The future of
news media

ABC edition

An image of a TV news set from behind the cameraman.

Image: Tashi-Delek/Getty Images

Image: Tashi-Delek/Getty Images

The year 2020 will arguably be one of the most challenging years for news media and publishers in the industry’s history.

Economic downturns and reduced advertising revenue are proving to have a significant impact on commercial organisations.

Unfortunately, there have been many examples in recent months: the announced closure of AAP, the decision by Australian Community Media to halt key products and News Corp Australia’s move to stop the print editions of more than 100 suburban and regional newspapers across four states.

The ABC, while not reliant on advertising revenue, is not immune to the challenges. The public network is continuing to manage an annual budget reduction of more than $100 million a year, with combined budget cuts since 2013 amounting to almost $800 million by 2022.

So, when demand for news and lifestyle content has never been greater, why are we seeing media companies under unprecedented financial pressure?

An image of ABC journalists Lisa Millar and Kathy McLeish.

ABC journalists Lisa Millar and Kathy McLeish.

ABC journalists Lisa Millar and Kathy McLeish.

In our first instalment exploring the future of news media, we spoke with co-host of ABC News Breakfast Lisa Millar (Bachelor of Arts ’89) and ABC journalist Kathy McLeish (Bachelor of Arts / Bachelor of Journalism ’01) to understand their views.

An image of a reporter covering a bushfire wearing firefighting jacket.

Image: Bouillante/Getty Images

Image: Bouillante/Getty Images

COVID-19 is again highlighting just how important news is for helping people understand and gain perspective on key issues and events from trusted sources. How do you believe national crises like COVID-19 and the bushfires earlier this year impact sentiment towards journalism and the ABC network?

Lisa: More Australians tuned in to the ABC in some form during these dual crises. We know that because ratings are quantified and we could see them continually head upwards. That was not just for ABC News Breakfast but for all programs – news, radio current affairs, Four Corners, Foreign Correspondent, 7.30. But what the ratings don’t reveal is the sentiment that people felt. I can tell you about that because Michael Rowland – my ABC News Breakfast co-host – and I received dozens of handwritten letters, emails and social media messages daily. People would say they felt the world was upside down, that everything they felt they could rely on was suddenly fragile and insecure. But that they found great comfort in knowing they could turn on their television every morning and we were there, day in, day out.

An image of Lisa Millar with her ABC News Breakfast co-hosts Michael Rowland (left) and Nate Byrne (right).

Lisa Millar with her ABC News Breakfast co-hosts Michael Rowland (left) and Nate Byrne (right).

Lisa Millar with her ABC News Breakfast co-hosts Michael Rowland (left) and Nate Byrne (right).

Michael and I felt the weight of that responsibility and took our own health very seriously, reducing any risk of being exposed to COVID-19. We also worked very hard at maintaining a balance between light and shade in our programs. Health reporter Dr Norman Swan has been an important part of that coverage and I believe it shows people want experts they can rely on.  

Kathy: Widespread emergencies like the bushfires and the COVID-19 crisis highlight the need for clear, accurate, reliable and timely information and remind all Australians of the vital role of media.

It’s hard to imagine how critical this kind of work is until you’ve experienced it firsthand. After Cyclone Yasi hit Far North Queensland, I joined the ABC team to report on the devastation it had wrought on the coastal communities. We drove slowly into towns as emergency workers opened the roads. As we went, locals called out to us to ask what we had seen and what we knew of the damage to areas where they had family and friends. When we entered Tully, a local social worker asked us to get a message out on radio to tell people there was bottled water at the general store, because they’d heard people were getting water from the creek. In a disaster, information is a lifeline.

At a national level, the media coverage during last summer's bushfires kept the nation informed. It held power to account and gave a voice to those who had been questioning and pushing for reforms through the right channels, like the former fire chiefs. The media push for an inquiry led to the Bushfires Royal Commission and raised awareness and discussion of alternative approaches like Indigenous management strategies.

The same has applied to the COVID-19 pandemic, with one survey showing trust in the media to provide honest and objective information about the coronavirus increasing as the crisis coverage developed.

An image of newspaper lying on a computer keyboard.

Image: Fedor Kozyr/Getty Images

Image: Fedor Kozyr/Getty Images

What are the creative ways you are working to maintain this high-quality reporting on a reduced budget?

Lisa: On ABC News Breakfast, we don’t have a lot of staff and everyone puts in extra unpaid hours, but they do it because they care about the product and the program. We make judgements on a daily basis about cost versus benefit with decisions. I know the ABC has difficult months ahead with decisions regarding cuts. For now, I think the product we’re providing is first-class, despite the pressures. We split the production teams into two and ensured neither of them crossed paths so there couldn’t be cross-contamination if one person got sick. Our most critical goal was to keep the program on air.  

Kathy: Digital platforms have changed the news. This is a widespread challenge that all media organisations are working to address and one that’s had a heavy impact on the industry. Globally, we’ve seen the loss of journalism and editorial jobs. As the industry works to come to terms with a constantly changing media landscape, it’s been critical to learn to let go of old models and rules and be open to new opportunities, embrace new platforms and try new styles of reporting.

The breaking news cycle has added pressure to newsrooms and changed the way we report, and new technologies are developing all the time. Those developments include user-friendly technology that is making story production more immediate and less resource-heavy. Digital technology is increasing news reach and taking coverage further than ever before.

Important stories are being told across a range of platforms in different ways, allowing more angles, more depth and more engagement on those issues. COVID-19 coverage is a great example of how that has worked, with digital stories allowing the audience to drive their own level of engagement. Links within a story mean that you can dig deeper and in areas that interest you. "Are you interested in the statistics? You can follow them daily here. Do you want to understand more about the research? Here’s a link to a feature article explaining the science."

In many ways, it's putting the audience front and centre in the delivery of the news.

An image of ABC journalist Kathy McLeish reporting live.

Journalist Kathy McLeish reporting for ABC.

Journalist Kathy McLeish reporting for ABC.

Despite the recent outstanding audience growth across news platforms, the challenge for many commercial networks remains as the significant reduction in advertising revenue keeps them in a chokehold. Does a publicly funded network like the ABC have the same sort of pressures during more turbulent times, in terms of maintaining readers and viewership?

Lisa: We work hard to ensure we are providing the best possible product for the widest audiences, but we also know our charter is to provide material that may not be considered ‘click-bait’ or ‘ratings fodder’. So, there is a limit to our desire to continue increasing our ratings. There are always pressures. The ratings are simply numbers that offer us a helpful glimpse into whether we’re providing what audiences want. But there is a lot more to deciding what the ABC offers than a chase for ratings.

Regional areas have felt the brunt of ever-evolving media landscape, with community print titles slashed and local news bulletins pulled. How do you believe the industry can best service the needs of our rural and regional communities?

Kathy: These losses will hit rural, regional and remote communities hard. Local media coverage is critical to keeping communities informed and connected, and to holding power to account. It’s vital that journalists remain in these communities, questioning authority and campaigning for change when it’s often not a big enough story to be carried on state and national networks, but nonetheless critical to the local community.

It’s vital that the industry supports regional journalism and journalists, and I’m heartened by the organisations and individuals working to do that. The Judith Nielson Institute has funded the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia to deliver its National Radio News service free of charge for six months and part-time salaries for news bulletins to be produced by Ngaarda Media in Roeburne, Western Australia. The Caroline Jones Women in Media Young Journalists Award fosters young media women working in rural and regional Australia. But we need much more investment and philanthropy to help ensure the future for the all-important local community media outlets.

An image of journalist doing a report to camera.

Image: Grafissimo/Getty Images

Image: Grafissimo/Getty Images

On a more personal note, each day you are reporting on stories and information that have a real and lasting impact on your audience. What have you found most challenging about reporting in 2020?

Lisa: Receiving letters from elderly Australians who have been isolated and cut off from family members, but tell us how much our smiles in the morning mean to them, can break my heart. I think of how I’d feel if my own parents were still alive. I try to write back to all of them.

Kathy: My work on Back Roads covers all of Australia, so the biggest challenge has been working out when and how we can travel and what towns we can get to.

The program tells the stories that make these country towns so special and it helps give the issues a national profile.

The last few years have been especially tough on communities in the bush. The bushfires and COVID-19 were preceded by devastating drought in some areas. So, we’re keen to get back out in towns across the country and as the borders open, we’ll be ready to go.

Finally, do you have any advice for new graduates, particularly those in media, who are looking to enter the workforce in these challenging times?

Lisa: I’m afraid this is the toughest question of all. The industry is changing all the time, and all I can say is – be open to opportunities, and know that some choices may not feel like they’re going to lead you to where you’d like to go, but it could be a path to the end result. I was made redundant when I was 21 when The Sun newspaper in Brisbane closed down. I thought it was the end of the world for me and I struggled for a couple of months to get another job. Now, it seems like the tiniest blip in a long career and perhaps even going through it made me a better person. Be passionate about what you want to do and understand why you feel that passion. Multi-Logie-Award-winning journalist Richard Carlton once gave me advice that if I was going to go into journalism, "don’t be mediocre". Aim to do your best. And work hard! The road ahead may feel uncertain but we probably haven’t even seen some of the new areas that are opening up.

Kathy: Do everything, learn everything, be the best that you can be. Connect with the industry in as many ways as you can. Do as much work experience as you can. Look for networking events, such as those run by Women in Media.

When you begin working as a journalist, always be tenacious and don’t stop until the job is done. Work on understanding what makes a good story, so you can recognise it when you see it. Never stop learning new things and be open to new opportunities. Above all, be authentic. Remember that your greatest asset is a good reputation: hard to earn and easy to lose.

Keep checking the Contact website as we continue to explore the future of news media. We will speak to journalists and professionals in the commercial setting about the unique situation they find themselves in amid a global pandemic and what they foresee for the industry in a post-COVID-19 world.

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