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Ten news after the cuts: more upmarket, lower quality

With fewer reporters on the ground, Ten News may be forced to go upmarket. But that won’t mean it’ll be better quality, Ten journalists fear.

Nearly a month after Channel Ten announced 150 jobs were going to save on costs, some of the names leaving the network are now known.

Paul Bongiorno, for decades one of the most respected and recognisable faces on commercial television news, has taken redundancy, although he’ll continue with the network on a contract basis. Others to leave include Stephen Spencer, another press gallery veteran, senior reporters John Hill and Ali Donaldson, and Danielle Isdale, who Ten insiders consider one of the network’s best young reporters. Antoinette Lattouf, who it’s believed may land at SBS, Mazoe Ford and Ellie Southwood are going,too.

It’s not just the journalists who are leaving — their news directors are, too. Brisbane news director Angela Murphy has resigned, while Adelaide news director Jeremy Pudney has already left and joined Channel Nine. In Perth, a vacancy in the role is unlikely to be filled. Crikey understands the Brisbane and Adelaide operations won’t hire new news directors either — in these cities their offices will be turned into bureaux rather than fully fledged newsrooms. In Brisbane, only four journalists will remain.

It’s a similar story in the Canberra bureau, which had been spared the two previous rounds of cuts the network has experienced in the past four years. What will remain are four reporters, and while some of them are solid news breakers (Matt Moran, for example, broke the army Skype scandal), all are fairly new to the press gallery. None were in the gallery during the 2010 election.

Melbourne news director Dermot O’Brien has also left — off-the-record sources in several news outlets said he didn’t want to break up the bureau he’d helped build in his role as news director, which he’d held since 1995.

There are now 40% fewer journalists working at Ten than there were in 2012, according to the journalists’ union, and the latest round of redundancies will cut deep. For Ten’s 5pm Eyewitness News, the model from now on will be that of a largely national bulletin, presented locally with a few local stories. It’s inspired by the success of the weekend news bulletins, which use this cheaper template.

But it’s a commercial risk, Ten journalists told Crikey this morning. With fewer local journalists to knock on doors, chase ambulances and line courthouse steps, Ten may instead be forced to focus on weightier national issues, which can be aired across the country with less of a drop-off in interest. Ten news, as one senior journalist put it, could go upmarket as a result.

It’s not clear Australians prefer to watch national news. Local crime, accidents and issues have tended to do better on commercial television, which is why such stations have historically favoured them.

Some reporters are despairing of what they believe will be an inevitable reduction in the quality of stories, even if they are issues-based, national ones. Television reporters work across bureaus and across cities, co-ordinating to get cameras and questions out to everyone who can add to a story even if they’re in another city. “Say I’m doing a Sydney health story and need to speak to the health minister, who’s in Brisbane, and the head of the Australian Medical Association in Canberra,” said one reporter. “I’ll call up the bureaus and they’ll be busy, their three or four journalists all working on a story. So I won’t get my interviews, and the stories will become poorer.”

Crikey was also told even local stories will have to be written differently — to appeal to a national audience. At risk is the local colour and practical information that makes a car crash, for example, relevant to a local audience.

For Ten’s management, Crikey understands, the argument was that even though Ten’s news division does well, it’s not prime time, which is where the network really needs to shine. With the money saved in news production, more could be poured into prime-time programming, where the network significantly lags its competitors Seven and Nine. But the journalists Crikey spoke to this morning didn’t buy this line of argument, saying that news gives a network credibility and standing in the community.

It’s also undeniable that you need fewer people to put together a news bulletin in the 21st century. With planning, one argued, Ten’s remaining news team, which still includes some very good journalists, can pull through. But the news will look different. It’ll be more national, more issues-based, and slower to respond to breaking events. And with fewer journalists who can work together on stories, it’ll make more use of radio grabs, Skype calls and stock footage.

Ultimately the fate of news at Ten isn’t in its own hands. If Ten has to cut jobs and costs, the news department is one of the few significant employers at the network, meaning it could face the brunt of any further cuts. “If Ten gets a bunch of programs that work — they can keep news going,” said a former Ten journalist who took a redundancy in the most recent round. “If they do a bit better, they may even hire some people.”

Today, Ten issued a further profit warning to the market, saying that while its ratings have improved of late, market volatility lead it to expect TV revenue to be up to 4.5% lower in the 2013-14 financial year. That sent its shares tumbling 8.6% in the first few minutes of trading to 26.5 cents.

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