Executive Session | Scripps On ‘Business Equivalent Of Adrenaline’
Adam Symson knows this is a transformative moment for local TV. The hard part is teasing out which threads will be longer lasting once the pandemic subsides.
Symson, president and CEO of The E.W. Scripps Co., is sure of some things enduring, such as the audience bump local TV has seen. “There is a renewed realization that local news is vital at this moment,” he says, adding an entire generation is coming to that realization for the first time as they tune in each day for essential information.
He’s less certain of other things, such as which elements of TV’s amped up remote production will stick around even after it’s safe once more to return to studios and offices. “I am not ready to start providing lists of ways our business has fundamentally changed,” he says, noting for weeks Scripps and other broadcasters have been riding “on the business equivalent of adrenaline” after which a careful postmortem will be necessary before lasting changes are made.
In an interview with TVNewsCheck Editor Michael Depp, Symson also tackles the biggest uncertainty of all: how bad of a revenue hit local TV will take and how long the damage will last. “The timing of all this is still the big question mark,” he says.
An edited transcript.
There’s no business contingency plan for anyone that was so sweeping as the coronavirus situation has demanded. From your position at the helm of the company, how did you coordinate that effort?
Actually, we were very well prepared. We have a vice president of risk and business continuity and for more than a month before this became what it is today, we were meeting regularly, monitoring events around the globe and beginning to develop plans for how we would navigate this. I did not think that what we are experiencing today was even conceivable, but we have robust business continuity plans for all varieties of natural and man-made disaster.
Thanks to Mike Epstein’s planning prowess, we were able to take our continuity plans off of the shelf and very quickly begin to evolve and customize them. We went from being a company that worked in person across our TV stations, our corporate office and our national businesses very quickly to virtually a complete work-from-home experience. That is really due in large part to the creativity and ingenuity of our IT and engineering teams.
The entire time, our focus has been on three priorities: the health and well-being of our employees, executing our mission to inform and entertain the audiences that we serve and business continuity. We have been making decisions from the very beginning focused on those three things.
You are taking a 15% pay cut and a cadre of your fellow executives are also taking a 10% pay cut. Those savings are being donated back to the Scripps Howard Foundation’s COVID-19 employee relief fund. Why was that gesture important to you?
The first thing we did was delay merit raises, and because executive officers are actually paid on a different cycle, my pay was actually rolled back to 2019 and then I took a 15% pay cut. Our executives have taken more than a 15% pay cut. The latest move was to fund the Scripps Howard Foundation’s COVID-19 employee assistance fund. That move wasn’t ceremonial; it was consistent with those three priorities.
The reality is that while our company remains on firm financial footing, we recognize what is going on in the marketplace and the national economy and believe that that money could be reallocated for the best interests of our employees. Many of our employees are dual income households, taking on additional expenses with eldercare and childcare. We felt like it was important for us to provide an immediate safety net for our employees.
This is going to be a brutal quarter in terms of ad sales and we will get a clearer picture of how bad it is next month as the first quarter earnings reports come in. Can you give us any kind of a preview of how bad the damage will be not just for Scripps, but for the entire local TV space?
Not really. We are in our quiet period before earnings and I will just get myself in trouble. This is a remarkable event in that our audiences are so much larger. I am optimistic that a lot of the increase in audience that we are seeing will endure.
People have come to recognize that Instagram influencers and NextDoor and Reddit threads are not appropriate places to get the news and information you need to keep your families safe. Local news brands that are on the ground reporting inside your community are the best places for that kind of information.
Yet at the same time, the demand for local advertising despite those larger audiences has taken a significant hit, not because of a soft ad environment or because of the recession so much as tied to the stay-at-home orders and the closure of so much business and industry across this country.
It has all become very interwoven, but it is clear to us that when the country begins work again and everybody gets back to whatever the new sense of normal is, small businesses, medium businesses, national businesses will need to change their messaging and inform the public of what is going on inside their organizations and we will be the best positioned to get those messages out.
Is that your vision for how local TV generally will recover from the hit, that it will be around changing the message and helping reintroduce businesses back to the community?
There will be a lot of different messages. I have spoken with CEOs of health systems that recognize that during this time when their resources have been focused purely on the response to COVID-19, other critical and preventative care services have gone unattended to by people in our communities. They are going to need to educate people that this isn’t the time to put off the mammogram, the colonoscopy. There are still things that need to happen, and it will be the wise marketer that recognizes it is a good opportunity to take advantage of the larger audiences to get those messages out.
It is going to be a while before Americans are ready psychologically to get back to life as it was in February. Local television and home entertainment options will continue to see very strong audiences even as business reopens.
The timing of all this is still the big question mark. It is not going to be uniform across the country. We have been working really hard through this period to go above and beyond at Scripps to focus on supporting our local economies. We have been executing a “We Are Open” campaign that showcases local small- and medium-sized businesses in all of our markets that are still around to service customers through this.
We have developed a database of those businesses. These are mostly not businesses that would ever be television advertisers. We have done this because it is the right thing to do for our communities.
Are the prospects of pay cuts, furloughs or layoffs realistic for Scripps this year?
I will give you the same answer I have given all of our employees: There are no guarantees except that I will continue to communicate with a high level of transparency to our employees. Today we are on firm footing, but the real questions that we have to wait and see on are how deep this goes and how long it lasts. We are focused on navigating this with as minimal an economic impact on our employees as possible.
One of the most challenging aspects of your job right now has to be pulling your sales division through the crisis and keeping up their morale. How are you doing that?
We are concerned about our sales account executives, our local and national businesses. They are working hard to create demand and identify new opportunities. The second quarter is certainly going to be challenging for them and we continue to look at ways to make sure that we treat them in the same way that we are looking to treat all of our employees with respect to those three priorities.
As you alluded to already, local news is getting a huge bump out of this moment and viewership is markedly up in key demographics. Can you develop on how you capitalize on that moment and turn that bump into long-term gains?
It is a walk-the-walk moment for our business. How are we serving people the news and information they need to make informed decisions to keep their families safe so they recognize the value that we have in their lives?
For us, one of the side effects of this experience has been that it has forced us to deliver the news with an enhanced level of authenticity with no airs about ourselves, with a greater level of humility, a focus on the content and not the personality. Some of the luster that we have long prided ourselves on has had to come off a little bit during this experience, and we will benefit from that.
Our journalists live and work in these communities that they serve. When you are watching the morning news and you see a toddler run onto the weather set which has been essentially recreated in somebody’s home, when you are watching the sports and you recognize that the sports announcer who would traditionally update you on the highlights from the major pro leagues has taken to using user-generated content to bring highlights from home to the audience, you develop a deeper relationship. You recognize that our journalists are there to serve the community.
There is an entire generation that is recognizing that perhaps for the first time, and there is a renewed realization that local news is vital at this moment.
The pandemic has shown this industry just how versatile it can be. What has impressed you most about what you are seeing within your own company?
I am blown away by the level of creativity and ingenuity on display by everybody across our company. I would have never thought that we would be able to be producing newscasts remotely, to anchor newscasts remotely, to operate master control from the kitchen table of somebody’s home.
These are things [for which] technology has been key, but ingenuity and creativity is responsible for them. Across the country, I am so proud of the work that Scripps employees are doing to ensure that we remain focused on health and wellness, executing our mission and staying there for our audiences and business continuities.
Did you have the necessary resources on hand to switch over to this level and volume of remote production?
We were very well prepared. We began having a dialogue about what we would do well in advance and that allowed us and our teams to begin to put in place a plan and to make sure we had the tools to execute this.
Everybody has been talking about when the economy will open up, when we will get back to business. We never closed business. We haven’t missed a newscast. We have been live the entire time and we have been working with our local clients, the local economies for the entire duration of this. This has not been, for us, a how do we restart. We never stopped.
Looking ahead further along when we come to the other side of this, what do you see as more permanent changes that may come out of this period of working remotely for the industry?
I am not sure we have been through this period long enough to determine whether or not there are takeaways that we will want to stick with. We have gotten to this point where we are today on the business equivalent of adrenaline. To say that we have learned things right now that we should think about applying to our business going forward is to assume that the way we are operating today is the best way to operate.
At Scripps, we are focused on not only operating efficiently, but also operating effectively. And while I am really proud of the work that we are doing and think we haven’t missed a beat, I am not ready to start providing lists of ways our business has fundamentally changed. There will be lessons learned. We will do a postmortem to determine what we can do better next time and from there we will identify ways that our business can evolve.
To read more TVNewsCheck coverage of how TV stations, station groups, news organizations and individuals are pivoting to work amid the coronavirus pandemic, click here.