ABC open
An photo of the aurora from ABC Open's archives (Image: Daniel Lam)

Just two weeks after WIN announced the closure of four of its regional newsrooms, the ABC will this weekend shut down its public website for ABC Open, a platform for community-led regional and rural stories, encouraging users to use Instagram and the ABC My Photo platform instead.

ABC Open hasn’t been promoted or supported by the ABC for more than a year, but the stories it produced, which number nearly 193,000, had still been hosted in the one place on a dedicated website.

“It would be devastating if it was an isolated thing, but to see these patterns of increasingly centralised media, it’s particularly concerning,” former ABC Open producer Suzi Taylor told Crikey. “Especially for the public broadcaster — their charter is to represent all of Australia. That includes people from the bush and all areas.”

Under the platform, producers, mostly based out of regional ABC offices, ran workshops and helped members of the community tell their own stories using film, photos and blog posts.

Lizette Salmon was one of the community members who worked with Taylor from the Albury-Wodonga ABC studio to produce a short film about her parents’ property. “I’m really proud of my parents’ achievement and I always thought I’d like to showcase it in some way … what ABC Open did was have a treasure trove of rural and regional stories from a really diverse range of people.”

Salmon’s local WIN newsroom was one of those to go in WIN’s latest cost-cutting, and she said their local paper, the Border Mail had been severely cut while it was still owned by Fairfax. “Journalists used to come and do interviews face to face, but nearly every interview I’ve done of late is over the phone,” she said. And while there are better-resourced newspapers covering the country, they are The Weekly Times and Stock and Land, which focus on farming. “They just don’t have the diversity and cross section of the regions that ABC Open could,” Salmon said.

The metro papers weren’t interested in stories she’d pitched about her community either. “ABC Open was just this real bonus,” Salmon said. “I think ABC Open was interested in rural and regional stories that metro outlets aren’t interested in.”

Stories Taylor worked on included indigenous language project “Mother Tongue” — which she believes is the largest collection of video in and about Indigenous languages — and “Aftermath”, featuring recovery stories after natural disasters. “Regional disasters are reported on by metro journalists or people who are only there for a short time, so that local element or depth is lacking,” she said.

Many of those stories will continue to be available on other ABC platforms, a spokesman said, including other ABC web pages and the ABC Australia YouTube page. “We are acutely aware of the importance of some of the published content on the site and have worked hard to find alternate solutions to making this content available into the future,” he said.

But Taylor, other former producers and the community members who made the content are concerned that not all their content will be available to the public in the same way it was on the ABC Open website (which was built with technology the ABC no longer supports).

Lara van Raay was an ABC Open producer for about four years in Mildura and Hobart and now runs her own production company in Tasmania.

“My experience working with ABC open was excellent, it was the best job I’ve ever had in my life,” she said. “It was an incredibly privileged place to be … there would be very few times where you’d work with people to tell their stories that you wouldn’t be in tears together.”

She said there wasn’t anywhere else for short films anymore. “When I was coming up through the ranks, when the ABC or SBS were doing things like Race Around the World, (these stories) had places to go,” she said. “These were just little ditties or snapshots … there are now five or six production companies doing all the stories, and they need to do half-hour or hour programs and they need a certain amount of drama.”

The ABC spokesman said the ABC Open content would be archived, and community members could still request copies of particular items after the website closes on Sunday.

But Salmon said the stories being available publicly was important for communities. “Backroads is surprisingly popular … there appears to be an appetite for rural and regional stories in the city,” she said. “It’s been wonderful for my father to get that validation for his life’s work because it’s in film … for local people to see something from their local neck of the woods is wonderful.”

And, van Raay said, it’s also good for people around the country to see.

“It’s vital for a country to understand who its people are and what their stories are to develop culturally,” she said. “It wasn’t until I started working for ABC Open that I understood Australia in the truest sense.”

Does the closure of ABC Open represent bigger problems at the ABC? Write to [email protected] with your thoughts and let us know.

Peter Fray

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