Michelle Guthrie ABC

The ABC will cut about 20 journalists, including senior reporters, to make room for its new digital strategy, which will include digital editors in the NT, Tasmania, Queensland and NSW. The role had been previously introduced in Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide.

Speaking to Crikey, ABC head of news Gaven Morris said the changes were needed so the ABC could be fit for the future, including delivering “impactful” journalism that doesn’t, say, become the extended subject of a Senate estimates sitting. “There’s a risk in doing it. What the company tax story taught us was that when doing more impactful journalism and more investigative reporting, you’ve got to have the right processes around that,” he said.

Morris was referring to the debacle around chief economics correspondent Emma Alberici’s two pieces of work published online about company tax cuts in February — one of which the ABC found had too much opinion rather than analysis, and the other which had some errors that were corrected.

In response, the ABC did what it often does to fix a problem — introduced a new manager. A new position of online business editor was introduced, as well as a clearer picture of reporting lines, which the ABC said would clear up the process problems that meant the Alberici pieces were published when they shouldn’t have been.

Morris said the Alberici story hadn’t prompted this restructure (foreshadowed in last year’s anouncement that the broadcaster would abolish the “silos” of TV, radio, news and online), but it showed that the ABC’s processes needed some work. “We had flaws in our process around that story … (we brought in) an online business editor for the first time, that’s exactly the process we’re looking at in this proposal.”

To make room for the new digital editors, social media producers and digital producers, the ABC has proposed that senior journalists will be made redundant: in the ACT, two reporter/producers will go, seven in NSW, two in WA, two in Tasmania, one in the NT, two in SA, three in Victoria and one sports reporter in Queensland. The ABC says overall headcount won’t decrease, and is adamant the changes are not a cost-cutting exercise.

Instead of online stories being sent to an online team in Brisbane to be subedited and published, the new roles will work on their own newsrooms’ stories to be published online. The team in Brisbane will be working on “innovation” — projects such as the Facebook Messenger newsbot.

Morris said yesterday’s proposal had been greeted with enthusiasm by some staff in the newsroom, and sadness by others. If recent staff surveys are anything to go by, it’s likely to be closer to the latter. He said it was necessary to change structures to adapt to an environment where most of the ABC’s digital audience was under 40.

The ABC’s online news offerings will make up part of the ACCC’s competitive neutrality inquiry into the ABC and SBS, prompted by the commercial news outlets’ repeated complaints about the public broadcasters competing in an increasingly difficult market. Morris said the ABC needed to innovate to remain relevant, and so it could continue to do reach news consumers on topics that the commercial media weren’t covering anymore.

“I don’t think there’s many news consumers that would say journalism done in the public interest is improving. In many cases it’s not improving,” he said. “We want higher quality journalism in our industry. If we aren’t constantly improving the way the ABC works to make sure we’re keeping up with the way the market is developing that would be irresponsible.”

The ABC is currently consulting on the proposal with unions and staff. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance said local coverage would suffer. “While MEAA understands more digital-facing roles will be created in this move by ABC to cater to audiences moving increasingly to online, our public broadcaster has to ensure it doesn’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” media director Katelin McInerney said.”The ABC has a duty to their audiences to ensure their senior, often older and more experienced staff are provided with opportunities to gain the skills needed to pivot to online.”

Peter Fray

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