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".

Andrew Dodd

Media lecturer and journalist

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.

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34 thoughts on “‘Churnalism sweatshop’: ABC News journos fear review

  1. Limited News

    Could it lead to groupthink as editorial decisions and influence are effectively centralised?

  2. marcfranc

    ABC journalists may actually have to change the way they work because the world is changing! Outragous!

    This article is just a cliche-ridden mix of unsubstantiated ‘fears’ and ‘concerns’ expressed by so-called ‘insiders’.

    I didn’t subscribe to Crikey to read tripe like this.

  3. Gavin Moodie

    I admit that this has seemed to me so achingly obvious that I have long wondered why the ABC and every other multi media news organisation hasn’t adopted it long ago.

    The objections reported here seem to me to be facile and easily handled. Consider a continuous news event such as a hostage or a fire. The ABC could assign a small team of reporters to cover the event as it unfolds for each of its several platforms.

    When the last news report is filed the ABC could commission 1 of the reporters to file an analysis and comment for the Drum and if warranted the team could be retained to prepare a current affairs or documentary for radio or tv while other teams chase ambulances.

  4. Socratease

    The ABC already suffers from churnalism and has done since the Internet took hold.

  5. Timble

    Tend to agree w Marcfranc. Breaking a sweat in an ABC Newsroom would be a rare sight…

  6. bluepoppy

    There is already too much churnalism. What about the length of time it takes to produce investigative reports indicative of shows like Four Corners. If that is lost we are left with the chaff.

    Focus and commitment to gathering all the facts to provide real information enabling the public to make up their own minds is what is lacking already, will this change add to the trend.

    Contrast that with the opinionative journalism where journalists become the ‘celebrity’ rather than the guests or the story. Editorialising and opinion has a place but it has become de rigueur.

  7. roaldan1000

    This policy is already in place isn’t it? I have not heard a radio news bulletin or read a web story from the ABC for months which wasn’t a direct read from an AAP report, a morning newspaper or a press statement from a political party.

    The bulk of resources meanwhile seems to be aimed at five or six “celebrity” presenters who try unsuccessfully to straddle the contradictory role of reporter and commentator and see themselves as players in the game. There also seems to be a unhealthy proportion of resources directed to paying people to tweet word for word grabs from media conferences or make assinine comments about question time.

    Four Corners is meanwhile reduced to one Australian story a month with the rest being picked up from places like the BBC.

  8. amelinixon

    Perhaps the ABC might then have room to employ the talents of journalists who can speak with authority on important issues such as the economy and might then become a source for real news.

    Perhaps journalists will have to ensure that their knowledge of a subject is comprehensive enough to make educated statements. I would like to see that.

    Perhaps, as viewers, our horizons could be widened instead of narrowed by the ‘news experience’.

    I stopped watching a long time ago and started to judge the world out there based upon my own everyday experience.

    No bombs today? Oh that’s good. Weather improved I see, oh good, my money does not seem to be going as far, I wonder why that is, I will have to write to the PM and find out.

    Now there’s a concept.

  9. klewso

    Don’t they send it off to Limited News now – to rendition – on their “follow the leader” views cycle service?

    [See “Sweet and Sour” Sales is back next week too.]

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