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ABC restructure good for regions, but we now need to understand more about the media terrain

Regional disparities News media Public broadcasting Australia

The ABC’s decision this week to reinvigorate regional journalism is a positive step. The challenge now is to embed journalists where they are needed most. This will be no easy feat for city-based ABC managers trying to navigate regional and rural Australia’s changing, uneven and largely uncharted news terrain beyond the capital cities.

Rural and regional media outlets face increasing economic pressures in the digital media environment and the ABC is not immune. It has experienced significant government funding cuts, shed jobs and centralised regional news offices. However, this week ABC boss, Michelle Guthrie, announced up to 200 staff in management positions will depart by June this year as part of a major restructure. The public broadcaster says a highlight of this move is the creation of 80 new positions in regional areas within 18 months. The initiative is designed to “increase the ABC’s digital and video output from rural and regional Australia”.

The timing of this announcement might just be a fluke, but it happens to coincide with an inquiry into the ABC’s Charter and its commitment to rural and regional audiences. What many Australians might not know is that serving rural areas is not a specific requirement of the Charter. Rather, a key criteria is ‘broadcasting programs that contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity of, the Australian community’ (Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983, p. 6).

In December 2015, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Rural and Regional Advocacy) Bill  was introduced to Parliament by Senator Bridget McKenzie. Its intention was to mandate provisions in the ABC’s Charter to reflect Australia’s geographic diversity and implement mechanisms to ensure a high standard of rural and regional media coverage. These include: the allocation of staff and resources necessary to improve regional journalism and the delivery of services to rural and regional Australia; the appointment of regionally-residing members to the ABC’s Board; establishing a Rural and Regional Advisory Council and improving emergency service reporting for regional communities.

Earlier this week, we gave evidence to the Inquiry. Our key contention was that the ABC continues to prioritise its national appeal over opportunities to develop deeper connections with its local audiences, especially those areas that rely on the public broadcaster most for local news and information. We underlined the need for policy and funding provisions to protect and bolster the capacity for local news, to help ensure a diversity of voices are present in, and represented by, rural and regional areas, and to ensure high quality news and information for these audiences.

The ABC’s increasing focus on digital platforms and reliance on online content also means people with limited connectivity are now not only disadvantaged for content choice, but are potentially endangered if they are unable to receive emergency warnings.

If the ABC is directing valuable resources back into regional areas then it is imperitive that as a public broadcaster they serve the gaps that commercial operators can’t or won’t fill. We have observed that as a diversity of news media retreat from the periphery, large  ‘regional’ news hubs form in cities like Ballarat, Rockhampton and Newcastle. This creates what we’ll term here a ‘Big4’ model where regional media bypass smaller locations in favour of running available resources from one larger powered site.

Journalists at these bigger regional news hubs either sub-edit/produce news written by reporters in far-flung locations, or they are required to go out and occassionally forage for stories around smaller outposts. Sometimes, the funds simply aren’t available for reporters to leave the hub, so they have to do their digging for news over the telephone or via a decent internet connection.

But that’s not really how reporters should experience the bush, or report on it for the communities that live there. From our perspective, to be a ‘local’ reporter does not mean covering a territory with a 1000km radius - unless you are surrounded by cattle stations.

As Australia’s premier public service media, we have recommend the ABC protect and enhancing the types of content available outside urban centres and regional hubs, and prioritise communities otherwise under-served for local news.

The provision of quality, truly local news in rural and regional Australia is undoubtedly a broader issue than the ABC. There is a need to consider economic changes affecting the commercial sector, as well as the potential impact of other regulatory conditions, such as the likely regional influence of proposed new media reforms to alter ownership and reach rules. But the ABC’s role as Australia’s primary public service provider in this period of change is crucial in ensuring the production and dissemination of quality local news to rural and regional communities.

If the ABC is redirecting funds to the bush, then perhaps it’s time they look past the Big4 sites and set up new camps where the media terrain is barren. They just need a map and some more regional voices to help them find their place beyond the cities.

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