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6 March 2023

Lessons for TVNZ and RNZ from the architect of the ABC’s digital transformation

Gaven Morris The Fold Podcast

Gaven Morris led the ABC from linear supremacy to a digital powerhouse. He tells Duncan Greive how he did it – and the lessons it contains for our public media in the wake of the abandoned merger.

“I think one of the challenges with what was attempted with the public media project in New Zealand was that I’m not sure that in the beginning, there was enough strategic thought given to what the outcomes are going to be,” says Gaven Morris, joining me on The Fold podcast from his Sydney offices. That’s not a particularly controversial statement, especially now, with the merger of TVNZ and RNZ abandoned. But it’s worth paying close attention to what Morris says, both because of the emphasis on outcomes – what we, the paying public, would actually get – and because of Morris’ history. 

He might be the person in this region most qualified to speak on the challenges and opportunities for public media in the digital era, having led news for state broadcaster the ABC from 2015 until 2022. He joined the organisation in the late 2000s, after having worked at CNN during the period when it really began to pour resource into making into the global powerhouse it is today, then setting up Al Jazeera English during its meteoric rise. When he returned home, the challenge of the ABC, a public broadcasting giant with a huge budget, and equally large public profile, was irresistible.

“I think [the ABC] was at a real crossroads,” Morris says of the organisation when he joined. “It had a very strong heritage in broadcasting in television and radio, but very linear broadcasting, still quite scheduled programming. A demographic that was starting to show its age was starting to dip in numbers.” His ambition was to figure out how the ABC “might start to make a much bigger journey into the digital realm”. 

He launched a 24-hour news channel, which was popular, and also helped teach the organisation about always-on coverage, before beginning work on the big existential job of helping the TV and radio giant understand how to fulfill its mission in the digital world. The process he went through was enormous – the ABC likely employs more journalists than work in New Zealand combined across all media. It also happened at a time of considerable pressure, with a Liberal-led government cutting its budget, cheered on by Rupert Murdoch’s outlets, which fundamentally don’t believe in public media’s right to exist.

New Zealand has a more complex public media landscape than Australia, with the ABC’s role splintered across three different entities, each with quite different functions. TVNZ is publicly owned but fully commercial, with three linear channels, a relatively small digital news operation and a strong streaming platform. RNZ is a radio giant, with a solid but compact digital news product, a growing suite of podcasts and a smattering of slightly incoherent video products. Neither has committed major resource to social or youth brands. Rounding it out is NZ on Air, the funder which pays for public media content to run on a wide variety of channels and platforms.

The government had proposed the biggest public media reforms since the 80s, seeking to slash the budget of NZ on Air and merge TVNZ and RNZ into a new entity called ANZPM, which would patch for the digital holes and serve the many large audiences which consume little to no public media content. The challenge is acute: an NZ on Air survey showing the majority of Gen Z New Zealanders (the most diverse audience in our history) are unaware of consuming any New Zealand content in the previous month. Hence the value in Morris’ lessons – the ABC has come from behind to be Australia’s most popular digital news brand, something neither TVNZ nor RNZ seem to have any real path to achieving.

The merger was abruptly abandoned when Chris Hipkins succeeded Jacinda Ardern as prime minister, and switched from an emphasis on nation building to bread-and-butter hip pocket politics. As an exhausted media sphere stares at a very difficult economic environment and tries to figure out what to do next, I got in touch with Morris, now CEO of consultancy Bastion Transform and one of the most clear and thoughtful people in Australasian media, to talk to him about his career, the transformation of the ABC and the lessons that might hold for our public media.

Duncan Greive: There are clearly conflicting elements with digital transformation in public media. You have to do it, because the whole permission system for public media is that it should be for everybody, because everybody pays for it. But these are also institutions that have been built up over a long period of time, and people are rightly very protective of them. And because change is inherently freighted with risk, people often resist it. How did you resolve those tensions?

Gaven Morris: First of all, I made a great big mistake. When I went into that job, one thing I saw was this incredible change in the habits of the audience. This is not an uncommon story for most traditional media organisations at the time, the audience had gone way ahead of where the organisations were. 

What I did was I went into that job and told everybody at the ABC we needed to be digital first. This was a terrible thing to say. It was a big mistake that I learned quite quickly from talking to longform broadcast proponents, who are very proud of doing journalism in the broadcast medium, that they had to be digital first. It really did set us back in the conversation. And so what I quite quickly got my head around was to say, ‘how do we make this something that they can actually find?’ 

Not so threatening and challenging as this whole burning platform argument, where people fold their arms and sort of put their hands up in denial and say, ‘well, if the platform’s burning, I’ll go down with the ship’. We had to turn it into a much more aspirational and ambitious conversation, where even great linear broadcasters who were great doing longform radio or television could see their future in the context of where we had to move to. So what we tried to do then was run a series of pilots with many of these teams to sort of say, look, give us a small opportunity to try to do something a little bit different here. 

My hunch, and my team’s hunch was, we think we can build a bridge to growing new audiences in different ways. We ran a series of these pilots, we collected the results. And what it showed was, we were starting to reach younger audiences, we were starting to reach native digital audiences, we were becoming fairly dominant on social media platforms. And then we had a really good story to take back to those teams to say, ‘look at how we can make your incredible work relevant to future audiences’. And with that, we were off and racing.

I think even people who are potentially leaning against modernisation will find that a relatively uncontroversial idea. Where it always seems to come unstuck is the practicalities of how that is imposed on an existing system. Notoriously within the TVNZ newsroom, for example, the 6pm news still has an enormous gravity that is quite hard to resist. So pick an example of a property within the ABC, that underwent the process – how did it work practically?  

The most famous, longstanding, reputable programme in terms of television journalism in Australia is Four Corners. It has run for 60 years, it’s been the backbone of great journalism in Australia, it’s created more ministerial resignations, and royal commissions and downfalls of governments than any journalism outlet in the country. Sitting down with that team, who are the best and brightest television documentary makers in Australia, and saying, ‘look, we need to think about how we can reach digital audiences’, I have to say was a little bit challenging. They’re pretty happy with the services they’ve been providing to Australia over 60 years and the service to the community. 

It was that point where I figured telling them they needed to be digital first was really not a great idea. But running one of these pilots with them and saying, ‘look, give us one episode where we can bring the best digital talents that we have’. Rather than producing some digital content or online content at the end of the production process, which is how quite often mainstream media organisations were doing it when we made our film. Now, how do we make an online story out of that? We said let us have access to collaborating with you from the very beginning of the commissioning process for that programme and let the digital expertise sit alongside your journalism and broadcast expertise and see if we can’t build something great out of that. 

What we ended up doing was building a pretty rich and vibrant, longform digital article that was released the same day as the broadcast. And of course, it performed brilliantly – it drew in a different audience, an audience that was never going to watch the programme on a linear television schedule late on a Monday night. So when the team could see the way that that digital story had performed, obviously, they then said, ‘well, we’re going to embrace this’

The issue in New Zealand is that the organisations on some level, feel a bit like they can’t change. RNZ famously tried to move its classical station to become a youth brand, but the outcry stopped it dead in its tracks. There must have been huge blowback internally and externally – how did you hold your nerve through that? 

If you’re an observer of the Australian media context, you’ll understand that nothing gets the scrutiny and the attention in this country than the ABC. Even the smallest change becomes amplified into this incredible series of critiques and commentary. So obviously that then has resonance within the teams and within the staff. A programme might be cancelled because of a digital future that some people haven’t yet been able to see or grasp. It’s an incredibly difficult process to work our way through. 

What we stayed focused on through budget cuts, and a period of internal upheaval in the organisation, was the strategic outcomes. If we could do these things, and do them well, the prize at the end of the strategy was a particular audience profile. We quantify them, we set very firm targets around what we wanted the outcomes to be in audience terms. In a period of three or four years, we were promising to double the digital audience for ABC News [by shifting] about 30% of all the time and effort within ABC News towards digital efforts.

We adjusted it along the way, but we didn’t fundamentally abandon it at the sign of pressure or sign of criticism. By the time I left the ABC, a bit over a year ago, we were the number one digital news provider in Australia, we were the youngest touchpoint for the ABC across all of its channels and outlets. And we had got ourselves to a position where the goals that we’d set at the beginning of that strategy were left in the dust – we were way ahead of all of the things that we’d set out to achieve when we embarked on that strategy.

The story you’re telling is fascinating because of the extent to which it parallels what’s been, at least to me, the consuming saga of recent years – the now-abandoned attempt to merge TVNZ and RNZ into a new entity called ANZPM. What was your perspective on the merger?

I actually think it was a really good idea. If strategically it had very clear goals around outcomes – how to reach bigger and better audiences, how to improve the quality of journalism – if all of that had been really clearly enunciated, then for me, it was a no-brainer. A really great strong public media that sits across all of the platforms and all of the outlets, is an incredible source of good in a society. 

And what you currently have in New Zealand is obviously two very different models, with digital fitting in there somewhere. But it’s not really clear how both RNZ and TVNZ are thinking about where their digital destination is now. They’re working really hard on ensuring that they’ve got great content plans and strategies, but bringing those two things together, having a great outcomes driven strategy around those things, and then and then making sure that you’re consolidating the resources in the back office to make sure that as much of the possible funding is on the digital screens and on the television screens and coming out through the radio – that’s the most important thing, when you’re going to attempt a big project like that. 

Now that it has been abandoned, if you were the minister and looking at the gap between where we are and where we need to be, how would you go about building something out of the ashes of this failed approach?

It’s why I was such an advocate for why it was a good model – because you’ve got the incredible journalism and content integrity of RNZ. It is one of the great broadcasters in the world in terms of the quality of the content it produces, in terms of its adherence to public broadcasting principles and ideals. And for what it’s given, I think it does one of the most incredible jobs in public broadcasting anywhere in the world. You then look at TVNZ, and you’ve got this incredibly successful organisation that creates vibrant programming, reaches a vast audience, has really thought about how to be relevant to the broadest possible cross section of New Zealanders. And then in the middle of it, you’ve got New Zealand on Air with this principle that the distributor of the content doesn’t necessarily have to be the owner of all the resources that go into creating that content. And I think those three things together in an ecosystem, works pretty well. 

But imagine the power of bringing those three things closer together! I think that’s the challenge now for the public media ecosystem in New Zealand – how do you get RNZ and TVNZ to reflect on what each other does well, to potentially partner on some digital content initiatives, or some journalism initiatives that bring those two principles together? How does New Zealand on Air then empower that and bring that to life?

If out of this opportunity, those things don’t happen, then I think you really are in perilous territory. RNZ and TVNZ continue to go down what are still largely platform-based radio and television models, and then you’ve got New Zealand on Air playing a critical role in filling some of those essential gaps. But you would like to think that out of the abandonment of the merger comes greater collaboration, and the ability for each of the players to see the value that they provide in the ecosystem, and then to see how they might collaborate to bring the values together? To achieve something, first and foremost, for the audience. 

Organisationally public broadcasters, we get very set in our ways of thinking. What matters internally to us as an organisation is what drives our decisions and what drives our editorial choices and what drives the way we seek to do our job. Whereas what absolutely has to come first – and this was the piece that perhaps was missing in the public broadcast merger project – was what are we trying to achieve for audiences. Because they’re the ones who are the key stakeholders and the shareholders in this. And if the citizens of New Zealand feel like they’re getting great value, then public media is doing its job.

The original article is featured here.

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