More news, or the same news spread more thinly? That is the question ABC watchers are asking about the new 24-hour news service.

Jonathan Holmes of Media Watch recently expressed the opinion that serving the needs of a 24-hour news channel would actually make it harder, not easier, for the ABC to break news because of the pressure to file more, and more often.

“Many at the front-line of ABC journalism are frankly dubious that it can be done, without jeopardising the quality of current output,” he said.

And now from inside Auntie, we have a poignant, even funny, illustration of just what the challenges will be. Crikey has received an internal memo addressed to ABC news crews serving the 24-hour news channel.


Dated May 13, the memo contains “ideas for versatile story-telling while news gathering”, with the idea of getting more product from the news crews with minimum additional production effort.

Or, as the memo puts it:

“[These ideas are] intended to prompt a greater range of content for broadcast without slowing you down as you report from location. They may also allow you to file something quickly and then get on with your main piece without any early edits or live shots commitments.”

The first idea concerns ‘walk-and-talk’, which, the memo enthuses:

“…can set the scene and establish the ABC’s presence. The objective is to not just tell the story but show and tell it. On the scene of a flood or a fire, a major accident, a protest or a murder scene, a useful approach can be to pick three talking points within the range of a camera pan — whether the camera operator is shooting off sticks or their shoulder. By picking three key things to refer to and guiding the audience between them, you’ll find it very easy to talk to the pictures in sequence without any scripting or editing required. Make the description conversational and for each of the three elements, speak for 30-40 seconds.

You’ll end up producing a dynamic 1:30-2:00 television report ready to go.

…If filed early in your time on location, it establishes the ABC’s presence and allows the reporting team to be freed up to go and gather elements for the main edited package later in the day.”

And for those stories where the walk-and-talk is not appropriate, there is always the ‘rant’.

“On stories where the visuals or the scene are less compelling — like a court story, an inquiry or a summit — record an even simpler ‘rant’ whenever you have down time as you wait for the event to conclude or immediately after the crucial breaking news moment.

A rant or an ‘as-live’ is a recorded report delivered to camera like a live shot detailing the key points. It is a perfect substitute for a live when a link isn’t available and pictures can be edited over it back at base to make it more visual. As journalists and producers, we often over-estimate the value of the ‘live’ in the corner of the screen … a rant is an excellent way to tell news quickly.

Like a walk and talk, a rant often injects energy and currency into a bulletin. Once filed, it frees up the team to go and gather elements for the main piece of the day and it is always an excellent final report from a scene summarising the situation before the reporting team departs. In at least a minute, outline the key points of the story and describe the scene. You can often include a timeline of the history of the case or event or foreshadow what might emerge over the hours to come. By restricting your thoughts to a limited number of key points, you’ll find these easy to deliver without a script.”

Then there is another hard hitting technique — ‘toss to a grab’.

“For both walk and talks and rants, an effective way to add value or context without having to edit a package on location is by tossing to a relevant grab from a related interview or a press conference.

If your talent has moved on, summarise what they’ve said and throw to a grab. Just leave a pause — give a brief description of what producers need to edit in — and then pick up. The production team can edit it together back on base. Keep the sequence simple so the edit is obvious and you don’t have to spend any time explaining its construction.”

Then there is the slicing and dicing of content for many different modes of delivery.

“Have you ever interviewed someone for a news story and thought the person was worth more than the 15-second bite you used for the package?

If you know you are interviewing someone interesting or central to the story, shoot the interview in such a way that it can be run as a longer stand-alone cut.

ABC News 24 will almost always give these extended cuts of good interviews a run. It’s a way to file some content that can sustain the coverage allowing the newsgathering team to get on and file its main piece.”

There is more besides. Read the whole memo here.

While many of these are standard broadcast story-telling techniques, they give an insight into what it is like these days for ABC on-location news crews, expected to arrive and file immediately and continuously for a never-ending hungry beast.

And it sheds light on why it can be so difficult, these days, for reporters — not only on the ABC but elsewhere as well — to do any more than cover the field in a once over lightly fashion, rather than spending the time necessary to break fresh news.

I happen to be of the view that the ABC has little choice but to enter into 24-hour news if it is to remain relevant. But reading this memo, it is hard to escape the view that amid the pressure and the immediacy, something valuable may be lost.

It would be nice to think that somewhere in the bowels of the organisation, measures are being taken to ensure that as well as covering the field, some reporters have the capacity to dig down into the dirt.

Sadly, I suspect it isn’t so.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey