Sean McLaughlin, VP of news at the E.W. Scripps Co., says the industry is failing to evolve on the content front with its addiction to fires and shootings. Resources need to be shifted to more investigative and enterprise reporting to stand out from the pack, he says, a pivot that requires “courage and strength” in local newsrooms.
Sean McLaughlin does not mince words when it comes to where he sees local TV newsrooms failing.
The E.W. Scripps Co.’s VP of news decries the “clichéd, minor, petty, irrelevant stories” that he says have become a hallmark of local news, and instead exhorts stations to move their reporting resources into more meaningful investigative and enterprise pieces that don’t run in lock step with every other local station.
In an interview with TVNewsCheck Special Projects Editor Michael Depp, McLaughlin also laid out his concerns over persistent newsroom technology pain points and spoke to the increased pressures local news now faces amid “fake news” bellowing. He said OTT offers promise with its long engagement times, and that Scripps’ strategy there is beginning to pull into focus.
An edited transcript:
Where do you see your newsroom technology investments focusing next?
I continue to be obsessed with workflow issues. Probably the single biggest we have here related to local content is workflow. How can we get content as quickly as possible from the field to the hands of the consumer? Part of it is workflow, part technology, part different newsroom systems that don’t work with other systems. Hopefully sooner than later, the newsroom computer system, the CMS and the editing system are operating in unison off of one system versus a bunch of disjointed technologies.
Those are a lot of pain points. Any hope for a resolution soon?
If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that it’s way harder than I thought it would be. Part of it is just comfort. There’s a cultural component. I’ll be honest: the whole thing has been way bigger than I thought it would be. There’s no product out there that’s ready to go that anybody has any degree of confidence in. Everybody’s looking at it as a priority, and everybody is looking at it as a combination of their own solutions and pushing vendors. Are there parts of their systems that are more important than others to us, and are their ways that we can get these systems all to work more effectively together?
Where are Scripps’ newscasts now available on OTT?
Roku has been our biggest focus. It’s a big area of experimentation for us. We’re now getting to the point where it is time to really figure out what our play is going to be there. The consumer numbers are pretty solid, but, for local brands, I don’t know how many people really think of us in that space yet. We’ve got encouraging data leading us to believe it’s definitely a space worth spending more time on.
What are you learning about your OTT audience so far?
The biggest takeaway for me has been length of tune. It’s not a quick flip through, which leads me to believe if we actually came up with a strategy there designed specifically for those customers who choose to view us on the platform, it could be an interesting play.
President Trump has been launching repeated attacks on the “mainstream media” since the outset of his tenure. How, if at all, are your stations feeling that pressure?
There has never been so much pressure to make sure you get it right. Stations are almost being baited to do something wrong or make a mistake so it can be called out by one side or the other. That’s not a fun space to be in. We all take our role very seriously. We view journalism as one of the key elements for a functioning democracy.
It’s getting to a point where news stories surrounding the president are considered polarizing content and cause people to turn away. Do we not do those stories then? There are certainly conversations that take place in newsrooms now that five years ago, if you told me those would happen I never would have believed it.
Has that affected the way your stations report or present stories?
One of the things we’ve been tracking very carefully is do we have trust issues with our audience. We’ve been encouraged in that most of what we’ve seen is that [mistrust] tends to stretch to the national brands more than the local brands. We see that local properties still have a very high trust rating. That speaks to what we’ve built up over decades in our communities. That trust isn’t built up easily.
How autonomous are your newsrooms?
They’re autonomous. The news directors make decisions every day [as to] what stories they’re covering, what’s going on, what their daily strategy is. We have a corporate support structure. We have regional news directors who help with strategy. I know there are other companies that send out feeds of stories that must be covered or aired. We believe those decisions are best made locally.
What have you been working on to attract new, younger viewers to your platforms? Can you point to some specific station examples by way of illustration?
Denver [KMGH] has probably done the best job of a recent thing that has resonated really well. As we looked at that market and content opportunities there, there’s a strong desire to see more content where multiple perspectives are told on a story versus just one or two.
It’s identifying those issues within a community that are important and not just telling them the way that these stories always have been told. Who aren’t we talking to that we should be versus who’s the closest guy in a suit that we can get to downtown within five minutes? It’s where the industry had fallen over time and this is the kind of pivot that you’re going to see more of our stations making.
Our industry hasn’t done as good a job of evolving on the content front. If you go into any market anywhere and you flip on the news, it’s just a collection of shootings and city council meetings. What people want from us is expertise and knowledge that’s deep in their local communities. They want good investigative journalism. They want strong enterprise stories they can’t see in 15 other places. They want those people who truly understand what’s happening in their communities. The current economic conditions in our business prevent us from saying let’s just hire 20 people to do that.
That’s just not the reality of the business anymore. It requires us to recalibrate our staffing, look at things differently and [ask] what are the things that we used to do that we don’t need to do anymore?
Does that mean longer stories? Having beats that might not have existed before?
I’ve always been an advocate of beats. Having the topics in your community that are the most important and hiring people who have a skill set and expertise in that area are going to make your journalism better. Understanding the big issues that are going on in your community at a given time.
Having the courage to make decisions on a given day where we’re not going to go cover the fire and instead we’re going to use those resources to stay on track and go deep on a story that’s ultimately going to affect a lot more people, and our properties are going to be the only place where people are going to see this today.
How hard of a habit is that to break — to not cover the fire?
It’s a cultural nightmare. When A happens, we do B. Our whole industry operates that way. But we’ve got to be honest with ourselves. It means raising the bar of the things that are worthy of coverage for us. Be willing to accept the fact that when you line the five TVs up in your office, that you’re the one that’s not going to have the shooting and the fire, but you’re going to have a great investigation on a city councilman who has been abusing his expense reports. It’s a leadership thing first and foremost. You’re talking about changing the fabric of a newsroom, behaviors that have been built in over decades. That’s not easy.
Given that Scripps owns the podcasting platform Midroll, are you producing podcasts at the local stations?
The problem is scale. Podcasts make a lot of sense with a national audience. You go into a local market, and time is the enemy. There’s some dabbling, but as far as serious efforts I don’t know that local podcasting at this point in time is a place that makes a lot of sense.
What are your biggest priorities for the next year?
Developing an OTT concept that works for local brands. Part and parcel of that is continuing our push to change the way we look at local content. Our local journalism has to be top shelf. Our investigations have to be strong. Our enterprise efforts have to be at the center of what we do, and we have to develop courage and strength to put our foot down on these clichéd, minor, petty, irrelevant stories that have become the hallmarks of what local news covers.