

Her memo also reassured staff that “original journalism is a key point of potential difference for the ABC and should be pursued as a priority”.

There is no date on the likely roll-out of the new model , which will no doubt be hotly debated for several weeks yet.

Andrew Dodd —

Andrew Dodd

Media lecturer and journalist

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