Once, journalists guarded their stories fiercely, and the idea of competing with another media outlet, let alone doing a joint operation, would have been anathema. Things have changed.
Yesterday, last night and this morning we are seeing the results of an investigative story conducted as a joint operation between The Age and the ABC’s Four Corners. It is a ripping yarn about an arm of the Reserve Bank, the polymer note manufacturer Securency International.
The scandal was described with some justice on last night’s Four Corners as potentially Australia’s most serious case of corruption since the Australian Wheat Board affair.
So how does such a story come to be researched as a joint venture by Fairfax and the ABC? And in a time of stressed newsrooms and editorial budgets, are we likely to see more of this?
Perhaps. In this case, the joint venture is the result of a particular set of personal relationships, brokered and facilitated by key executives in both media organisations, who clearly have the worth of the journalism as a central motivation.
The lead reporter on the case is Nick McKenzie, formerly of the ABC and now working for The Age, but retaining all his ABC contacts. McKenzie has taken unpaid leave from The Age to fill in at Four Corners on a couple of occasions in recent years.
The joint project was brokered by McKenzie, but made possible through the co-operation of Age senior deputy editor Mark Baker, and like-minded people at the ABC.
McKenzie and Age reporter Richard Baker have been chipping away at Securency for more than a year, and while they have had some impact, as McKenzie himself said to me yesterday, it was nothing compared to the media “fest that began yesterday morning, when the ABC began to use its cross media resources to promote the in depth Four Corners investigation”.
The Securency story is also part of a shift at the ABC. I have been among those who have previously accused the national broadcaster of not breaking enough stories. One of the replies coming from within the organisation has been that the Auntie does break stories, but that it hasn’t been good enough at acknowledging that across the organisation, and using its resources to cross promote and follow up.
This is part of the larger story of an organisation often at war with itself, with almost as many factions as there are microphones. In recent months, there has been a concerted effort to break down those walls and act strategically to maximise the effect of breaking news.
So it was that yesterday morning ABC listeners woke to news bulletins that effectively previewed the Four Corners scoop. Opening Fairfax newspapers, they then read even more on the story. Four Corners screened, and then today Fairfax newspapers have followed up.
As a result a story previously confined to one media organisation is now a top story throughout the nation.
So is this the way of the future? McKenzie thinks it might be. The internet has altered the news cycle, he says, meaning that gaining audience and impact is more important than keeping a scoop to yourself.
“The speed of the news cycle means that an exclusive is only exclusive for about three seconds now,” he says.
With ABC budgets tight, and newspapers effectively fighting for their lives, joint ventures can be one way of getting important journalism done, and out there.
But the arrangements depend on similar editorial cultures, relationships of trust between individual reporters across organisations, and the good will and public spiritedness of media executives.
This time, it all came together. Now even News Limited, which previously ran dead on the issue, is on to the story. It can no longer be ignored, and will not go away until questions are answered and allegations investigated.
News organisations are becoming more porous, it seems. And getting the news out there can be a matter of collaboration — with colleagues and with the audience — as much as competition.