MEET THE NEW SCRIPPS
The Cincinnati-based media giant has embraced the news industry’s new-age digital revolution by investing in old-school journalism. Will it work?
By Jim DeBrosse – May 29, 2018
Mid-interview on the 28th floor of Scripps Center at Third and Walnut streets, Adam Symson, the new chief executive of the E.W. Scripps Company’s roughly $950-million television and digital journalism empire, jumps up from his conference room chair and races into his adjoining office. Rifling through file cabinets below a 6-foot framed enshrinement of the First Amendment, Symson is searching for his clip file from his days as editor of the Birmingham Courier, the flagship newspaper of Birmingham High School in the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles, where he grew up.
“Don’t laugh!” he calls out from his office with mock umbrage. “Don’t we all keep our clips? I’m going to find—oh, here we go! Because maybe I have just a little bit of sensitivity.”
He returns with a stack of yellowed newspapers and starts ratcheting through front pages, boisterously touting the paper’s coverage. “We had a student killed! We had gang-related violence on campus! District cutbacks! Fires set on campus! HIV rumors! Of course, this was the 1990s. And look! ‘Horseplay destroys boys’ bathroom.’ I mean, come on!”
Symson’s faux tirade is in response to a seemingly innocent question: Isn’t it true that he’s one of just a few Scripps chief executives in its 140-year history not to have a background in newspapering? Pointing to the copies scattered on the conference table, he says more genuinely, “This is one of the reasons I ended up in journalism. This and working at a radio station when I was in high school. From laying out [the paper] on PageMaker to driving it to the printer on a Sunday. Come on. This was a commitment.” He carefully restacks the papers. “That’s why I still carry them around, for situations like this. And because my wife doesn’t want them in the basement.”
Fair enough. Even as Scripps tackles a brave new digital world, its young CEO still has a soft spot for what many would dismiss as old-fashioned newspaper journalism. For the executives and board members who anointed the 43-year-old Montgomery resident as chief executive in August 2017, it hardly matters. They chose Symson—who came to them with experience as an investigative TV reporter in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Phoenix before eventually heading up Scripps’s digital operations—because he has the résumé, smarts, and dedication to journalism that will empower him to lead the company through the frenetic world of digital news. Because for Scripps, print is already a thing of the past, with the last of its once-formidable chain of newspapers spun off in 2015 to a new public company, Journal Media Group.
And perhaps not a moment too soon. Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper publisher (including The Cincinnati Enquirer), gobbled up Journal Media Group in 2016, but posted disappointing losses in both revenues and circulation by the end of 2017. Despite increases in web traffic, newspaper finances have been in a death spiral since the early 2000s as more and more Americans consume news online and for free. We know the tale all too well by now: Newspaper ad revenues in 2016 ($18 billion) fell to little more than a third of what they were 10 years before ($49 billion). Staffing has dropped almost 60 percent since 1990, with the steepest declines occurring after the 2008 recession. At its peak in the early 1990s, The Enquirer had a full-time editorial staff of 212, according to former editor George Blake. Today, although Executive Editor Beryl Love won’t release exact staffing numbers, the newsroom’s website lists 79 positions.
“It’s unbelievable,” says Rich Boehne, the Scripps board chairman (and Symson’s predecessor) who came up through the ranks of the now-defunct Cincinnati Post before moving to Scripps’s headquarters in 1988. “You think about all the public records that are not being discerned, all the stuff going on that nobody is paying attention to.” (Full disclosure: I previously worked at both The Post and The Enquirer and now teach journalism at Miami University.)
“It is this company’s commitment to journalism that makes me want to come to work every day.” -Adam Symson, Scripps CEO
The myriad challenges are all too familiar to those in the industry. There’s the loss of classified advertising, once the meat, potatoes, and gravy of newspaper profits, to free online services. The failure of online advertising to generate even a fraction of the old revenues from print ads. The shift in advertising dollars from news media to social media, where brands can now cultivate a direct relationship with consumers. And, of course, younger news consumers who never developed the habit of relaxing with a cup of coffee over the pages of the morning paper. And what of the industry’s own role in its demise? Suffice it to say that newspapers did not make the smoothest of transitions into the internet’s digital landscape, all while monopolies—like the ones that floated most papers for the last half of the 20th century—lulled their owners into complacency.
Still, Symson calls today “the Golden Age of the news consumer.” The industry is more wide open and democratic than ever—no need for million-dollar presses to reach an audience when you have a Twitter account. But the field is also more competitive, fragmented, and unpredictable than ever. “You never have it all figured out,” says Chip Mahaney, news director at WCPO, Scripps’s hometown TV station in Cincinnati. “You can’t assume the agenda you dreamed up two years ago is still good to go today.”
The Scripps Company prides itself on a long history of innovation stretching back to the founder himself, Edward Willis “E.W.” Scripps. Iconoclastic, socially responsible, and cheap to a fault, E.W. is credited with laying the groundwork for the modern newspaper as a business, introducing “long-range planning, performance goals, budgets, circulation methods, revenue sources, and a broad range of other business concerns,” as author Gerald J. Baldasty wrote in E.W. Scripps and the Business of Newspapers.
More ingenious is the way in which Scripps carved out his own niche in the newspaper industry in the late 1800s against bigger rivals like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Tired of living in the shadow of his siblings, who owned an evening paper in Detroit, he borrowed $6,000 from them to launch The Penny Press in Cleveland in 1878. From there, he expanded into Cincinnati in the 1880s, starting what would become two of his most profitable papers, The Cincinnati Post and The Kentucky Post. Using his Ohio holdings as cash cows, Scripps expanded his empire across the country with a unique market strategy: targeting the country’s neglected working-class readers with cheap afternoon newspapers devoted to the cause of labor reform.
Scripps kept his papers small and readable, paid his younger staffs less than the other chains, and cut his costs to the bone. This made his product affordable to the widest possible audience while allowing him to eschew the ad revenue he felt gave advertisers too much control over news and editorial content. With this bizarre amalgam of crusading journalism and penny-pinching control, his empire grew to 47 papers in 18 states, including his own wire and syndication services, throughout the first half of the 1900s. (The company even had a controlling interest in The Enquirer for a stretch.)
Like most newspaper chains, Scripps was quick to diversify when radio and television came on the media scene as well, launching its first radio station in 1935 with Cincinnati’s WCPO and its TV debut in Cleveland with WEWS in 1947.
The empire finally succumbed to complacency in the 1960s and 1970s, failing to capitalize on the shift in demand from afternoon and Saturday papers to mornings and Sundays as early-to-rise manufacturing jobs gave way to 9-to-5 office work. In the end, the company fell against the ropes, forming Joint Operating Agreements with competing papers in a number of cities, ceding control of its advertising and circulation departments and guaranteeing its papers’ demise. When the agreements ended in the 2000s, Scripps officially abandoned its afternoon newspapers, including those in Cincinnati and Kentucky.
The company increasingly relied on its lucrative and expanding TV and radio holdings in the 1980s and 1990s. Financial help came, too, when the Scripps family took the company public in 1988 but made sure to retain control of the voting stock with six of 10 positions on the board. The next significant innovative shake-up took hold in the early 1990s thanks to wunderkind Ken Lowe, then head of Scripps’s TV division, who pushed the company to explore the burgeoning world of cable.
“He pitched an idea for a cable network about homes and gardens,” recalls Boehne, who was head of the company’s investor relations at the time. “My first reaction was, ‘I don’t know, Ken, 24 hours of grass growin’ and paint dryin’? I’m not sure that’s going to take television by storm.’ But Ken really was one of those people who sees around corners and could see the niching of cable coming.”
Scripps launched the first of several niche networks in 1994 with Home & Garden Television (HGTV), a move as bold as it was baffling to Wall Street. “The stockholders did not react well,” says Boehne. “Ken still loves to tell the story of how I talked him into making this huge announcement in New York City that Scripps was going to launch Home & Garden Television. I packed the room with Wall Street people, pulled in every favor I had, and it was like a thud. People were going, ‘Oh my God, this is a green hole!’ The stock tanked. The board said, ‘I hope you guys know what you’re doing.’ Oh, it was not pretty for a while.”
But the leadership stuck to its guns—er, rakes—and within 10 years HGTV was a money-making hit, laying the groundwork for the ubiquitous Property Brothers and Fixer Upper-ification of our national housing aesthetic. More niche networks (Food Network, DIY, and Fine Living) followed suit. As a result, Scripps handed over the reins in the new millennium to Boehne as executive vice president and Lowe as CEO.
Within several years, both Lowe and Boehne recognized that their modern success was beginning to threaten the company’s original core mission going back to cranky but beloved E.W. himself: journalism. “We’d gotten to the point where the newspapers and the fast-growing cable networks in the same company were a problem,” says Boehne. “Every dollar we had to invest, we put in the networks because they were roaring and growing. So we were starving the other businesses for capital.”
In 2008, Scripps spun off its gold-plated cash cow as a separate company dubbed Scripps Networks Interactive, based in Knoxville, where its studios were located. Meanwhile, Boehne and company—admirably yet surprisingly—returned their focus to journalism at a time when the news industry was becoming a churning river of rapidly changing technology and ever-expanding consumer choice. The 2008 recession accelerated the decline of newspapers, and the shift to online news was already signaling its challenge to radio, network television, and cable. More concerning was the rate at which millennials—the first generation for whom the internet is as essential to everyday life as indoor plumbing—were turning away from network TV and “cutting the cord” on cable. While television remains the primary source of news for most Americans (50 percent), according to the Pew Research Center, online sources (43 percent) are quickly closing the gap.
Symson has now assumed the mantle of leading Scripps into the brave new media world, capitalizing on the short-term safety of TV news and gambling on the next big things in news consumption: direct delivery of video journalism and audio podcasting to a younger demographic, whose earbuds have become permanent appendages. Symson supported the company’s decision to purchase Newsy, an in-depth video news provider aimed at millennials, in 2014; MidRoll in 2015, a podcasting company that creates dozens of shows and distributes hundreds of others, including the hit true crime show My Favorite Murder and comedian Marc Maron’s WTF; and Stitcher in 2016, a podcast service that reaches 8 million registered users. Newsy is multimedia on steroids—audiences can choose from audio, video, or text summary to get their news, along with links to longer, more in-depth stories. Podcasters, who aren’t regulated by the FCC, are free to use more colorful language while also casually plugging their advertisers. Millennials, who pride themselves on their ability to multitask, are free to download podcasts to their cell phones and listen at their convenience while doing just about anything else.
But Symson insists that local journalism will remain Scripps’s core mission and bread-and-butter revenue for the near future. With 33 local stations in 24 markets and ranking fifth nationally in terms of U.S. TV station household reach, Scripps is looking to acquire more stations, even in those markets where it already has one, thanks to the FCC’s continuing relaxation of TV ownership rules.
Doing good journalism, or just making a genuine effort to do so, is fraught with substantial financial risk. For now, it’s a risk Scripps is willing to take.
That troubles media watchdogs like Craig Aaron of the nonprofit Free Press, who notes that the ever-increasing consolidation of the TV news industry means fewer voices, more corporate influence, and less diversity in the news Americans consume. Sinclair Broadcasting, set to own more than 200 stations in over 100 markets that reach 72 percent of the nation’s viewing audience, has been under fire from media critics for imposing right-wing views from its Baltimore headquarters onto all of its local stations. With industry Goliaths like Sinclair and Nextstar only getting bigger, Aaron says, “Scripps is kind of caught in the middle. Are they shedding newspapers, cable, and radio in order to buy more TV stations, or to be bought?”
Aaron posits that Scripps will have a hard time keeping up with the big boys while also maintaining quality journalism. “Historically, Scripps has had a very strong identity in the communities they serve. How many companies have produced an Al Schottelkotte?” he says. “Maybe they still have that in some flagship cities like Cincinnati. But I see the business model they’re pursuing [of buying multiple stations in the same market] as lending itself to the kind of cookie-cutter content available in too many places. Viewers are better served by a variety of station owners and local news staffs competing for scoops, coming up with new angles, and doing a better job of holding local politicians accountable. That’s good for viewers and ultimately good for democracy.”
Symson, for his part, maintains that Scripps is a “white hat” company when it comes to expanding local TV and digital news. “We want to continue to invest in local journalism,” he says. “That’s been the center of gravity for this company for 140 years, and that’s not going to change. But in order to ensure that we’re going to be able to do that, at the level we think is necessary to serve the local communities, some consolidation would be healthy.”
As proof of its commitment, executives point to things such as the Scripps Howard Foundation, a philanthropic arm of the company that doled out $4.3 million in awards, grants, and scholarships throughout the industry last year. Or there’s Cincinnati’s WCPO.com Insider program, an experiment launched in November 2014 to directly compete with The Enquirer on daily, in-depth local coverage. Scripps added at least 20 digital staffers to the 75 already on the news side at WCPO-TV, wooing some of the city’s best local reporters, including Lucy May and Dan Monk. The site offered the time and resources to do old-fashioned enterprise reporting with a digital spin that melded text, video, and audio. It’s won industry awards for reporting, including the Edward R. Murrow Award for best TV news website in a four-state region, while also garnering attention from national media analysts such as Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab.
Turning a profit on the ambitious news product has been less successful. The program started with an Insider paywall of $79.99 per year for members who wanted in-depth digital content, though there were regular discount deals and price reductions. Scripps executives won’t reveal how many readers were willing to scale the paywall, but in a clear signaling of its lack of resonance, the site dropped the paywall altogether in September of last year. Insider subscribers are now lured with ad-free content and exclusive promotional events and discounts for $19.99 a year.
Scripps has since merged its digital and TV employees into a single entity earlier this year, and WCPO cut seven positions in March. That’s in addition to not replacing those who have left, including manager Dave Peterson, editors Chris Graves and Mike Canan, and reporter Bob Driehaus. (Canan now works from Scripps headquarters helping its TV stations across the country do more in-depth journalism.) The Enquirer’s Beryl Love already talks about the competition specifically from WCPO in the past tense. “All four television stations are competitors,” says Love. “It was always that [WCPO] was putting out more of the types of stories that newspapers traditionally owned.”
The investments and faith Scripps has put into the idea that millennials can still be attracted to quality journalism—as long as it’s served in a more palatable digital format—has its share of doubters among media analysts, including Alan D. Mutter, the former Chicago newspaperman whose popular Newsosaur blog has made him the gadfly of modern corporate media. Mutter isn’t convinced that younger generations will move beyond their current news appetite of merely grazing Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, where the news gets filtered through their like-minded friends or, worse, is part of veiled propaganda efforts. “The millennial experience is about instant gratification,” Mutter says. “It’s about content sampling. It’s about FOMO—fear of missing out.”
The problem as he sees it for Scripps and other news producers is building a brand name that will command some amount of consumer loyalty. “Even the most notable native digital brands—BuzzFeed, Vice, Gawker, Vox—are all struggling with the same problem,” says Mutter, “which is building and maintaining a big enough audience to support the investments being made in content.”
We do well by doing good was the motto of Charles E. Scripps, the grandson of E.W. and board chairman of four decades who died in 2007. Unfortunately, the industry isn’t quite so simple or idyllic anymore. Doing good journalism, or even just making a genuine effort to do so, is fraught with overextended resources and substantial financial risk. But for now, it remains a risk Scripps is willing to take.
“It’s this company’s commitment to journalism that brought me here, that makes me want to come to work every day,” says Symson. “So while it’s certainly true that the industry and our company will change and evolve, our commitment to journalism is unwavering.”
In The Sun Also Rises, the debut novel by Ernest Hemingway—who honed his craft first as a reporter—he writes of a thwarted love between a World War I veteran and an English femme fatale. In the novel’s last lines, she ruefully tells him how wonderful things would have been had it all worked out, to which he replies, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”