Scripps Leaders Put Digital At Center
Editor’s note: In this installment of our series of Digital Deep Dive special reports, NetNewsCheck examines the bold digital experimentation happening within The E.W. Scripps Company. Digital Deep Dive will go in-depth inside the companies defining media’s future and how they are tackling the challenges of digital disruption. Yesterday’s report included Inside Scripps’ WCPO Paywall Gamble and Does Scripps’ WCPO Paywall Measure Up?
CINCINNATI – The E.W. Scripps Company/Journal Communications merger news late last month wasn’t just a broadcast story. Scratch just below the surface and there’s digital in the deal’s DNA.
“I think Scripps’ aggressive digital strategies did factor into the deal,” says Adam Symson, the company’s SVP of digital. “The leadership at Journal recognizes what’s going on in the industry and recognizes we have the scale immediately to be able to fold the Journal properties into our strategies.”
There surfaces a picture of two men determined to confront the digital revolution head on, getting out in front of competitors with aggressive experimentation and investing in new products and distributed risk. Their zeal and urgency for change has pervaded and emboldened Scripps, whose entrepreneurial culture is manifesting on multiple digital fronts. For Boehne and Symson the stakes are high, but so is their potential to have an impact on the entire local media industry.
Boehne: unlikely iconoclast
From his office overlooking The Great American Ballpark in downtown Cincinnati, Boehne seems on the surface to be the least likeliest potential agent of such sweeping change. Like many of Scripps’ executives, he dresses down in jeans, sporting wire-rimmed glasses and a neat moustache and looking more like the weekend farmer that he is than an industry iconoclast.
And yet, revolution is among his favorite subjects. Boehne, who became CEO in 2008, says that things are always changing and that our current digital revolution is the third upheaval he’s seen in his 30 years in the media, the first being the advent of cable and the second cable’s niching.
Boehne started at Scripps covering capital markets for the company as a journalist and was called up to corporate to help the company transition to public. As cable’s potential grew, he says, “I got to sit through the discussion with people laughing and saying cable would never work, it would never penetrate 50% of homes and nobody would ever pay for television.”
After getting a front-row seat to Scripps’ early bets on the nascent cable industry, he then became part of the company’s “rebel camp” when his friend Ken Lowe had the idea to launch HGTV. “I bet my career on my friend’s idea,” he says.
For San Francisco-based media consultant Alan Mutter, this was an important experience for Boehne to have gone through in terms of the company’s path forward. “He took a bet that there was going to be an appetite for content like HGTV, that he could get advertising and get paid for the channel by cable operators,” Mutter says. “They bet on a series of very bold assumptions and turned out to be correct.”
Mutter says Boehne is taking the same principles that manifested with cable and applying them to digital now as consumer patterns shift again.
For his part, Boehne is revved up by the risk. “I really love instability and chaotic environments. There’s a really low return on certainty,” he says, noting that he’s “restless, paranoid and always very enthusiastic about what’s next.”
Separations and consolidations
Local TV executives can’t follow the folly of newspapers that believed big profit margins and market penetration once made them invincible. Local TV may not face the same existential crisis, but it has an opportunity to develop new models while it’s ahead. That is, if it’s not too distracted by all these consolidations.
“[Broadcasters] for the past several years have been so obsessed with consolidation that we have not played a strong role in building and leading the evolution of television like broadcasters have done historically,” Boehne said in an interview before the merger prospect that would make his TV station group the nation’s 11th largest.
As with other recent broadcast consolidations, Wall Street was quick to embrace the Scripps/Journal news. But Boehne says larger strategies need to focus on core questions: What do people watch? How do marketers need to reach them? What does a broadcaster need to invest in that?