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Scripps's Adam Symson on Why News Literacy Matters

E.W. Scripps president and CEO Adam Symson will use the Ion stations to gain more clearance for its Katz Networks diginets.
Scripps CEO Adam Symson sees news literacy as more than a business issue (Image credit: E.W. Scripps)

E.W. Scripps Co. and its CEO Adam Symson are taking National News Literacy Week seriously.

Symson worked in TV newsrooms in Los Angeles and Chicago and still thinks of himself as a journalist at a company whose stations produce local news and is expanding into the national networks business.

Also Read: E.W. Scripps Completes Acquisition of Ion Media

The company’s local local and national outlets are running public service announcements that aim to fight back fake news by urging viewers to be well informed by raising their news literacy fitness.

Symson spoke to B+C Business Editor Jon Lafayette. An edited transcript follows:

Can this campaign have an impact on this notion of fake news?

I don’t even like to use the term fake news. This is obviously really, really important to the company. It's incredibly important to me and obviously we feel strongly it's very important to the strength of our democracy because we just witnessed what can happen when people don't think about the power of their words and people disintermediate or delegitimize facts, And we’ve really really just witnessed the most powerful example of what happens when that goes wrong.

Do your stations get a lot of push back when you run stories that rely on facts, especially during the last election cycle?

We've gone through an era where merely reporting something that is factual but doesn't fit within an audience's perceived narrative and what audience members want it to be can be polarizing, and that's unfortunate. We've got to get back to a place where we as a society are ready to shed our predisposition for conspiracies and our willingness to believe propaganda and we've got to get back to understanding that a newsroom's job is to report the facts.

I particularly like Scripps's motto. It's something that we've held onto and it really governs the way we think about journalism: “Give light and the people will find their own way."

Our job is to provide information and facts. It's then a citizen's job to determine what to make of it. And unfortunately a lot of our peers or brethren in the media space have slipped away from that kind of focus and have moved further away from reporting and further towards participation in an echo chamber on one side or the other. And I think that's been harmful to the democracy.

So, how do you get that feedback from some viewers? Does it show up in phone calls,  emails? Is there an impact on ratings?

If we look at the studies, trust in the media is lower than I can recall it ever being. We've just come out of a four-year smear campaign by the president of the United States [and] I think that's certainly contributed to it. Fortunately local news is still differentiated away from national news. But I definitely think there's a negative halo effect and we've got to all work harder to rededicate ourselves to proving the value we provide for the communities that we serve.

But didn’t local news ratings rise during this period of intense criticism of the media?

Absolutely. I think COVID has been a local news story. The racial injustice and the fallout from the killing of George Floyd manifested itself across this nation as a local story. And people are grounded in their communities. So it's no surprise to me at this moment that ratings are higher and interest is greater in local news than ever before, particularly for a younger generation who have discovered how important it is to be engaged.

Then how is so-called fake news impacting local stations? Are you getting competition from these new websites that masquerade as local news?

To me this is not purely a question of business and competition. To me this is a question of morals and ethics. You have websites masquerading as newspaper and television station websites. You have social media posts that amplify propaganda, that spread lies, oftentimes under the banner of legitimate news organizations. And that's why it's so important with our partners at the news literacy project that we focus on ensuring our citizens have the skills necessary to be educated news consumers. 

Unfortunately there has been a decline in the amount of time schools have spent on civics education. Unfortunately now, we're graduating kids into the most complex content marketplace in the history of the world and yet they're graduating without the skills necessary to determine fact from fiction, propaganda from reporting, journalism from advertising. And so our focus is on making sure that the American people have the skills necessary to be informed consumers of content.

This is especially important with the power of social media. Social can be a wonderful tool to share what's going on in your life with your friends, but It can be very dangerous and that's why we need people to understand the implications of sharing and retweeting. Because sharing something is putting your own personal stamp of approval on something. And when you share a lie inadvertently,  when you share one of those stories that is, you know, written by a propaganda machine, you are adding your stamp of approval and inadvertently pushing it out even further among your network. We need people to stop and think about that. 

How is Scripps participating in this news literacy project?

We've got first of all a significant multi-platform advertising campaign that we have dedicated significant resources to across all of our owned and operated outlets. That's 61 local TV stations and all of our national networks. We're also dedicating significant time in our newsrooms to making sure that we tell stories relevant to news literacy. We are taking a deep dive into how conspiracy theories and how social media and news content -- illegitimate news content -- helped further the situation we saw at the capital. Many of our newsrooms are working on projects with high school journalism classes, holding town halls in their community, and just generally speaking trying to make news literacy a topic of conversation at dinner tables in the communities that we serve.

Does your journalism background matter in treating this as something more than a business issue?

Without question. This is a company that's mission-focused and I believe I'm a very mission-focused leader. Our mission is to inform and engage the people of this country, and we need consumers who recognize what real news looks like and understand how to engage as a news-literate citizen for our company to continue to thrive as it has. So in that way it's business-oriented. But we have this incredible platform off which we can drive home the point that I've been making, that news literacy is critical for the health of our democracy. That’s important right now. We are in the midst of the greatest vaccine initiatives in modern history and we have to make sure people have the right information, factually oriented science-based information, so that we can get to a place where we can reopen our society again.

Does what happened to the newspaper business make you worry about a future in which local stations stop investing in local news because it's too expensive to be profitable?

I'm definitely concerned with that. The moves we've made recently to strengthen our company and make it more durable, with the acquisition and integration of Ion and the launch of our fully scaled networks business, are all about putting our company on an evolved path to play an important role in the future of television. We're a journalism company and a media company. This company has been around for a hundred and forty two years. We have practiced journalism and media on lots of different platforms and we intend to be around for the next hundred and forty two years.

Are you thinking about putting news on some of your national networks?

Well, we already have Newsy obviously and Court TV. And the way we're organizing, actually we will be having a specific focus on news networks as part of our national news product for sure.

Also Read: Court TV to Air Special on Death of George Floyd

How will they work together?

We are bringing them  together from a leadership perspective. When I think about our portfolio, I certainly expect to see greater synergy and more opportunity between our news networks. We already do a tremendous job of leveraging Newsy in our local markets and leveraging our local content on Newsy. I expect that to continue as well.

You've also seen what Nexstar's done with NewsNation and Sinclair launching The National Desk. Is there room for putting that kind of national newscast on Scripps’s national networks?

I don't know that I see putting news on Laff. But we'll certainly assess every opportunity for us to continue to execute our mission, especially now that we have a much broader national platform.

Do we need a more of a local news approach to national news?

I think local news is really important. I think as I said before we've seen this year, in particular, the power of local news. What we need on the national level is a re-dedication to reporting and journalism. We need less opinion. We need less punditry. We need more journalism, more news and more reporting.

And is Scripps the company to provide that?

We absolutely believe Newsy is one of the platforms that will provide us that opportunity. We found this to be particularly true for younger audiences. Many of them are frustrated by what they see as their parents' approach to the partisanship on display with the cable news networks. We definitely sense a market opportunity there.

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.