“We will rule the Digital Age” is how The Australian blurbs ABC Managing Director Mark Scott’s landmark speech on its print edition front page this morning. Well, er no. That is decidedly not what he said.

Indeed, Scott’s speech was full of admissions of fear and uncertainty. The fear, it should be said, was that the ABC might not manage to innovate fast enough. A healthy fear to have, I would say. Much healthier than the fear of change.

Quite a different approach from that of News Limited, whose local spinner Greg Baxter is quoted in this morning’s Australian story saying, effectively “we said it all first”. Er, well, no you didn’t. Decidedly not. More on this later.

You would think that News Limited would get it right. After all, Rupert’s man in Melbourne, Herald and Weekly Times boss Phil Gardner, was in the audience for Scott’s A.N. Smith speech at Melbourne University last night, as were a cast of other media luminaries, would-be luminaries and once-were luminaries, including (without trying to say who fits under which heading) former Age editor Andrew Jaspan; former Age editor and now University of Melbourne journalism guru Michael Gawenda; Crikey boss Eric Beecher; ABC Board member Steven Skala and of course a heavy ABC executive presence including Melbourne news boss Marco Bass, Director of Editorial Policies Paul Chadwick, and others.

Scott’s speech was a landmark for a number of reasons. My initial thoughts were up on the Content Makers blog last night. The news angle predictably picked up by the newspapers this morning is Scott’s criticism of Rupert Murdoch’s plans to put content behind paywalls. This part of Scott’s speech was a pre-emptive strike in what I have described as the main media battle in the first quarter of this century — between those who want to provide high quality niche content and make us pay for it on the one hand, and public “broadcasters” on the other. (For more on this read this Inside Story piece.)

But there were a number of other significant things about Scott’s speech as well. In my mind, the most striking is that for the first time, a major Australian media leader has embraced a future of news reporting in which the audience and professional content makers will collaborate — a pro-am model in which audience members are encouraged and helped to publish, with the professionals editing, adding, facilitating and curating.

Now, just to demonstrate how different this is from what News Limited has been saying, compare and contrast what News Limited CEO John Hartigan said about audience participation just a short while ago.

Remember? He said of bloggers and free web sites started by “almost anyone”:

“In return for their free content, we pretty much get what we’ve paid for — something of such limited intellectual value as to be barely discernible from massive ignorance. Andrew Keen in his book The Cult of the Amateur cites Hurricane Katrina as an example when: ‘reports from people at the scene helped spread unfounded rumours, inflated body counts and erroneous reports of rapes and gang violence in the New Orleans Superdome — all later debunked by mainstream news media’.

“Citizen journalists, he says, simply don’t have the resources to bring us reliable news. They lack not only expertise and training but access to decision makers and reliable sources. The difference, he says, between professionals and amateurs is that bloggers don’t go to jail for their work – they simply aren’t held accountable like real reporters.

“Like Keating’s famous ‘all tip and no iceberg’, it could be said that the blogosphere is all eyeballs and no insight.”

Which is rather different to what Scott was saying last night.

“Successful organisations will be willing to empower their audiences to contribute, to create and to share media. Will cede power to audiences to gain engagement and respect. They will be willing to let other voices to be heard. They will learn how to protect brand integrity whilst entrusting their brand to others.

“To a degree everyone is doing this, but the greatest success will come when an audience, long treated with an oligipolist’s disdain, is treated with real respect and the contribution is seen as a valued contribution. The simple fact is that young audiences — the future of every media organisation, including the ABC — have the tools and now the experience and the expectation to create and share media.

“They do it with their friends, they want to do it with us. It is how they connect and belong. And the media organisation that doesn’t make audience contribution a central part of their strategy, fades to black.”

Now it is true that some of what News Limited does is different from what it says. Witness The Punch. I also think that some of Scott’s rhetoric about the paywall debate is overblown. If you read carefully he clearly says that paywalls will work for some things. I suspect Murdoch would agree. The remaining questions are how, for what, and how much.

A central question in the United Kingdom and Australia is the degree of difference the presence of a strong tradition of public broadcasting will have. This is one of the ways in which our media futures will differ from that of the USA.

In this speech and in others made previously, Scott has established himself as one of the few media executives in Australia who can be said to also be a leader in thinking about the future.

It is true that John Hartigan is the other person who may lay some claim to this. He says many good things about where the media is going, and where it should be going, mixed with more stock-standard imperial arrogance and defensiveness. In the age of declining empires, a News Limited executive is never going to make quite the same claim that can be comfortably made by a public broadcaster: that the power of the emperor has gone, that the clothes are no longer there, and that the power has shifted to the audience.

One other significant thing. Scott said towards the end of his speech that the ABC, now 77 years old, will make 100. I think it is interesting that he made no predictions past the next 23 years.

In the battle between paid content and public “broadcasting”, the commercial operators argue that the ABC and its fellows were created at a time of media scarcity to fulfill a public need. Now that justification has disappeared, they say, because we are in an age of media plenty. Taxpayers should not have to pay for content that could be made available by commercial operators.

It is a powerful point. Advocates of public broadcasting will have to develop good answers. Here is one of mine.

While in one sense we are in an age of media plenty, in another sense we are facing a crisis in media. Business models are collapsing, areas of market failure are emerging and likely to increase. What is needed is deep experimentation and innovation, but this is hard to do in an age when the emperors have died or left, and media companies are owned by institutional investors with legal obligations to care only for quarterly results and the bottom line. The pressures to mine the existing assets, rather than take big risks, are almost irresistible.

One of the main justifications for having the ABC at this time in history is that it can innovate and experiment at a depth that is difficult if not impossible for stressed commercial organisations.

Public “broadcasters” can embrace audience fragmentation, in the way commercial media cannot. It can cover the areas of market failure, and play a role in bridging the past, present and future.

In a funny way, this is a justification for public broadcasting the equivalent of the one that existed at the time of the ABC’s creation, when taxpayer funded content was seen as essential for nation building and democratic health.

This is true now, and will probably be true for, er, say the next 23 years. But I think it is also clear that after that time, new business models will have emerged, new ways of doing things will have become better established. We will no longer be in crisis.

At that stage it may well be that the public “broadcasters” will have to find a new justification if they are to continue to exist. Perhaps Mark Scott agrees. Perhaps that is why he made only the modest claim that the ABC will still be with us in 23 years.

Not “we will rule the digital age” at all. Not at all.

Sadly, empires tend to see the world in their own image. They are interested in ownership and control. Public “broadcasters”, at their best, think in terms of citizens and community.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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