Defiantly Independent, Graham Prioritizes Innovation
There’s a lot of failure happening at Graham Media Group. The company’s leaders wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Failure is OK, because if we are not failing then we are not trying hard enough,” says Phil Lane, VP and GM of KSAT San Antonio, Texas. “If we fail and we pay attention to why we failed, we will learn and we will be better off after.”
Such language would be right at home in a tech startup. But in local television, where decades of prosperity have fostered an insulating layer of complacency, it can sound outright alien.
And that’s the thing about Graham. To work there is to believe that broadcast has already been swept into the forces of fundamental change, and the tentpoles that have long secured its place — devoted audiences, lucrative retransmission fees, a reliably strong spot advertising market — are wobbling dramatically. The only acceptable response is to build a new kind of tent.
For its varied and creative efforts to do so, Graham has been recognized as TVNewsCheck’s Station Group of the Year. The honor zeroes in on the group’s deep-seated independent streak, a characteristic all the more remarkable in the face of the industry’s tectonic forces of consolidation. Equally important, the award acknowledges Graham’s core embrace of innovation, which manifests at every station and in every role in the company.
At the center of those innovations is Graham Digital, the group’s startup-within-a-company that has been the wellspring of some of its most remarkable experiments, including an early, robust OTT strategy, live video innovations, a membership program and a newsletter scheme helping to redefine audience development and relations. Correlate to those efforts is an attempt to reframe advertising as a multiplatform, results-based and holistic enterprise.
It’s a big lift, trying to reinvent the local TV business. Especially if you’re a group of just six stations.
“Graham just punches above its weight,” says Dustin Block, audience development lead for the group. “We take on really difficult projects that we’re not afraid to.”
A Legacy Of Independence
Graham Media reaches back to 1944, when The Washington Post, then owned by the Graham family, began broadcasting activities with the purchase of a local radio station. A trajectory of radio and television acquisitions and selloffs followed, with the company always hewing to a boutique footprint of strategically chosen markets.
“We never bought the argument that we had to be bigger,” says Donald Graham, chairman of the board of Graham Holdings, the group’s owner. “You can overpay for very good businesses.”
In addition to its small-by-design philosophy, Graham says the TV group has also long been defined by autonomy, straight through to Emily Barr, the company’s president and CEO.
“Something unusual in our company is the degree of autonomy that Emily enjoys and that her predecessors enjoyed,” Graham says. He points to Bill Ryan, the CEO of what was then known as Post-Newsweek Stations, as “a feisty, independent operator standing up to networks when he thought they were pushing too hard” and a “rabblerousing voice on behalf of stations.”
He cites Alan Frank, Ryan’s successor, as cultivating an equally independent streak, culminating in the company severing its WJXT Jacksonville, Fla. station, away from its CBS affiliation in 2002 rather than accept the reverse compensation model the network was trying to implement. “Going independent allowed us to build the very unusual station that is there today,” Graham says.
Today, Barr passes on the same autonomy she gets from the Graham family to her own general managers.
“Not only are we allowed, [but] we are encouraged to do the things that we believe are right for the markets we serve,” says Bob Ellis, VP and GM of WDIV Detroit, who until recently had the same role at WJXT. “She is fabulous at making our goals really very clear and she also understands that there are several paths to get there.”
“She recognizes each station has got a different culture and a different atmosphere, so you have got to be relevant to your local market,” KSAT’s Lane adds.
While distributing autonomy across stations, Barr is also confident that it can be maintained by the group at large without being swallowed by a bigger fish. She says that’s largely down to Graham’s market footprint.
“We are in a kind of a sweet spot where we have major markets, so even though we are relatively small, we are in a unique position,” Barr says. “I feel like the long-term prognosis for a group like Graham is pretty positive.”
Barr says she always leaves the door open to further station acquisitions, remaining “the proverbial tire-kicker.” Graham also actively looks at tangential businesses to diversify its portfolio, such as Social News Desk, which it acquired in 2014. The company provides a software platform that helps media companies publish social media content along with helping them with paid social advertising strategies.
“Graham Media is really focused on not just being a television company, but really being a content company, and they have services that go well beyond the TV stations,” says Kim Wilson, Social News Desk’s founder and president.
“The long-term goal would be to try to find other companies along the lines of Social News Desk,” Barr says, noting that Graham Holdings has been making quiet, strategic investments in companies like Videolicious to diversify its portfolio along the way.
The Imperative To Innovate
Barr’s embrace of innovation is one of her signature leadership characteristics, but she says it stems from very practical considerations.
“I started to look at the general trajectory of revenue from the television stations,” she says. “We have all been blessed with the revenue that has come in from retransmission, and that has masked what is happening to the advertising revenue. Advertising revenue has flattened out and gone down with the exception of political years.”
That dynamic is intertwined with disaggregated viewing trends, she says. Broadcasting’s primacy has suffered. Streaming has taken hold. Younger viewers have not been acculturated into local TV viewing like previous generations. Screens, platforms and viewing options have proliferated.
All of which leaves Graham with the challenge of protecting its core business while building up new business lines that can compensate for its eventual weakening. “Our bread and butter is still what we do with television, and so you have to find a balance between how are you going to earn more money on the digital side, which is still growing, and not lose on the TV side,” Barr says.
Building For A Digital Future
Barr took over the company from Frank in 2012, just as television was feeling the first atmospheric changes from digital. She wasted no time in building a digital division, tapping Catherine Badalamente, who at that time was straddling a part-time corporate role leading nascent digital efforts and a job at WDIV, to lead the new group.
Graham Digital, based in Detroit, began with a core group of news futurists including Mike Katona, director of digital operations and Michael Newman, lead developer/architect. The group started with efforts like the in-house development of a weather app and an early investment in CMS company Internet Broadcasting. It has grown to some 25 members, and digital now accounts for 10%-15% of the company’s overall revenues.
The division cut its teeth alongside media companies that were feeling more direct existential pressure from digital, including newspapers hastening to shore up the gaping holes it had punctured in their business models. While not facing such desperate straits itself, this nevertheless cultivated a sense of urgency and importance to the work Graham Digital was doing.
“We are seeing the convergence of TV and digital,” Badalamente says. “What we refer to as digital today isn’t going to be what it is tomorrow. It is not going to be as clean as it used to be. It is not going to be two or three revenue streams. It is going to be multiple revenue streams.”
OTT And Live Video Efforts
Among those revenue streams will be streaming content, Graham believes. The company was among the first station groups to plant its flag with OTT apps for its stations, which currently produce a mix of simulcasted and original content for the platform. Graham draws on a mix of direct sold and programmatic advertising into the apps.
“We treat it as an equal to our broadcast stream and to our website,” says WDIV’s Ellis, speaking when he was still running WJXT. “In the OTT space we lean into live big time. We have ten-and-a-half hours of local news a day to put into those streams, but between those streams we are a very aggressive station in live streaming.”
KSAT’s Lane says: “We leverage all our local programming and local specials on OTT,” noting that aggressive programming experimentation there has led the station to realize that live news dominates every other offering the station has put to viewers on OTT.
At Orlando’s WKMG, News Director Allison McGinley says streaming is “incredibly important,” and the station offers a mix there of simulcasted news, weather and multi-view coverage of special events such as the Fourth of July fireworks and SpaceX launch.
In each, viewers could shift between two dozen different camera vantage points of the event, offering a “choose your view” approach, McGinley says.
OTT “is a perfect place for us to experiment because we can apply lessons learned to our broadcast channels,” Badalamente says, noting those lessons can also be pushed ahead to NextGen TV as the group evolves into that space.
Original programming is among the experimentation, where stations can play more with the conventions of news forms and time constraints. Solutionairies, an offering from WKMG, is one such example.
“We are trying to make a non-traditional newscast doing solutions-based journalism,” McGinley says, noting episodes have a modular quality and can range from 10 minutes to over an hour, depending on the topic.
Audience Engagement And Newsletters
A major concept underwriting all of Graham Digital’s efforts is that stations’ relationships with their audience need to evolve in order to be a signal amid all the local media noise. Block, who heads those efforts for the company, says relationship building is a multipronged enterprise.
It begins around shifting audience interactions that would normally happen on social media platforms like Facebook on to Graham’s own sites, where commenting is enabled, commenters must register, and conversations are closely monitored to maintain a “safe space” far from the madding crowds of social.
For more than a year, Graham has been rolling out a membership program, Insiders, that piggybacks on that registration and targets superusers, whom the group is courting for an even closer relationship. That’s a relationship maintained through data-driven content personalization and one-to-one communication with staffers, including anchors and on-air talent (Wednesday’s profile on the Insiders program will offer a closer look at how it works).
Such interactions can be a “heavy lift,” Block concedes, but they’re essential to a feedback loop that strengthens the local news product, enables the profitable use of first-party audience data and provides a valuable, ardently involved consumer base for local ad content and, eventually, addressable advertising.
Another key facet of audience development is the group’s newsletter strategy. Ken Haddad, digital special projects manager at WDIV, is the group’s furthest along on that track, producing 36 curated newsletters for different subsets of its viewership. All regularly contain polls, surveys and other opportunities for feedback, foundational elements for further interactions down the funnel.
“I have tried so many different things to engage with our audiences, but when we started ramping up newsletters, the engagement that we received from viewers was the highest I have ever seen by far,” Haddad says.
“We get a huge response because people really like that one-on-one,” he says. “It is a bit more of an interaction with the station and it offers more access. When we ask for responses via newsletters, the quality of the response goes up so high. We are talking about fully written-out responses, opinions, well though-out things that people just want to sound off on.”
Haddad says he has personally built relationships with many newsletter subscribers over the past couple of years. “You build trust with the readers that way and so when they are responding to you it’s more like they’re talking to a friend,” he says. “You are not just yelling on the internet. You are talking to somebody that is in your inbox every day.”
Parallel to Graham’s efforts at rebuilding the audience relationship is an overhaul of the traditional TV advertising paradigm. Among all the group’s efforts to innovate, this might be the hardest to crack.
“It is a concern if you are just selling impressions and you are not selling results or conversions, which is what we are really focused on,” Badalamente says. “It’s like a holistic, multiplatform solution that is really going to help people grow their business.”
Graham’s in-house agency, OMNE, is tasked with this approach to advertisers, and Stephanie Slagle, senior director of brand agency and sales strategy, is leading the effort to bring account executives around to this approach.
“We are getting our team ready for the intersection of TV and digital sales, which we know is inevitable,” Slagle says. “Having a fully-integrated strategy that includes television is the best possible thing for our customers, and the results of that campaign is our primary focus.
“We are tracking your conversions all the way to how many widgets you sold,” she says. “That is ultimately what our team needs to get to.”
Graham executives call it “solutions-based selling.” While it may ultimately mean far greater efficacy for advertisers than previous models, it’s also much more labor intensive for sellers, especially those from TV’s legacy era accustomed to the order taking and the negotiations that came with it.
“This is a completely different thing,” Badalamente says.
“It is not a fast fix,” Slagle adds. “It’s not a single training class or even a training curriculum that we can put together. We have to do that process over time, so they are ready to have that conversation with customers.”
Diversity, Democracy And The Future
Amid all the ongoing efforts to evolve Graham, Barr’s agenda extends even further. For one thing, she says the company still has strides to make on diversity, equity and inclusion.
“Yes, we have a lot of women at the top of Graham Media Group, and I am really proud of that, but we need more diversity in terms of culture, race and geography,” she says. “We need to reflect the growing diversity of our communities.
She hopes to continue to steer through COVID keeping people safe at her stations, acknowledging the toll the pandemic has taken on everyone at the company, including herself.
And perhaps above all else, she sees a straight line between her role as a television leader and the country’s political health. “If you don’t have a strong, vibrant, local free press, you don’t have a democracy,” she says. “You have no one to keep an eye on city hall, the school board, the water quality, and these are the things that we all need to live a healthy, productive life. It is really important, money aside, that we have that kind of free press.”
At Graham, Barr has built a team that shares that sense of purpose. Badalamente says it’s what drives them onward.
“They are invigorated to be able to try to make broadcast sustainable and find new ways of doing things and an undiscovered audience and undiscovered revenue,” she says. “That is the thing that gets us excited about our jobs every day.”
Editor’s note: This is part one of a three-part series on Graham Media Group. Part two, on Tuesday, will profile Graham President and CEO Emily Barr. Part three, on Wednesday, will take a closer look at Graham’s Insiders program. Barr will be featured in a live interview as part of TVNewsCheck’s TV2025 event on Wednesday. Register here to watch.