‘We can’t do it alone’: ABC stresses importance of regional papers as future of ACM titles remains unclear

In the same week as it internally announced the necessity of between 200 and 250 redundancies, the ABC’s director of news, Gaven Morris, warned that the public broadcaster is not a replacement for regional newspapers.

“The ABC’s obviously very privileged to have the support of public funding. And so it makes our model… notwithstanding what we’re about to go through with 200, 250 roles that need to go from the ABC. It does make our model obviously a little bit more stable,” Morris said, speaking on a virtual panel last week that focused on journalism in the context of COVID-19.

“But what I hope we don’t end up with is a world where we just argue that all of the media has to be demeaned and cut and reduced because one part of it is challenged in business models. I think very much about ACM’s [Australian Community Media] role in regional Australia. And I’ve heard this argument many times, that ‘Oh well, if all the newspapers go in regional Australia, there’s still an ABC.’

Morris addressed that up to 250 ABC staff will soon lose their jobs

“That is not going to work. The ABC is not the answer to providing people in rural and regional Australia with a comprehensive service [and] access to the information they require. We’re a part of it. And we really cherish the part we play. We can’t do it alone and we can’t do it without local newspapers, local commercial television and radio. This is an ecosystem. If the ecosystem fundamentally breaks down, all of our citizens are going to be a lot poorer for it.”

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, News Corp has closed more than 100 print titles and shuttered 14 newspapers entirely – resulting in job losses reported to be in the vicinity of between 500 and 1,000 – after initially suspending 60 community print titles. Nine has suspended some print sections. And ACM has suspended non-daily titles and closed four printing presses, resulting in widespread stand downs that were forecast to last until the end of this month.

Last week, Eliza Berlage, a journalist at the affected Wimmera Mail-Times, tweeted that stood down staff are being individually updated on their future with the Antony Catalano-fronted regional media company.

Gayle Tomlinson – ACM’s head of audience who also appeared on the Telum Media-hosted panel, along with Nine News’ Melbourne news director, Hugh Nailon – argued that COVID-19 has sped up changes for media companies such as ACM, rather than establishing the need for such changes.

“It’s worth saying here we’ve been doing more with less for decades. We’re pretty good at that,” she said.

“But yeah, there’s no doubt that there’s still shifting of the sands. I’m actually genuinely excited about the future of local news. I’ve worked in regional media off and on for 25 years. I’ve never heard our audiences sound so grateful for the work that we’re doing.

“There’s a huge opportunity for us to capitalise on that. Of course, the landscape may look a bit different to what it does right now. But that was coming in any case, COVID sped that up a notch. COVID has accelerated certain behaviours and one of them is the propensity to pay for news. Our subscriptions have never, ever been stronger and that’s because the readers are seeing the value of our coverage.”

The panel was held last Thursday

Media companies are facing a “double challenge”, Morris explained: “rapidly changing audience behaviour” and “outrageously quickly changing revenue models and advertising models”, combined with “many more touch points that we’ve got all at the same time, all of us with fewer resources”.

“This is the devilish dilemma that we all have to try to step our way through,” he said.

“How do you maintain a quality of your services to audiences that are hungrier for information than they’ve ever been, with more and more international content flooding into our market, and at the same time having to make really difficult choices about how you use your resources?”

Nailon acknowledged that Nine has also faced “some really heavy budget cuts”.

“We’ve already been sort of pared back and pared back just over the last two years,” he said.

“We’ve suffered some job losses, but obviously Nine’s quite a different organisation than it was two or three years ago. We’re not just a television business anymore. Obviously we’ve got the subscription newspaper business, Domain, all these other things that make us a bigger organisation, which allows us to be more robust for these times.

“But it’s never really been any different in this newsroom. We don’t spend money freely, like the glory days of commercial TV, that people like to think about. A lot of people coming into a commercial TV newsroom would be surprised at how efficient we are for the amount of output that we do.”

Regardless of whether COVID-19 ripped away advertising revenue that would otherwise have been there, or simply accelerated changes that were already inevitable, there’s no denying it’s been an enormously challenging period for the industry. Redundancies, stand downs and pay cuts have been commonplace, despite record readership figures. And notably, almost 250 staff have lost their jobs or been stood down at Bauer since the German-based company took control of Pacific Magazines, 290 jobs have been made redundant at Foxtel (and a further 140 team members stood down), and 10 Daily and Buzzfeed’s local news team have closed.

The one bright spot is AAP, which was saved by a consortium led by former News Corp and Foxtel CEO Peter Tonagh, after the 85-year-old newswire service and its 500 journalists almost became one of the most significant industry casualties of the pandemic.

Morris said that, while the ABC has never significantly relied on AAP for news coverage – but has used the service for sports reporting and photography – its survival is “critical” for the industry. Nailon agreed, adding that the AAP is invaluable in ensuring newsrooms can cover resource-intensive stories like Royal Commissions or long-running inquiries.

“We see there being real value across the industry in having journalists like those at AAP being able to go out there and cover stories and events in ways that some media organisations either can’t resource, or that enable media organisations, to put their efforts into things that really then set them apart,” Morris said.

“I fundamentally hope that AAP lives long and prospers in whatever form that emerges here, because I think it is critical in the way the ecosystem of journalism operates. And whether the ABC is a big user of what emerges or uses parts of it, I know that for all of us in the industry, it is a crucial part of that ecosystem.”


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