Scripps CEO Adam Symson: “Our product has to be either necessary or lovable”

Newsy goes its own way — should local newsrooms follow?

When Adam Symson, who was then Scripps’s chief digital officer, visited Newsy’s Columbia, Missouri newsroom back in 2013, he liked what he saw. A lot. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is the future of news,’” Symson said. “This is what you would do if you could start over and figure out, without the baggage that we all have as experienced broadcast journalists: How would you build a newsroom?” Later that year, Scripps bought the company for $35 million.

Symson is now Scripps’s president and CEO, and the company has doubled down on its bet. Newsy has added five more bureaus and expanded beyond a collection of online and mobile news packages to an OTT channel and to 38 million cable homes. And while Newsy bills itself as a “next-generation news network” aimed at millennials, its distinctive approach has valuable lessons for local broadcasters striving to adapt to a changing competitive landscape.

Adam Symson (Photo courtesy of Newsy).

What impressed Symson about Newsy was an operation that could forge its own path without the “drag of legacy thinking.” That meant offering stories others weren’t doing, told by young, non-traditional reporters without what Symson calls the “manufactured presentation style” that we’ve come to know all too well.

Newsy’s VP of News and Programming, Christina Hartman, says that new hires sometimes have to unlearn the familiar television news tropes. “We have longer-term ‘Newsies’ who work with our new folks on their anchoring to just kind of shake the robotic out of them,” she said.

No one appreciates Newsy’s eclectic approach to its reporters and hosts more than Cody LaGrow, who co-anchors the morning show The Day Ahead with Ashley Holt. LaGrow remembers applying for on-air jobs at local stations, he told my colleague Sarah Farrell. “I can’t tell you how many interviews I had where people were dancing around the fact of them essentially saying, ‘We hate your voice. We hate your hair. We hate, essentially, we can’t put someone who appears this gay on TV.’ Newsy was the first company that called me, and said, ‘We want you, but like we want YOU. We don’t want the person who thinks they have to talk in this low register.’”

Ashley Holt (left) and Cody LaGrow (Photos courtesy of Newsy).

The Day Ahead’s format is…well, newsy, with packages that average 2:30 in length rather than the 1:30 industry standard, and a daily deep dive into one issue in the third block. “You want to feel more well-rounded after you watch the news,” LaGrow said. “We offer up a platform that’s more similar to the human experience.”

Hartman points proudly to last month’s coverage of the recent Midwest floods — at a time when the cable news networks were focused more on President Trump’s attacks on the late Senator John McCain. “If you were to audit — and I have — the topics that are covered on cable, it is very heavily driven by what the President is tweeting,” says Hartman. “We invest heavily in teams that cover science, technology, world affairs, culture.”

Christina Hartman (third from left) on a local TV news innovation panel at NAB 2019.

Newsy still gets most of its viewers (although it won’t say how many) on its OTT platforms, especially Roku. With its expansion into cable news over the past year, Newsy has added anchored programs (like The Day Ahead) and a linear program grid. In addition to live news and analysis from 7 AM to 11 PM Eastern Time, Newsy has programs on science and health; a series of documentaries; and even a debate show in partnership with the non-profit group Intelligence Squared.

Newsy positions itself aggressively against partisan and polarized coverage on traditional cable news networks. “Be informed. Not influenced,” is the prominent exhortation on Newsy’s home page. And in case that didn’t sink in, the page promotes Newsy’s “full line-up of anti-partisan coverage” — not my italics. Former Gannett Broadcasting CEO Roger Ogden, who has watched Newsy evolve from his perch on the Scripps board, told me he sees Newsy appealing to “millennials wanting news in a different way from people they can relate to and without anyone trying to convince them of one ideology or another.”

To its credit, local TV news is also widely seen as non-partisan and gets high marks for trust and credibility. But I wondered what else Adam Symson, whose bailiwick includes three dozen stations, thinks local TV newsrooms can learn from Newsy.

Here are my five takeaways from our wide-ranging conversation, and what Symson had to say about each of them. His extended comments are in italics.

1. Fragmentation has redefined the competitive landscape

We’ve moved into an era where there’s tremendous fragmentation, and our product has to compete for time. And I believe that means our product has to be either necessary or lovable. When you build something from scratch [as Newsy has], and you do so in a highly fragmented world, you really have to be good to survive and to thrive. And so the first thing I think all of our news directors have to understand is what it’s like to compete in an environment with unfettered competition, because we’re there.

2. Newsrooms should not be afraid to veer away from the pack and invest in enterprise

If you’re allocating resources to cover a franchise topic, it means that you might not cover a commodity piece of news or you might not cover that commodity piece of news the way everybody else does in town. Newsy is, fundamentally at its core, much more about charting your own course. You have to make bold choices. So when Newsy is deciding on a given day to cover a story about alternative energy. It’s not because they saw it on CNN, or they saw it on MSNBC. It’s because they feel a strong responsibility to identify what is important to their target consumer and cover that story.

I personally think it’s easier to hold an audience’s attention with a well told six-minute package on a topic of enterprise than twelve 30-second vo-sots, or squirrels on skis. Enterprise reporting is expensive. It’s difficult. It takes expertise and specialization, but the reason [the Scripps stations are] invested in it is because it gets away from commodity. There’s too much commodity out there. What local journalists can do best is focused on uncovering and telling stories that are unique to their community. And being willing to do so. To stand apart.

3. Newsroom diversity and inclusion are critical components of success

We don’t have a focus on diversity inclusion just because it’s the right thing to do. If you want to create a product that best serves its audience, and if we want to best cover the communities where we operate, we need to be open to understanding the different paths of life that people walk. And so our focus on diversity and inclusion is also informed by the Newsy experience, the fact that if you think about how news is created and generated and ideated at Newsy, it leverages what you would hope you would get in any newsroom conversation: people from diverse walks of life, all who’ve made telling stories about this country their mission and who bring to the table all of that diversity. And I think that’s critical.

4. Newsrooms should embrace new ways of reporting — and new kinds of reporters

There are new forms of storytelling, there are new ways to engage audiences. We have to be unafraid to be authentic. It’s okay to pull back the curtain and explain how we arrived at this conclusion when you’re doing a story, particularly an enterprise story.

We’ve got a big effort to try and open our newsrooms up to high-quality journalists, some of whom come from non-traditional backgrounds in broadcasting — print backgrounds, magazine writers, digital journalists. It’s not about creating jobs for people that aren’t beautiful. It’s because that’s what the audience wants, I think the audience has turned away from some of the perfection or artificial perfection of the past.

5. Respect your audience

Newsy is a product that acknowledges that there’s an entire audience of people who are interested in facts, context, perspective, and then making a decision themselves.

What we don’t pretend to be at Newsy is an authority figure that knows better than our audience. And in that way, it’s awfully close to living up to the motto that we aspire to at this company: ‘Give light and the people will find their own way.’ And that’s an important takeaway, for news directors, Scripps or otherwise, to see from Newsy’s strength and popularity with younger audiences.

Finally, I asked Symson whether Newsy’s move into cable was an attempt to reach older audiences too. He pushed back hard, citing cable’s continued reach across all demos, but he made the interesting point that nowadays, innovation has a way of flowing uphill. “Today, as a result of technology, I actually think we’re seeing a consumer change in which new products are often first developed with a focus on a younger generation. And then they move slightly older and older.”

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