Scripps is comprised of six ABC affiliates, three NBC stations, and an independent, in major markets such as Detroit and Phoenix. Brian Lawlor, formerly the general manager at Scripps' WPTV West Palm Beach, was named senior VP of its television division in 2008.
Lawlor, who also keeps busy as chairman of the powerful NBC affiliates board, spoke with B&C deputy editor Michael Malone about how the Scripps stations live up to the company's big-time journalism rep. An edited transcript follows.
What words come to mind when you describe a Scripps station?
Mission-focused and community-oriented.
Scripps has been building what it calls the newsroom of the future. What's that look like?
We started by looking at existing infrastructure to see if the way we were built had us lined up to be truly 24/7 in a multiplatform, multi-screen world, and the answer was no. We've been really busy the last three years rebuilding our infrastructure, rethinking our roles, investing in technology that allow us to more fluidly distribute content and reorienting our workforce to allow us to collect more content, distribute more content, get deeper in our communities, and tell stories on different platforms in different ways that would be more engaging and more memorable.
Scripps hopes to charge users for premium content on station sites(Station to Station, July 18). Will we see that model in place this year?
I don't know if it will be this year. We're doing a lot of research and looking at that ecosystem and trying to figure it out. One thing that's obvious is that people are willing to pay for content, but it's got to be exclusive, engaging content that they can't get somewhere else for free. In order to set it up properly, so that someone who's going to pay for content feels like they get value, we want to make sure it's structured properly. So we are doing a pretty deep dive on the model we think will create a pretty high level of consumer engagement. But we're not going to rush it.
What does your research show people will pay for online? Is it high-profile columnists, is it video?
I think there are a lot of things they'll pay for. Engaging content-that can be columnists, it can be video. It can be depth-taking stories beyond the level we traditionally do. Emotional content, engaging content, a level of social experience around content where people dig in or discuss at a deeper level. Research tells us a lot of elements will engage somebody. But it's got to be personal and emotional so they'll be fully committed to the content they'd be asked to pay for.
What do your broadcast peers say when you discuss a paid-content model?
I haven't talked to a lot of people in broadcasting about it. I think it's something that's clearly getting a high level of experimentation in the newspaper industry. Some are having some success, so a logical mind would say, if people are willing to pay for content, a video-centric experience also has a value proposition.
Is Scripps a keeper of its spectrum?
What's the plan for mobile DTV?
We're a member of MCV [Mobile Content Venture] and OMVC [Open Mobile Video Coalition]. We believe strongly in the opportunity-we think it's a great extension of what we do now. We think it makes us more valuable in peoples' lives than we've ever been because we're right there at their hip, able to inform and entertain and engage them anytime, anywhere. By the end of the quarter we'll have four stations launched on mobile and we'll continue to look for opportunities to extend that.
Are you concerned about what you're hearing regarding broadcaster spectrum from the FCC?
Are you in D.C. much to state your case?
Yes. Representing Scripps, as a member of the NAB board, and as president of the NBC affiliates board, I've been there a whole lot. It's the No. 1 issue. We think our spectrum is critical to our ability to serve our communities and distribute our product. We're protecting that and our ability to inform people, especially at the times they need us most.
The exciting part is, with mobile technology, we can serve communities at a level we never have been able to before. We just have to make sure the FCC and others protect that opportunity for us, so that we can be everything we've been and more for our consumers.
How's business looking for the rest of the year?
Pretty good. We had a very good first half-the lone hiccup was foreign automotive as a result of the cutback of Japanese lines. Now that their factories are back in production we expect them to come back to previous commitments, if not even beefed up from there.
Other categories have been very strong. Political is starting to kick in in a couple of states, maybe a little earlier and a little bit heavier than we expected. So we remain very optimistic about the back half of the year.
Nexstar announced it was looking into selling its stations recently. There's a good number of stations on the block-anything that catches your eye and seems like a good fit for Scripps?
Obviously I can't comment specifically. We are clearly looking at the station groups and individual stations that are up to see if anything is a good fit for us. Our balance sheet is one of the best in the business. That affords us the ability to make a move comfortably if we found one that works for us. Like many other groups, our eyes are wide open, looking for strategic opportunities right now.
Might Scripps sell stations?
That's probably not our priority.
The networks are pushing for a piece of station retrans. Is it fair game, what they're asking for, or are they pushing too hard?
I think they're being pretty aggressive in terms of what they're looking for. Of course, everything is an individual negotiation. Ultimately, the groups and the networks find a deal that works for them. I understand and even support their need for a dual revenue stream. Then it's really a matter of, what's that right value? They do bring value to our television stations, that's undeniable. Our ability to garner retrans dollars is increased by the fact that we're associated with a network and its programming. It's just a matter of, what is that value? It's different based upon individual companies' commitments to those stations.
I know there are many variables involved, but is a network and a station a 50-50 partnership in terms of the value they offer?
I don't think so. But obviously networks have different opinions on that. The dayparts they mostly program, they do provide us value. The commitment we have to local news continues to be what drives the brand of a television station. Typically, a news leader isn't necessarily associated with the top primetime and top network news in a market. There are decades of brand commitments and community commitments that make a station one of the best, if not the best, in a market. Just because you're affiliated with a certain network doesn't mean they should be enjoying 50% or 70% of the value that you created over decades, with or without them.
Does Scripps have affiliation agreements coming up?
We're good for all of our affiliates for at least the next four or five years.
Next year of course is going to be off the hook in terms of political spending. Do you feel the Scripps stations are well positioned to get that cash?
Yes, I definitely feel like we're well positioned there.
What else is going on for Scripps?
We're really trying to increase our commitment to the quality of our journalism and the quality of our stories and the coverage in our communities. The last couple of years, economic pressures really challenged all of our television stations, but we continue to recognize that our point of differentiation, where we become more relevant in the future, is through the quality of our journalism.
If you look across our markets, we're doing really interesting journalism that's challenging communities. The 10-year anniversary of the race riots in Cincinnati took place last month. We took a month-long look at that story, 30 stories in 30 days, breaking down every aspect of how the community has changed in 10 years, can it happen again, from policing to education to social awareness to community, how is Cincinnati a different city today. We asked hard questions that really challenged the leaders to take a hard look at the things that got the city to that point 10 years ago, and what has changed. That was really powerful and engaging stuff. We had the opportunity to bring business leaders and community groups together and watch it and have an honest conversation about it. I think that's the role of our television stations.
In Detroit, we started a decade-long campaign called Detroit 2020-it's a ten-year conversation in the community, bringing together political leaders, government folks, business leaders, educators-all to one place, our airwaves, where we can have conversations about the challenges of Detroit and what's needed: how to set benchmarks, how to get there, how to hold people accountable.
Who better to hold people accountable and get answers for community and make the community better than our television stations? We are really trying to use our stations to differentiate the lives of people who live in those communities.
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