ABC Life on intense scrutiny, making content for younger audiences, and silencing the critics

ABC Life launched in August 2018 to a flurry of discussion and debate about where a lifestyle website aimed at young Australians sat within the scope of the ABC Charter. Nine months on, Hannah Blackiston speaks with editorial lead Scott Spark about what the team has learnt and why he believes their role is so necessary in the media landscape.

Scott Spark was part of the team that pitched ABC Life, a lifestyle platform with a focus on young Australians which would sit inside the wider net of the network’s digital content. The title was launched under former managing director Michelle Guthrie and its announcement drew criticism for what was presumed would be Buzzfeed-style lifestyle listicles. The Daily Telegraph ran the headline ‘ABC Life means ABC death’ and The Guardian reported ‘ABC in turmoil’.

Spark says he wasn’t bothered by this reaction to the introduction of the platform. We’re sitting in a cafeteria inside the ABC building in Sydney’s Ultimo, which is being renovated and currently resembles the boarding gate at an airport. It’s a time before David Anderson has been named as the new MD, although Ita Buttrose has just taken up the mantle as chair. My first question to Spark is about the backlash, trying the trick of getting the negative questions out of the way first, but he’s quick to point out it comes with the territory.

Scott Spark has been with ABC Life since its inception
Image: Juliette Steen

“We want that trust and the ABC needs that trust from consumers, so we have to be open to scrutiny. I’m incredibly receptive to that feedback, because ultimately we exist for the public and if you’re going to work at the ABC you have to remember it’s a public service. And I love that. I’m very happy to have a conversation with anyone around any scrutiny of anything I’m doing,” says Spark.

If the ABC isn’t being questioned about the products it launches or the avenues it explores then something is wrong in the ecosystem, he says. The ABC shouldn’t be allowed to continue rolling along doing whatever it likes. And anyway, it can’t. There is the Charter it has to follow; checks and balances are in place to ensure the network is serving the Australian public in the way it has promised, he says.

“At the end of the day, being accountable and being open to scrutiny and people being able to ask these questions only strengthens the trust that Australia has in us, and I’m really proud of that. And I would say that a lot of the questions and commentary came very early on and once the puzzle was put together things became exceptionally quiet, because there was a big difference between speculation and what was actually going on. Lifestyle is a big category.”

Image: Luke Tribe

A quick click around the ABC Life site will demonstrate what Spark is referring to. While the tabs may be the same as most other lifestyle sites – Food, Money, Travel, Style, Family, Work, Wellbeing, Sex & Relationships, Entertainment, Home & Garden and Video – the content leans away from the traditional youth publisher lifestyle focus. The title for an article about the recent Met Gala reads, ‘The Met Gala is like fashion’s AFL grand final, but is it OK to critique what someone wears?’, while the travel tab offers ‘How to take care of your mental health while travelling’.

“Media outlets go about engaging their audiences in a lot of ways, but we really wanted to look at our audiences and consider their everyday needs. We had some 12-month goals that we hit fairly early on, in our fifth month, so we knew we were on the right track and we just had to stay in touch with our audience’s needs.”

Time was spent reaching out, connecting with the audience, going into their homes and asking them about the things that were important to them. Mental health arose early as a really important issue for the audience, and ABC Life focused a lot of content on addressing that concern. Spark says the way the audience interacts with the platform, their openness in communication, and the willingness they have to say what content does and doesn’t resonate with them, has really helped to shape the product.

Image: Luke Tribe

“Because we’re able to look at these intensely private topics and cover them with respect and integrity, we develop a conversation around that. We take on the feedback and can go back and forth with the audience because it’s their stories. That’s when you start building a relationship. You don’t do it overnight, you build it up over time and we’re investing in that.”

The youth publishing space has been one with many ups and downs in recent months. While Pedestrian and Junkee seem to go from strength to strength – both selling in recent years to other media giants – Buzzfeed and Vice were forced to turn to redundancies recently. Ladbible is only just entering the local market, which will only add to the pressure. Spark says that while the ABC Life team is obviously aware of the space and the challenges and moves inside it, without the same commercial pressures felt by other publishers, ABC Life is very much able to run its own race and be responsive to the content its audiences are requesting.

“Without those pressures, we’re able to take the approach which is most in line with the Charter and our editorial policies. When it comes to the Charter and how it really speaks to Life, there are some key things there that I would draw on. One of them is around reflecting Australia’s cultural diversity, innovating our content and providing independent media services. There’s obviously a lot in the Charter, but for me those are the three that are steadfast and provide the guidelines for what we do and how we do it.”

The content still taps into trends – ABC Life was all over the Marie Kondo craze which saw us all throwing out everything we own – but Spark says they determinedly tackle topics in their own way. Younger audiences are more thoughtful and switched on than many outlets give them credit for, and ABC Life tries to drill into that and fill the gap in the market for meaningful content that addresses the real concerns its audience have, he says.

Image: Luke Tribe

One thing that is clear from ABC Life’s continued existence is that younger audiences aren’t hard to engage – as the regular assumption goes – they’re just more aware. They know when they’re being marketed to, they know when the reasons behind a brand or outlet’s choices aren’t as virtuous as they may seem. They want to be listened to and they can sense when they’re being targeted. ABC Life could have found a niche by building an audience in young people who feel comfortable communicating with the team and feel heard, something which is easier for the platform to do when it doesn’t also need to keep commercial partners happy.

But there’s definitely a lesson to be learnt here for other youth publishers, and for brands in that space. Rather than spending time and money trying to second guess what will get the best reaction and what audiences will connect with, turn to the people who know them best. Themselves. This is where engagement is so important. I’m reminded of a session at Mumbrella’s CommsCon earlier this year in which both Junkee co-founder and publisher Tim Duggan and co-founder of Pedestrian Chris Wirasinha said their best advice for brands looking to communicate with their audiences was to ask the editors how to do that best. Don’t try to guess what young media consumers want, ask the people who spend their entire days talking to them.

As for the future for ABC Life, it’s more of the same: narrowing in on those demands from its readers and answering them with engaging content. Spark highlights the food section and the platform’s work in the personal finance space as current triumphs, as well as the work the platform is doing with video. There’s a big appetite for Australian stories, says Spark, and the team is eager to provide those. Storytelling is something ABC does well, it’s an inherent part of its biggest offerings, and Spark is confident ABC Life can also flourish in that space.

Image: Luke Tribe

“One of the things that’s so core to the ABC, especially in an environment where our media is so globalised and commercial and there can be a bit of crowding out of Australian stories, is how we give a platform to those stories. That’s where our audience really comes front and centre, because we’ll publish something we think is relevant from doing the work to understand the audience and the most insane thing is when you get a response where someone shares their story.”

Spark gives the example of a story the platform published earlier this year about Bobby Hendry who went through 38 homes and 16 foster families before finding a family in her teachers. Hendry reached out to the platform about her story after reading other content written by the team.

“There’s already this basis at the ABC for telling Australian stories and we can showcase them in a way that honours the relationship and it’s such a privilege. These stories are a core part of Life and you’ll find them throughout the site in different sections and they really make a difference, it brings a distinctive voice to what we can offer and it really lives in that lifestyle space.”


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