Critics and supporters alike of departing ABC news director Gaven Morris would say he brought the Silicon Valley “move fast and break things” mantra to the public broadcaster’s news division.
While he’s been director, the ABC has come to dominate news, building large online audiences among so-called digital natives coming through Facebook, Google and Apple News who, he’s said, “never use the ABC for anything else”.
But it’s had to get there while sustaining the support of its loyal but aging audience for its linear broadcasters, many made unhappy by change.
Morris has had 11 years in his latest stint at the ABC of attempting to square that particular circle. In 2010, he came back from Al Jazeera to launch the 24-hour television news channel, which drove cultural, personnel (and industrial) change in the newsroom.
In 2015, he was appointed as director news, analysis and investigations, despite internal grumbling that the job should have gone to someone considered more a “journalist’s journalist”. As a compromise, Craig McMurtrie was appointed deputy director and executive editor.
The ABC’s dominance is partly due to its own initiatives and partly due to the financial decline of commercial news media. While commercial mass media look at the internet and related social media platforms and see threats, the publicly-funded ABC need see only opportunities.
News Corp and Nine need to make money off the platforms by pulling users into their core site where they can be sold subscriptions. As a free service, the ABC can use the platforms to push news content out to new audiences.
News Corp hasn’t been happy and has been eager to let people know. The Australian made Morris’ departure all about them: “Rolling, internal battles with senior journalists, who at times acted like a law unto themselves, placed a huge strain on the 49-year-old, who was also under immense pressure from the ABC hierarchy to rein in the seemingly unregulated use of social media by some of the public broadcaster’s highest-profile reporters.”
In an interview with ABC Melbourne’s Rafael Epstein yesterday, Morris took the high moral (and ratings) ground: “One of the things that I encourage our people to do constantly is not to look at small/medium mouthpieces that have an agenda and look at the impact that we have with our audiences.” Ouch!
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The focus on platforms and programs opening and closing misses the big change under Morris: stories are now shaped from the beginning with an understanding of how different audiences will come to it. It’s the practical application of what former ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie called the “equal digital life”.
In a 2019 interview, Morris said: “When Four Corners does a good story, then it should have a life for all platforms. We should be able to take that story and make it just as compelling on a different platform for under 40s.
“We didn’t need to change our editorial values for younger audiences, we just needed to find where younger audiences wanted to consume it — this is the big lesson of the digital age.”
Supporters point to the success of the fast-moving innovation online which saw the ABC break through to be the leading source of digital news since the summer of bushfires in late 2019 or the 24-hour news service with a younger, more diverse journalistic cadre, which became must-watch television in lockdown for the rolling COVID press conferences. (ABC managing director David Anderson pointed to these wins in announcing Morris’ departure yesterday).
Critics point to the breaks: the closure of what once were destination programming like the 7.45am radio news bulletin, the purge of long-serving senior journalists in the 2020 round of job cuts (some allegedly under political pressure) or the struggling Thursday night reboot of Q+A.
And there’s areas where the jury is still out, like the recent “true crime” investigations look into the 1970s with the Luna Park fire or the Juanita Nielsen disappearance.
Whoever replaces him (the internal tips are McMurtrie or investigations head John Lyons), there’ll be more change to come. Morris says: “When you move from a clock-driven organisation to one that’s on-demand, it changes fundamentally how you put a newsroom together. A lot of broadcasters haven’t grasped that yet.”