ABC News 24 – a handy service for niche journalists

It may not have many viewers yet, but ABC News 24 saves specialist journos having to leave their desks, argues Delimiter’s Renai LeMay

When media commentators discuss the future of journalism, they usually agree on at least one thing: It will involve much fewer generalists and more reporters dedicated to exhaustively covering niche fields.  

This appealing vision — if it was framed as a TV commercial — would feature a highly informed hack attending a popular press conference and asking a series of insightful questions while generalist reporters looked on in dumb amazement at the depth of the niche knowledge on display.

After massaging information out of the subject with her adept touch, the niche journalist would turn to the camera and casually discuss how her degree in the subject gave her a depth of background knowledge that generalists couldn’t match — before flashing her smile at David Hasselhof, who would jump into the journalist’s red sports car with her and ride away into the sunset.

And yet, despite this, certain issues continue to bedevil niche reporters in a way that they don’t generalists. Namely: When an issue gets too big, it can prove difficult for the niche to handle.

A recent Australian example is the way that Labor’s National Broadband Network policy suddenly exploded onto the national stage during the Federal Election.

The NBN had been exhaustively covered by Australia’s technology press over the past two and a half years since the last Federal Election. At some points, technology hacks were attending multiple press conferences each week where NBN Co executives and communications minister Stephen Conroy were at pains to explain every technical and financial detail.

And yet, the daily ins and outs of the NBN implementation have been broadly ignored by what most people would refer to as the “mainstream media”, leading one ABC commentator to erroneously state that media coverage of the NBN had been “patchy”.

As the election heated up, however, it became clear that broadband policy was one of the key differentiators between Labor and the Coalition – and the mainstream media picked up the scent.

Press conferences on broadband suddenly became packed, press secretaries and PR spokespeople suddenly started to prefer dealing with ‘top-tier’ media outlets, and Prime Minister Julia Gillard started holding media briefings by the side of trenches around the country in remote locations where optic-fibre cables were being laid.

On one memorable occasion, Labor and the Coalition scheduled almost a full day of broadband policy announcements, rebuttals and debates. This seven hour marathon was held in Canberra, hours away from Sydney, where the tech press is concentrated.

Forget doing investigative journalism. Suddenly every technology media outlet in Australia was in overdrive just trying to cover the daily news — even responding to requests from mainstream media organisations to appear on broadcasts as “broadband experts”.

ABC News 24The role that the ABC’s brand-spanking new 24-hour news channel played in this was extraordinary.

Normally, niche media outlets do not have the resources to follow politicians around the country on the campaign trail and watch their every announcement live. It just costs too much, for too little return. You can attend events in your home city – but when an event is held in Townsville, it’s just too far away. How, after all, is a media outlet with half a dozen journalists supposed to win a seat on the campaign bus?

However, this election was different.

Suddenly, no matter how small or how remote an announcement on broadband was — and major announcements were held in Perth, Tasmania and Townsville, for example – Australia’s technology journalists could watch the event live courtesy of ABC News 24.

The effect that this had on the coverage was remarkable.

Suddenly, politicians were under intense scrutiny on every issue from niche media who could watch, cover and analyse every announcement they made, with the help of their readers, who were also tuning in to ABC News 24 online.

It appears that very few – if any – members of Australia’s technology press were invited to the Coalition’s launch of its broadband policy, for example. But because we could watch the announcements in real time, the sort of intensely detailed analysis that only niche media can provide hit the internet immediately.

And the audience lapped it up.

As the election rolled on, online reader engagement skyrocketed. Articles on many sites attracted dozens of comments, and then eventually hundreds. One memorable analysis piece on Delimiter attracted no less than 300 and is still going.

I’m no expert on other fields, but I would bet that other niche media outlets in areas like health, education, finance and so on also benefited from the ABC’s constant rolling live coverage.

If you view ABC News 24 in this light, it is almost as if the channel became a sort of wholesale provider of information to other media – not just a consumer-focused media outlet in its own light. It was suddenly at the centre of an ecosystem of other media outlets.

This does raise some questions. For example: Is it a breach of the ABC’s copyright, if a reporter from another media outlet quotes from a politician’s speech that they did not attend, but watched live on ABC News 24?

I would assume not, but it’s an interesting question.

Secondly, will this role at the centre of the media ecosystem change the way ABC News 24 sees itself, as it realises that some of its most obsessed viewers are not “normal” consumers are all — but are in fact representatives of other media outlets, and those outlets’ readers?

And, of course, will the universal presence of ABC News 24 at large events decrease the numbers of journalists who attend in real life to cover them, instead of (sometimes more efficiently) watching the events from their desks? And what impact will that have?

There were many opinions expressed when ABC News 24 launched as to what effect it would have on Australia’s media landscape. A complete analysis of the impact is a task for another day.

But one thing is clear: ABC News 24 has already had a dramatic and positive effect on Australia’s niche media outlets, and we can expect that impact to continue to be felt as times goes on.

  • Renai LeMay is the publisher of technology site Delimiter

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