A television current affairs boss would usually be ropable to wake up and find a story they’re due to air that night has been splashed across the morning’s papers. But not Sue Spencer, the veteran executive producer of the ABC’s Four Corners.
Four Corners will tonight air “Inside Mail”, a joint investigation between the ABC and The Age‘s investigative reporter Nick McKenzie into allegations of crime and corruption in the thoroughbred racing industry. It’s the fourth such partnership in a little over two years, following previous investigations into the Reserve Bank Securency scandal, organised crime syndicates and sex slavery.
The Age ran with the yarn on its front page today, in a joint-bylined piece written by McKenzie, Age colleague Richard Baker and Four Corners producer Clay Hitchens. ABC Online ran the story from this morning, and it got a heavy run on ABC Radio.
Spencer says she’s not bothered that her program’s scoop has been revealed more than ten hours before the show goes to air.
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“The most important thing is that if you’ve got a strong investigative story you want it to have as wide an audience as possible and you want to get people talking about it,” Spencer told Crikey this morning. “Fairfax like it, we like it … it’s a win-win.
“With 45 minutes, you can go into a lot more detail and cover a lot more information. TV has a different impact — seeing people talking to camera can have a bigger impact than reading what they say in print.”
McKenzie, who started his career as an ABC cadet, agrees.
“Squabbling about exclusivity is such an old school thing,” he said. “For me, it’s all about ensuring that a story has the widest possible impact … The ABC is totally national — they are in every country town [while] Fairfax is dominant in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra — and we have online operations in other states.
“Collaboration is a way of using the best parts of both mediums. TV is very good for emotional storytelling; in print you can go into the forensic-side, the source-based information.”
And it’s not only the ABC getting in on joint venture media stories. The Global Mail website teamed up this year with Channel Ten’s The Project to report on the plight of an Indonesian boy imprisoned in a maximum security jail in Western Australia. The ABC’s The Drum website and The Conversation also joined up for a series on the future of the media.
There are several reasons why such collaborations — unthinkable a decade ago — are becoming increasingly common. Resources for investigative journalism, particularly at newspapers, are dwindling. The fragmentation of the media landscape — and an ever-quickening news cycle — mean that a front-page ripper no longer carries the clout it used to. Some media outlets are also reluctant to follow up stories they believe are “owned” by other outlets — either because of professional rivalry or because they haven’t developed the sources to chase it. News Limited outlets, including The Australian, for example, have given meagre coverage to the RBA Securency scandal. For non-Fairfax readers, Four Corners‘ 2010 story was probably the first time they had ever heard about it.
Michael Gawenda, a former editor of The Age, said more cross-media collaborations are inevitable. “To do stories that require time and expertise and resources, media organisations will have to do deals like this. I don’t have a problem with it … as long as The Age got benefit from it, I would do it,” he said.
“But you have to make sure that such partnerships are with media organisations that have the same standards you have and that you have control over what is published and what is published under your name. That’s definitely an issue.”
McKenzie says he sees no reason why The Age can’t team up with The Conversation or a commercial channel in the future although “commercial considerations can make things difficult”.
“The great thing about the ABC is they have no commercial considerations and the ABC charter and the Fairfax charter are very similar,” he said. “The ABC and Fairfax are a natural fit.”
So far, Four Corners‘ collaborations — including a 2008 partnership with The Sydney Morning Herald on the Arctic — have been with Fairfax. “I’m more than happy to explore opportunities with freelancers, university Masters students, definitely something like The Global Mail,” Spencer said. “I’d be happy to work with News Limited but there has been a slightly vexed relationship between News and the ABC.”
“I’m more than happy to be involved in discussions [with News Ltd] but to date I’ve had more of a relationship with Fairfax than News Ltd.”
The Australian’s editor Chris Mitchell was not available for comment when contacted by Crikey.
Although Fairfax is putting increased resources into multimedia, McKenzie said television current affairs remains the best way to tell a complex story visually. “You don’t sit down at your lunch break and interact with a story for 45 minutes. You might watch a three minute story about Usain Bolt but it isn’t how people engage with online today,” he said.
“In 10 years, almost everyone will probably be watching Four Corners online but at the moment it’s still about television.”