The ABC Plays Monopoly
By Bernard LaganOctober 24, 2012
The federal government has granted $10 million to ramp up the ABC's news division across radio, TV and digital. Here's how Aunty is poised to dominate Australian media with one hugely ambitious online market grab.
With Australia’s high-brow newspaper publisher, Fairfax Media, heading for its knees, commercial broadcaster Network Ten about to shed one third of its journalists and the Nine Network now in the hands of unforgiving US hedge funds, who is going to emerge as the titan of influence and reach in the Australian media?
The likely answer is your ABC.
There is a news revolution going on within Australia’s publicly funded national broadcaster, likely to reveal itself early next year when the ABC re-launches its unloved digital news arm, seeking the online audience share ABC bosses believe it should command.
The organisation has rich resources; some 1,000 people work directly for the ABC’s television, radio and online news — about 20 per cent of the corporation’s employees. And many more will soon be contributing to the ABC’s online news sites, under the corporation’s plan to follow the BBC, CNN and to some extent America’s public radio network NPR and have its journalists working across multiple platforms.
Not only do the changes herald renewed efforts by the ABC to garner mass audiences for its online news sites — and they come at the worst possible time for Fairfax Media, publishers of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age broadsheet newspapers. Crushed by a plummeting share price — Fairfax’s worth has dived from $4.5 billion to $900 million in three years — flagging newspaper circulations, tumbling advertising and the flight of many of its best journalists, Fairfax has banked its future on a move to digital publishing and the media group intends to erect paywalls for much of its content next year.
But now the online news competition for Fairfax — and for News Ltd’s The Australian, which moved to a pay-for-access system in October 2011 — will be increasingly from the ABC, as it puts more resources into online news and produces a re-designed more user-friendly website.
Unhappily for Fairfax and News Ltd, all of the ABC’s expanded content will continue to be free.
Currently, according to Alexa global web traffic ratings, both News Ltd and The Sydney Morning Herald sites have many more users than the ABC; News.com.au is 10th on the ratings table — the highest ranked news site in Australia — and smh.com.au is ranked 14th. ABC.net.au sits at 24th, followed by theage.com.au at 26th.
While the ABC is coy about its ambitions on the ratings tables, its newly appointed head of news content, Gaven Morris, the creator of the ABC’s highly successful around-the-clock TV news channel ABC News 24, wants a visit to ABC online to become a daily habit for news followers.
“There is a real opportunity for us [online ABC news] to be much more of a habit for people than we have been,” says Morris in an interview with The Global Mail.
Says Kate Torney, the ABC’s director of news: “The ABC has always evolved to meet audience needs, whether it be through the introduction of television or more recently with online. I see enormous opportunities to improve the ABC’s digital news service and to make sure audiences can access their news on devices of their choice.”
The ABC is in the midst of gathering market research about what users think of its news sites and what changes would make the sites more appealing to them. But Morris has already acknowledged the need for change: “The feedback on our site is that it’s hard to use, that it’s hard to find your way around, that ‘We know the ABC has got a lot of good content but sometimes it just feels like we can’t find it.’ So we could clean that up, we could make the experience much more user-friendly, much more intuitive,” says Morris.
Aside from the redesign of the ABC’s online news sites, they will also provide more content, and it will be more varied and more rapidly produced.
According to a document distributed to senior ABC staff last month — and passed to The Global Mail — the ABC plans to increase the number of reporters working on stories of national impact, that can be run in all states on radio, television and especially online.
The ABC will establish what the document refers to as a central production desk, staffed around the clock. It will package national and international stories from both the ABC’s staff and external news agencies for television and radio, and produce text-based stories for the ABC’s online news sites, as well as for social-media sites.
The document emphasises that the ABC management wants to break down the old barriers inside the organisation that have previously quarantined news staff according to what platforms they’re working on, be it television, radio or online. Instead ABC news staff will be required to move to what the document describes as a story-centric, rather than platform-based, way of working.
“ABC News needs to eliminate unnecessary duplication in news gathering, to free up resources to focus on original journalism,” says the document.
So has the ABC calculated that early next year — when users can expect the arrival of the Fairfax paywalls — offers the best moment for the public broadcaster to capture the online audience and lure it away from Fairfax online?
Morris concedes that the ABC’s intentions for a larger online news audience are helped by Fairfax’s paywall plans: “Well, I think absolutely. People will be in the online and digital market place and they are always going to be reluctant to pay for that because up until now all of the news organisations in this business have chosen to give their content away free.
“It’s a big change to then say to the audience, ‘Okay… for the whole of the first 20 years of the internet and the online experience, we gave it away free and now we are going to start charging for it.’ For some people, that is going to be hard to get their heads around.”
So the moment is opportune, but Morris points out that it’s Fairfax and News Ltd which are changing the online landscape by erecting paywalls — not the ABC.
“If we provide a good, compelling news service, will more people come to us? Hopefully. But that’s a decision that commercial companies are making because they are now trying to monetise a part of their business that they didn’t before,” Morris says. “So we are not changing our behaviour in that sense; we are simply trying to provide a universal service under the charter that we’ve got for taxpayers to pay us.”
While Fairfax, thus far, has been relatively subdued in its response to the ABC’s expansion into further online territory, News Ltd’s Australian CEO Kim Williams — once an ABC executive himself — has not held back. In June, when asked on Sky News (part owned by News Ltd) if the ABC’s online expansion plans troubled him, Williams ripped into his old employer.
He said: “Look, it’s a complex question and it’s something that I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say troubles me. The ABC is obviously a large employer of journalists and produces a lot of journalism; [and] breaks remarkably few stories relative to the amount of money that’s invested in it — if I am truthful and accurate and objective in assessing it, which I think is something the ABC is often not good at. The ABC has a remarkable appetite for self-congratulation in the most extravagant away. I’m troubled by the fact that in many of its online offerings the ABC competes without having any of the accountability that its commercial counterparts do have and that’s clearly awkward in an environment where many costs are pressured and where many employment pressures arise from that. At times I think the ABC is misplaced and misconceived in a lot of what it does.”
This was not a new theme for a Murdoch man. Rupert Murdoch’s son James, also a high-ranked News Corp executive, launched a blistering attack on the BBC’s foray into free, online news when he delivered the 2009 McTaggart lecture.
James Murdoch said that the scale and scope of the BBC — Britain’s publicly funded broadcaster — had reached a chilling level, and the young Murdoch singled out the growth of the BBC’s free online news sites.
“Dumping free, state-sponsored news on the market makes it incredibly difficult for journalism to flourish on the Internet. Yet it is essential for the future of independent digital journalism that a fair price be charged for news to people who value it. We seem to have decided as a society to let independence and plurality wither. To let the BBC throttle the news market and then get bigger to compensate.”
Morris, however, doesn’t necessarily see the ABC’s expanded and richer online news content as being in competition with that offered by News Ltd and Fairfax.
Says Morris: “What we shouldn’t be side-tracked on is trying to compete with newspaper publishers in writing text copy, because that is what they are great at and always will be good at. The service that we can provide is, I think, a slightly different one to that… What I am saying is that I think the multimedia stuff is where we can be stronger and can provide a better service and so match that with a good, agile news service, but let’s not get hung up in trying to be an online newspaper.”
It can be argued that the ABC’s online expansion makes sense in the context of the changed habits of Australians. According to the ABC’s internal documents, some 23 per cent of Australians now cite online as their main source of news, and 88 per cent of all Australian internet users access news online. More than half (fifty two per cent) of Australian smart phone users regularly use their phone to stay informed of news updates.
And Australians — like many other nationalities — are increasingly less reliant on regular scheduled news bulletins and are instead dipping in and out of web sites, smart phone and tablet platforms throughout the day for news updates. Consequently, network television news audiences have turned downward overall and, unsurprisingly, 60 per cent of viewers say — according to ABC documents — that most of what they hear and see on the nightly television news is no longer news to them.
Thus, the ABC is merely following its audience online. And though the ABC Charter concerns itself with content on the airwaves and not digital media — it was last updated in 1982 — the ABC maintains that its overriding obligation is to provide news, information and entertainment to all Australians.
ABC executives say the broadcaster’s experience with the two-year-old rolling news channel ABC24 has exposed to it a much pacier news culture – ideal for online. The digital television channel changed the ABC's slow-moving schedule with an energy they now aim to translate to online.
Forgotten, perhaps, is that the ABC launched its first website 17 years ago; that the ABC has an online offering is not news. But its rapid expansion — and the prospect that the national broadcaster might dominate the online news space with free online content—will be treated as old news by Australia’s commercial media, which is struggling to garner a paying online news audience.