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Photo to go with story on how COVID has changed the media

Why media is changing for good and also chasing ‘good news’ stories

A panel of experts from three major Australian media companies says the art of journalism has likely changed permanently as a result of the coronavirus and is set to focus on more ‘good news’ stories in the immediate future.

The panel, assembled by leading public relations technology company Telum, included ABC News Director Gaven Morris, Nine Melbourne Director of News Hugh Nailon and Australian Community Media Head of Audience Gayle Tomlinson.

In detailing the ways COVID-19 and the associated lockdown and social distancing measures had changed the nature of news gathering, all three noted there was a realisation among media outlets that traditional methods of reporting were ripe for lasting change.

In short, the pandemic had resulted in outlets – particularly those relying heavily on video – reimagining the role “remote” interviews might play in their production processes.

“We understood immediately the most critical thing was to protect the newsroom from infection, because we were telling a critical story [about COVID-19] and we didn’t want to get an infection here and have to close the newsroom,” Nailon recounted.

“We ran red and blue teams across four days on, four days off rosters, which was really challenging – but the teams embraced it and we got through and produced quality bulletins throughout.

“We probably got over some of our snobbery about the perfect image and the perfect interview…and I think we fundamentally understand that we can communicate like this [through video conference interviews].

“It might not be picture-perfect but the reality is you can deliver the story, and at the end of the day the story is key. We’ve become a lot less judgmental.”

Morris predicted the nature of reporting had fundamentally changed, which would increase the breadth of stories newsrooms were able to cover.

“The way we work in the field I think will change forever,” Morris explained.

“It wasn’t that long ago, in my days as a reporter being on the road, that big satellite dishes and enormous broadcast infrastructure were required to go out and tell stories. That quite often limited how far you went and, and how adventurous you were in tackling those stories.

“There is [now] the ability to be out there with much more agile technology and kit, and to be really able to see and hear things at their source in a way we just might not have been able to do [previously].

“I don’t think that will go away. The public are a lot more accustomed to having us closer to the story [now] and they are going to continue to want to see that.”

Good news ahead

One of the more interesting points of discussion was how the narratives of COVID-19 might alter the mix of stories audiences consume.

Each panel member agreed that, having seen the way all sides of politics had collaborated during the pandemic, the days of political, tit-for-tat point-scoring might be numbered.

“There’s a real appetite from the audience and a want for that good news story,” Nailon reflected.

“[Recently] we saw the story of the year in the finding of young Will [missing teenager William Callaghan] up on Mount Disappointment.

“In answer to the question about what you would notice a little bit different about our news [in the future] as opposed to maybe two or three years ago, probably a little less crime and a little bit more room in there for good news.

“If that sounds a bit optimistic then I’ll take that.”

Other key topics covered in the engaging one-hour session included:

  • The importance of businesses having key spokespeople available to media, especially around significant issues like COVID-19 (Tomlinson said she was “surprised” at how difficult it was to get answers from many large organisations).
  • The realisation news organisations needed to be able to share resources and pool together more often in the future (Nailon said the days of channels 7 and Nine having duelling helicopters were definitely a thing of the past)
  • An ongoing focus on decentralisation and remote workstations for newsrooms (Nailon predicted this would allow outlets to create easy-to-manage and inexpensive quasi-bureaus in regional areas)
  • The continued multi-skilling of journalists to create content that fitted multiple platforms (Morris noted “having one great skill” was no longer enough)
  • An appetite for “explainer” journalism which broke down key issues into easy-to-digest packages (which Nailon described as a key plank of Nine’s COVID coverage)
  • The rescuing of AAP from imminent closure (Morris described it as being “pivotal” to the overall news ecosystem)
  • The future flavour of journalism (Morris voiced a hope that an abundance of “piffle and waffle and opinions” would now be replaced with “facts and context.”)
The way of the future?

While funding models and, by connection, staffing levels remain a subject of uncertainty for most newsrooms, Tomlinson said the answer to one vexing industry question had become clearer during the pandemic.

For many years, audiences have increasingly made the transition to digital platforms without being followed by the advertising revenue associated with more traditional mediums.

But Tomlinson said audience behaviour during COVID-19 had made her increasingly optimistic consumers were now prepared to pay for quality content and that subscription models could sustain newsrooms.

“I’ve never heard our audiences sound so grateful for the work that we’re doing,” she said.

“There’s a huge opportunity for us to capitalise on that. I think COVID has accelerated certain types of behaviour and one of them is the propensity to pay for news.

“Our subscriptions have never been stronger.

“When you write great content, people absolutely want to show you they value that by putting money there.”

Simon White is Cannings Purple’s Content Editor and manages The 268, our content and news hub, which was a finalist in the Branded Journalism category of the 2019 Asia Pacific SABRE Awards and a winner at the 2020 IABC Gold Quill Awards. He is a former editor of both thewest.com.au and WAtoday. Email Simon.

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