As this is posted, ABC Managing Director Mark Scott gets to his feet to address the Media 140 conference in Sydney to make three announcements about the future of the ABC in the digital age.

Together, the announcements envision an ABC that is a porous institution; not only making content, but also helping the audience  to make content; not only broadcasting content, but allowing anyone else including, probably, commercial organisations to use some of the content paid for by the taxpayer.

The announcements anticipate an ABC that will be a generator, commissioner, distributor and enabler, rather than a rigid institution based around a static collection of platforms.

But how comfortable will the ABC’s traditional audiences be with the idea of ABC content popping  in dozens of different environments, many of them bizarre and some of them probably commercial?

Scott’s first announcement concerns the ABC Open Project, which will see more than 50 digital media producers stationed in ABC centres with a brief to work with local communities to help them create their own media. This announcement delivers on the rhetoric of Scott’s recent AN Smith lecture, in which he asserted that the ABC was to explore  pro-am collaborations with the audience. Scott describes the Open Project as giving the ABC a role in educating Australians about the use of new media, just as it educated people about radio and television in the early days of those platforms

The second announcement – and the one that seems to me to be potentially controversial – will be the launch of “ABC Widgets” which will allow anyone to run ABC news feeds on  websites  and social networking pages. Scott says:

“By giving individuals the ability to add ABC news stories to their life on the web, we improve the ease with which they can access our content – it’s another example of providing content to audiences in a format they want”

The intention, I gather, is that the news feed will be available to individuals wanting to enrich their Facebook pages and blogs.

But last night Scott seemed unclear on whether commercial media organisations selling ads would also be allowed to use the widgets. Would he be happy, for example, for Crikey to run an ABC news feed and sell ads around it? “I’ll have to think about that,” he said. What about News Limited or Fairfax or Ninemsn?

It is hard to imagine that less than a decade ago, the ABC hoped to make big money from selling its online content to other web providers.

And only a few months ago, controversy raged about whether the ABC should carry advertising on some of its associated sites, and sell content to commercial organisations that wanted to surround it with ads.

Are those controversies over? Are they even relevant any more?

Scott said the content contained in the news feeds would not be complete stories – merely headlines and tasters. The arrangement was quite separate from the existing ABC licensing deals. Guidelines were in place to make sure that the integrity of the content was maintained, and that ABC content was clearly identified. Any grossly inappropriate use of the content would be tracked down and stopped.

As Scott said in his AN Smith lecture, there is a pressing need to experiment and innovate. But it seems to me that the ABC Widgets do raise questions about just how porous the ABC should be.

On the other hand, it could be seen as putting the ABC basic news service on the same footing as the weather bureau, which makes its prediction service available for anyone to use, without charge. Is the ABC news feed such a utility?

Scott’s final announcement will be guidelines for ABC staff using social networking platforms. They are only four of them, and they are very simple.

  • do not mix professional and personal in ways likely to bring the ABC into disrepute,
  • do not undermine your effectiveness at work,
  • do not imply ABC endorsement of personal views and
  • do not disclose confidential information obtained at work.

This at a time when, as I have reported previously, other media organisations are restricting their staff members’ rights to use social media.

More later today in the Crikey email.