Guthrie’s test: will staff stom­ach her shake-up?


The proof of Michelle Guthrie’s new ABC pud­ding will be in the eat­ing. Her bold new recipe, de­signed to mix up old in­gre­di­ents in search of new flavours for new au­di­ences, is — as Sir Humphrey might have put it — in­ter­est­ing.

But the real test will be whether ABC staff can di­gest the changes. And if they do, whether the changes ac­tu­ally lead to bet­ter, faster, more ac­cu­rate and more rel­e­vant out­comes for au­di­ences.

We will have to wait to see whether or not the changes work. That can only be mea­sured by, first, staff ac­cep­tance and en­thu­si­asm and, later, dis­cernible im­prove­ments in out­put. Only then will we be able to mea­sure Guthrie’s legacy.

The cen­tral con­cept be­hind the changes is to do away with the ABC’s myr­iad si­los — sep­a­rate or­gan­i­sa­tional groups for Ra­dio Na­tional, lo­cal ra­dio, re­gional ra­dio, lo­cal tele­vi­sion, drama, news and cur­rent af­fairs and so on. In their place will be three cre­ative di­vi­sions — news, anal­y­sis and in­ves­ti­ga­tions; en­ter­tain­ment and spe­cial­ist; and re­gional and lo­cal.

At times, the lan­guage used is opaque. Guthrie says the re­sult of her changes will be “ex­tended reach and rel­e­vance, a bet­ter ex­pe­ri­ence for our au­di­ence and an ABC that, in a frag­mented land­scape, pro­vides the crit­i­cal space for de­bate, di­a­logue and ideas”. What au­di­ences can ex­pect is un­clear.

Over the decades, the way that news­rooms work has changed dra­mat­i­cally. The dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion has been sweep­ing and at times cruel and there is no ques­tion all me­dia com­pa­nies need to ad­just to ac­com­mo­date chang­ing cir­cum­stances.

There is noth­ing par­tic­u­larly out­landish or non­sen­si­cal in Guthrie’s plans but their suc­cess will hinge on the man­ner in which they are in­tro­duced. Dic­ta­to­rial or dis­tant bosses will stand less chance than those pre­pared to be hands-on, lead by ex­am­ple, men­tor their peo­ple and ex­hibit a mod­icum of com­pas­sion and un­der­stand­ing.

The Guthrie plan is in­ter­nal and purely op­er­a­tional. It is not de­signed to ad­dress the wider ques­tions fac­ing the ABC — its place in the me­dia mix as a tax­payer-funded mono­lith with no rev­enue pres­sures at a time when the pips are squeak­ing for com­mer­cial me­dia; its readi­ness to spend tax­payer money chas­ing in­ter­net users; and its “com­pet­i­tive neu­tral­ity”, soon to be the sub­ject of a One Na­tion-in­spired govern­ment in­quiry.

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