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April 29, 2017

Up from Skunkworks: Scripps+ Look Inward -- and Outward -- for Growth

For newspaper companies, it’s time to re-start the engines. One big question is how. One somewhat new answer is coming, in differing flavors, from companies like Scripps, Journal Register and Hearst. Each is newly trying to involve its staffs in charting new directions for the news companies.

Mizell Stewart, editor of Scripps’ Evansville Courier & Press, puts forth the commonsense proposition: “We must get back on a path to growth.” That’s a simple statement, but one that is energizing a maturing acceptance of newspaper companies’ status. They are greatly downsized companies, and some are saying goodbye to the illusion, long held, that they could return at some point to the days of year 2000 revenues and newsroom staffing levels. They are companies that are, for the most part, running behind last year’s horrific revenues numbers, by single digits. They are companies that are budgeting 2011 flat more or less, a proxy for saying, “we really don’t know how things are going to go.”  It all reminds me of the title of folkie Richard Farina’s book, “Been Down So Long, It Looks Like Up to Me.”

Scripps’ effort, being formally announced tomorrow, is the most ambitious in scope. In short, here are the highlights:

  • Scripps’ newspaper division, made up of 13 newspaper markets (from Abilene to Ventura, Memphis to Naples), has put its next-generation development in high gear. In a series of “confabs,’ the company is bringing together 40 top editors and top online directors to chart new futures, to find growth. There are lots of moving pieces here, and they are hard for someone outside to connect. There’s Scripps 3.0, an effort that “reorganizes the newspaper division vertically by function and centralizes many functions that are not market-specific. Scripps 3.0 increases the emphasis of local management on market-leading news content”. There’s the “Future of News” project, a journalistic exploration of what’s changing in the news marketplace. And there are 19 separate workgroups, each headed by two or three of those 40 top editors and online directors. They are tackling everything from SEO and tablets to metrics and training. Those 40 people will be making interim reports at the next confab in November.
  • Scripps is injecting a class of new talent into the organization, an injection that serves two purposes. First, the 40 change-makers are supposed to be getting release time, about 40% of their time to pursue next-gen solutions. Perhaps, as importantly, Scripps is importing 40 new paid interns, all full-time, for six-month periods, beginning this fall. The notion: top editors and others spend a lot of time away from the day-to-day, their seconds and thirds in command move up temporarily and the interns fill in resulting holes in the newsroom. Already, according to Stewart, who was out recruiting at Ohio University yesterday when we talked, 98 applicants have filed paperwork, a group of newly graduated students, those “between jobs” and others hoping a six-month Scripps stint might lead to further employment. For his paper, Stewart is hiring three positions, a multimedia journalist, a copyeditor/web producer and a  web producer. “We’ve got to get back into the business of sourcing talent,” he says.

“We’ve asked for years to have a greater role,” says Silas Lyons, editor of the Redding Searchlight-Record, who is co-leading a digital innovation group. This effort, he says, finally offers that, with the ability of editors and online leaders to work together, across property lines, to reinvent both strategy and basic journalistic process.

Scripps’ efforts can be compared with the Journal Register’s. Since John Paton over the beleaguered, bankrupt stepchild of the daily trade, he’s gone digital-first and largely turned things upside down. Part of the mix is the JRC Idea Lab, in which 15 staffers company-wide are devoting about 10 hours a week for 12 months to suss out the future. They’re working on many of the same notions as the Scripps’ groups. Hearst is pursuing its own Hearst Innovation project.  In its declared goals, though, we see resonance with what both Scripps and Journal Register are doing:  1) channel ideas from staffers for “high-potential” new businesses; 2)  increase collaboration and 3) encourage a “culture of innovation” and creativity. Even the Star Ledger, reeling from its own cuts, is turning to staffers for “marketing ideas”.

It’s easy to be skeptical about such programs. Many with an assortment of names, consultant affiliations and incentives (“stab your buddy in the back for a toaster,” is one of the refrains I recall hearing about ’90s change programs)  have been tried. We all have to acknowledge that most have failed. Call them skunkworks, or by a sweeter-smelling name, and they plain haven’t worked.

This time needs to be different. The industry, and some of its execs, are truly humbled. Chris Doyle, the newly appointed vice president of content for Scripps’ newspaper division, knows his stuff, and the industry’s long-self-inflicted wounds. His boss, Mark Contreras, Scripps’ senior vice-president for news and new chair of the National Association of Newspapers, is trying to make real changes at the industry-wide level as well. Peter Copeland, who heads the Scripps Media Center in Washington, D.C. has taken an old-fashioned wire and aimed it to take advantage of the digital news age. They’re a smart, authentic bunch, and Doyle makes the case that in taking his new job (he was formerly publisher at the Naples Daily News), he pleasantly found lots of people at the top of the newsroom and digital operations who “got it.” This effort, is then, to see what a little empowerment can do.

I like the energy of the Scripps effort and what appears to be happening at Journal Register. Cultural change is a prerequisite for companies truly aiming to make a transition to operations that at least think digital first.

Bringing in a raft of new talent — and hoping to keep some of it after the internships are over — is a good step, almost Patch-like, in harnessing the passion of younger journalists, unhindered by the past, and ready to grab the digital future.

Yet the beginnings of culture change and introduction of new talent isn’t anywhere close to sufficient; they are prerequisite to the change needed.

For all this activity to work, though, requires several things:

  • Out of the booming, buzzing activity at these companies, it’s going to be essential — quickly — to find real projects of significant impact, of measurable weight in turning some corners with readers and advertisers. Other ideas must be jettisoned.
  • It’s about product creation — not the identification of opportunity. For instance, it doesn’t take a group of staffers to determine that creating a tablet product is essential; figuring out how to lead companies and the industry with tablet-loving city guide products is what’s needed.
  • Don’t turn marketing over to news people. They largely don’t understand it, though they can toss in an idea here and there. For decades, newspaper companies have failed to sell who they are and what they do, and there are veteran practitioners and web-savvy newbies who can now help that effort.
  • Involving staffers doesn’t allow news execs to abdicate their own need to lead. Staff involvement is one thing; tough-minded, forward-looking action is another.

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