In the media executive-speak of our time, “branding” is what it is meant to be all about. The theory, rarely questioned, goes like this.

We, Big Media Brand A, are known for quality content/journalism. Therefore when people want quality they will come to us. They will know they are getting quality because they are getting it from us.

What is quality? If that question gets asked at all it is usually answered by saying “why, it is what we provide, of course. That is how you know it is quality.”

You can see this kind of circular thinking and this kind of talking in the protestations of our media executives this month as they announce the dismal financial results. Quality will see us through. We can cut and cut without impacting quality. Quality is what we do, and so on and so forth.

The impetus for my rumination on this is the release by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation of new editorial polices that cover User Generated Content. I wrote the news on this for the Crikey email today.

What the ABC is doing here (and I think it is the first Australian media organisation to wrestle with the issue) is trying to chart how one maintains organisational character and credibility while inviting the audience in.

The underlying question is whether the ABC is a media institution, or whether it is more of a space, or a platform, or a network. In his covering letter to staff, ABC Managing Director Mark Scott used the town square metaphor, not for the first time:

New Editorial Policies Section – User-Generated Content (UGC)

These amendments to the Editorial Policies, approved by the Board, are necessary to enable the ABC to continue to develop as a “town square” where debate flourishes and different voices can be heard, and where the creative talents of users – both young and older – can be expressed.

In the changing media environment, the ABC must adapt its own platforms in order to keep them attractive and also put its content on third party sites, such as social networking sites.  Increasingly, this is where audiences congregate.  People have much greater control over what, where, and how they consume content.  So we need to go to where they are and serve them there, as well as attract them to our platforms.

This constitutes a reconsideration of what it means to be a brand, and what it means to be trusted. To quote Jeff Jarvis quoting someone else, there is an inverse relationship between control and trust. Jarvis would have media organisations thinking of themselves as platforms available for use, or as cooperative networks. He would, I think, approve what the ABC is doing.

Media institutions need to have porous membranes. How this can work when the institution is publically funded, and therefore must account for itself constantly, is one of the many things the ABC is in the process of finding out.

Where does the ABC begin, and where does it end?

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