The ABC has commenced the biggest structural shakeup of its regional news coverage in years, merging the management of teams who currently report to people across the country while refusing to rule out the possibility of redundancies.

In briefings yesterday, ABC regional staff were told of a new structure to commence in coming weeks, which the ABC hopes will be finalised by the end of the year.

Currently, regional ABC bureaux have teams producing local radio (who report to their local regional managers), teams who produce news (who generally report to the state capital), and teams who produce rural current affairs for state- and nation-wide programs (who report to the executive producer of Country Hour and the like). The teams share resources, but they often operate in silos and have their own culture and norms. ABC rural journos told Crikey the current structure works, given different people in the bureaux have different roles but benefit from liaising with others across the country doing similar things.

But it has led to a complex structure that makes little sense to outsiders. One result of the current structure is that different parts of local bureaux can have radically different cultures and work philosophies. In emergency situations, for example, the news team will often be reporting in dangerous situations, whereas the local radio teams will often be sent home. Local teams, however, tend to have far closer ties to the local communities than those filing for national or state audiences. This can affect the tone of coverage and the kind of stories pursued.

The new structure, unveiled yesterday by ABC regional director Fiona Reynolds, is a radical simplification on the current arrangement. Instead of reporting to people all across the country, everyone in a bureau will now report to a chief of staff, who will also have content-production duties (generally producing morning radio and the like).

As a result of the new structure, 50 positions will be abolished, making those who currently hold potentially redundant. But, Reynolds told staff in briefings the purpose of the restructure was not to reduce headcount. Another 52 positions are set to be created, and those positions are to be advertised only internally to begin with — so those made redundant have an opportunity to reapply for jobs. But if the ABC’s current staff mixture did not meet its needs, redundancies were a possibility, she said. Asked by staff how many redundancies she anticipated, Reynolds said it was too early to say.

“There is no target on this,” she told staff, saying it was a different situation from last year’s efficiency measures (in which 500 redundancies were signed off on by the board, though the final figure was only 400). “[Redundancies] have to be kept at an absolute minimum. I don’t want to lose people with good skills, and we’re not here to spend a lot of money on redundancies.”

According to a timeline of the changes revealed yesterday, the ABC hopes to have the new structure in place by the end of the year, after which it will focus on a digital strategy for the regional division. The digital strategy would be the change most felt by audiences, Reynolds said, adding that the division had to be a lot more strategic around its digital presence. The ABC has currently been consolidating its websites — it’s currently focused on shutting down around 100 of its websites, managing director Mark Scott told Senate estimates yesterday.

Staff Crikey spoke to were not overly alarmed by the new changes. But they did have many questions about how the new structure would work, particularly around issues of reporting lines. “It’s quite a change,” one said. “If they can make it work, great.” But, this staffer noted, it was concerning that the new system hadn’t yet been trialled in one area, or one state, before it was rolled out across the country.

At the briefing yesterday, many questions were about the new chief of staff roles, of which there will be 36 across the country. There were questions about the sheer breadth of the role, with staff questioning how one person could possibly be expected to stay on top of the management of so many staff who do so many different things, while also being involved in content production. Reynolds largely declined to offer specifics, saying the exact specifications of each role would depend on the size of the bureau and the skills of the person in the chief of staff role.

Regional radio was not one of the areas heavily targeted by last year’s cost-cutting at the ABC. A handful of small, satellite bureaux were closed and absorbed into their neighbours, while some regional breakfast and drive shows were axed (with listeners instead having these shows beamed up from the local capital city). Radio National show Bush Telegraph was also axed.

Yesterday at estimates, Scott said 100 of the ABC’s 400 targeted redundancies were still to be finalised.

Peter Fray

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