EW Scripps CEO: Storytellers are journalism’s future
I spoke late last week with the chief executive of EW Scripps Co, the company that got its share of hisses and boos for shutting down the Rocky Mountain News this past February.
Rich Boehne, a journalist back in the day, is in charge of navigating a chain publisher of U.S. newspapers through the most difficult time that it ever has had, not to mention all the employees of the papers that the company owns. And let’s not forget the local television stations that Scripps also operates.
Boehne and I talked about the future of newspapers for a story that I was working on about the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s 2009 report on the state of the news media. I included some of his remarks in a story that I wrote about ideas that the report had for saving newspapers, but our conversation ranged beyond the story at hand.
Here are some thoughts that Boehne shared with me. I prefaced a few of them with paraphrases of my own questions to save you the trouble of reading the whole transcript.
Here is Boehne speaking about how newspapers will persevere despite a decline in advertising revenue that is making some of them less viable than they ever have been before.
We really tend not to look so much at just newspapers. We tend to look at local media and what’s the opportunity for local media. In most markets there are hundreds of millions of dollars of local available ad dollars, and just because you have models today that don’t necessarily work in that environment doesn’t mean there won’t be very profitable robust local media models in the future… I guess we’re maybe a little more fundamentalist in our approach. We try to spend no time looking in the rear-view mirror.
He elucidated on the tide of bad-news stories about newspapers going bankrupt, newspapers threatening to close, newspapers actually closing and what newspapers will do as ad revenue disappears.
What I just struggle with every day is reading all the stories about the newspaper industry, and what is just so perplexing is that we feel like we’re asking the wrong questions. The right question is what business models will support local journalism.
Boehne on the idea that daily newspapers could cut back on having a print edition every day of the week. This could save publishers money by letting them stop printing papers on days where there are too few advertisements to support the cost of printing the paper. Monday is that kind of day for many papers.
Is that in any way trashing our mission?… I grew up as a reporter. Much of the business was built on utility. Seven-day a week classifieds, sports scores, stocks, school lunch menus… Most of that was not journalism. It’s stenography, a service. What’s the business once you decouple the utility and the service and say, ‘How do you build a business around the journalism?
If newspapers regain their footing, can they still provide local journalism that people will want to read, even if the ad model disappears?
I think you’ll have editorial departments that are even as large as you have today — professional, talented and very well compensated, and you’ll have an ad sales staff that will have the same thing… We’ve been here 130 years, and intend to be an industry leader for another 130 years… Any way this goes, however this plays out, you have to bring resources to product. You’re now in a highly competitive market. There’s no certain audience every morning. We have to not rely on the utility concept, box sports scores [and such] that do much better on the Web. The future belongs to the storytellers.