This fall, political incumbents and challengers won’t be the only ones facing a referendum on their future. Broadcast news organizations will be offering unprecedented levels of election coverage on digital platforms as part of their battle to show that traditional media hasn’t lost touch with the average viewer.
That fight makes Joe Ruffolo’s moves to dramatically expand ABC News’ digital operations particularly noteworthy, both as a tactic for increasing ABC’s overall audience and as a test case in digital news strategies.
“We want to put digital into everything we do,” says ABC News president Ben Sherwood. Sherwood hired Ruffolo as the division’s top digital executive in April 2011, believing Ruffolo’s 15 years of experience in digital media at CNN, AOL and MTV Networks would bring a very different, digital mindset into the organization.
“Given his background, I thought he would be a terrific leader to come into a traditional, old-media organization which had always had a digital operation bolted onto it and be able to work through the barriers and obstacles to integrating a digital operation into a broadcast operation,” Sherwood says.
Since taking charge, Ruffolo has expanded the reach of ABC News’ content by cutting deals with Google’s You- Tube and Yahoo News. YouTube will make ABC News part of its Election Hub Channel and provide a live stream of ABC’s coverage of the presidential and vice presidential debates.
With the Yahoo News partnership launched last fall, ABC News became the premier news provider for Yahoo News. The two organizations agreed to work together to produce and market original content across all of their sites, which reach a combined 90 million unique visitors per month. Their five coproduced Web programs have been watched more than 100 million times.
ABC News is betting that wider online exposure will also boost its on-air ratings. “If we can get only 1% of the [90 million] users of Yahoo News to tune in to one of our ABC News programs, that is the difference between victory and defeat in each of the competitions we are in,” Sherwood says.
During the conventions, ABC News and Yahoo streamed 4½ hours of nightly coverage. “You will see a lot more live streaming” during the election cycle, Ruffolo says. Expanded social media partnerships, ramped-up efforts to create digital-only content and a much more user-focused approach to digital news will also be key parts of the mix, Ruffolo adds.
Many of these priorities reflect Ruffolo’s long experience in the news and digital media arenas.
Ruffolo says he had always been interested in media and entertainment, but was majoring in political science and pre-med in college when he became an intern at CNN. “It really was a wonderful summer that convinced me to break the news to my parents that I wasn’t going to become a lawyer or a doctor,” he recalls with a laugh.
After graduation, Ruffolo returned to CNN full-time, working in strategic planning. Then he cut his teeth in the early days of online news media, working with a small team at CNN Interactive before returning to school for an M.B.A.
Ruffolo then spent five years at AOL, playing an important role in setting up international joint ventures and business development. After spending two years at MTV Networks, where he was involved in business development for Nickelodeon and worked on some of the network’s early digital distribution deals, he returned to AOL.
Ruffolo’s extensive digital experience has taught him both the importance of partnerships, such as the Yahoo deal, and a relentless focus on the user. “The part of digital media that has always been the most exciting to me has always been the focus on the individual and how we have to inform and entertain one person at a time,” he says.
He also remains extremely confident about ABC News’ ability to make the difficult transition to a world-class digital news organization. “There is really an opening for new people and new brands to come in and lead the marketplace, and I think we are in an amazing position to do that,” Ruffolo says.
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