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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

media empires in decline « Previous | |Next »
October 15, 2009

In his A.N. Smith Memorial Lecture in Journalism 2009 Mark Scott, the ABC's Managing Director, argues that the media empires of yesterday, which once controlled the world, are now in decline. That is a succinct account of the historical process we are living through. The good times for the old media empires are not coming back. They've gone. I'll refrain from commenting on Scott's dubious Rome analogy.

Scott says (video that though some fundamental weaknesses in the traditional publishing and broadcasting model (print and television) were evident long before the internet revolution, that revolution means that anyone can instantly publish on the web. This, in turn, has shifted power to audiences, the power to choose what they would see and read, from where and when.


Scott understands the significance of the internet revolution. He adds that in the world of fragmenting content and audiences the old media empires are waiting to see what Murdoch does. They:

seem largely out of solutions – and instead challenge reality by seeking to deny a revolution that’s already taken place by attempting to use a power that no longer exists, by trying to impose on the world a law that is impossible to enforce.

In the world of Google, Yahoo and Twitter the old media no longer set the rules. Though locking up content behind a paywall means drying up traffic, clearly the pay model will work for some things. However, Scott's main point is true: the survivors will be those who face up to how the world is, not as they might want it to be.

So where to for the ABC as a public broadcaster during the internet revolution? Scott argues that in contrast to the Murdochs, the ABC's response is more nimble and innovative. It involves:

reengineering our newsrooms to deliver quality news when our audience wants it, not just when we schedule it. Turning our local radio stations into media hubs – full of content generated for broadband, user-generated content, being a community town square...Being audience, not organisationally-centred ... affects the way we organise ourselves, the way we work together and cooperate, the way we partner with others, the way we need to cede some space, some control to our audiences to remain compelling and relevant. If we are to survive as anything more than a shell – a legacy broadcaster, an empire in decline – this is what we must do.

That strategy recognizes that a media organisation that doesn’t make audience contribution a central part of their strategy, fades to black. However, the town hall metaphor was not unpacked by Scott. It still remains a metaphor about a possible future with little content, other than the suggestion about the turn to the hyperlocal.

At this stage the ABC, for its nimbleness in embracing Twitter, will still be the ABC with just a little more commentary and user content generated from the audience. However Margaret Simons on Content Makers says that:

I think the battle between public broadcasters on the one hand, and those who want to make us pay for content will be the key media fight in the early part of this century.. It might be described as the battle between “control” media and “participatory” media. (Thanks to Bronwen Clune for those terms). Scott’s speech should be seen in that context.

The key media fight has been won--witness the free content provided by The Guardian and the New York Times. What we are witnessing is a rearguard action by Murdoch and his allies.

The strongest part of Mark Scott's speech was looking back to the world disappearing into the slipstream of history and the lesson who drew from his fall of empires narrative ---public broadcasters needing to be innovative, respecting their audience and engagment with social media. Apparently this old news was a revelation to the media audience.

The weakest part of Scott's speech was the failure to unpacking what is meant by “participatory” media for a public broadcaster and then connecting this to media policy. What needs to happen in media policy for the ABC and SBS to become innovative in developing the “participatory” media experiment?

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 7:31 AM | | Comments (9)


Murdoch's big problem is that he wants us to pay for his garbage. The trouble here is that he doesn't recognize that it is garbage.

Scott's idea of a public “broadcasters” role is that of being a town square in which citizens can meet and discuss their affairs.

Does the turn to the local and the digital town square mean he use of the cafés "where people in local communities can relax, meet, down some brew, see their local news being produced, mingle with editors, contribute to the copy and even nourish its web presence"?

Or do i send in a news item about a local event via email?

The ABC website town square is experiencing the same sort of problems all big participation sites face sooner or later. The comments at Unleashed has been colonised by a handful of quite strange people. The more useful town square dynamic goes on in the articles themselves.

Scott said they're looking at widgets to enable people to export ABC content with interactive bits to other places, like Facebook, rather than expecting the audience to congregate at the ABC site. That would enable locals to take care of their own town squares and cafes. It's a good idea.

Depending on how it's done, you could have items that become mini-projects, like Wikipedia entries. Then Peter wouldn't email his item to the ABC, but add it to something under construction locally. It would be up to the ABC to harvest from what would virtually be a gazillion local hubs. That's the difference between interactive and participatory.

It's not just pay walls at risk but court injunction walls as well. On Tuesday Time magazine reported how Twitter trends revealed a story that The Guardian newspaper had been injuncted from reporting,,8599,1930011,00.html

Murdoch's problem is that he no longer "owns the world news". So he faces the prospect of a slowly diminishing ability of being able to sell it on to us users unless he can come up with new ways to do it. He and other groups will always own local types of news (local sports, local political stories, weather, dog stories, things that are of no real interest or importance)and will always have some sort of market for it as long as he can package it with other things like pay TV.
The real news is now owned by the internet and its just a couple of clicks away for free. So Murdoch's pay-wall is doomed. The only way for him and others to control the ability to sell news as before is to own IP's or the ability to censor and distribute what passes through them. So on the world stage he simply has been priced out of the market.

I never thought of the ABC's Unleashed as a town square. A national one---similar to the Guardian's Comment is free? Unleashed is buried on the ABC site and the articles are of less interest. I mostly just scan them quickly. It is not the way to go to the town square.

The more localised version you refer would depend upon training young people if the venture is to be a success, since most of the content would need to be generated by communities pro bono. I hear very little from the ABC on this. Scott didn't say very much about the new world we are living apart from continuous news online. Little about how internet television, blogs, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter etc are shaping the future in terms of the challenge of finding the right mix of user-generated and ABC-created content.

Scott has some of the right ideas but he's down a blind alley if he thinks a national public broadcaster has a role to play in local community media. The multiple demands for all kinds of online community interaction will be met by the people concerned. Now that the hardware is essentially free, why would they want some bloody public servant getting involved?

It's very early days for participatory news but I would bet a large amount of money that however it evolves will be determined from the bottom up, not by suits sitting in offices in Gore Hill or wherever the ABC is these days. Scott should concentrate on doing what the ABC can do that nobody else can: gathering news using the skills of professional journalists who understand what 'primary data' means and are willing to do the hard slog to gather and report it without feeling they have to explain all the implications to us with the aid of leaks and gossip and sources-who-spoke-on-condition-of-anonymity.

Richard Freudenstein, the chief executive officer, News Digital Media, part of News Corporation, reponds to Mark Scott by arguing that the ABC product is not free as it has ben paid for by taxation. He adds that it is the ABC that gives people no choice whether to pay or not!

If the ABC develops its regional presence it comes into conflict with regional media that has invested in the regions. Many regions, however, are poorly served by commercial media and regional local stations are broadly defined--in SA, for instance, it is Mt Gambier, Riverland, Eyre Peninsula, Port Pirie etc.

The ABC could host local content or provide links to local websites.