Hybridity To Be Permanent At E.W. Scripps
While many broadcast leaders are hesitant to hazard predictions of what the post-pandemic workplace will look like, Adam Symson is unequivocal about one thing.
“It will be a hybrid situation,” says Symson, president and CEO of The E.W. Scripps Co.
Symson says there will be no returning to a pre-pandemic environment either at Scripps’ stations or at the corporate level. Some employees may come back to the office several times a week, others only every few weeks.
“I know some of our peers have moved back to a 2019 model and assumed that we have to get back to work exactly the same way that things have happened before,” he says. “We are taking a much more flexible approach.”
In part two of a two-part interview with TVNewsCheck Editor Michael Depp, Symson discusses the impact that the “Great Resignation” phenomenon has had on determining the workplace’s future, along with how the company’s aggressive efforts on diversity, equity and inclusion have also had a shaping effect. He shares his hopes for the FCC’s regulation of vMVPDs, the revenue prospects for NextGen TV and how the pandemic has honed a sense of “shareholder’s agility” in his leadership. You can read part one here.
An edited transcript.
What are your hopes for impactful actions the FCC will take this year on broadcasters specifically with regards to the ownership cap?
I am not sure we are going to see any big changes with the ownership cap. I would like to see us address the issue of who is and who is not an MVPD. I certainly think the virtual MVPDs need to be treated like MVPDs and play by the same rules. We would love to negotiate the rights to our retransmission directly with the virtual MVPDs.
There is a lot of opportunity for us to work more closely with the government to make sure that we are leveraging ATSC3.0 for what it can be, not just from a commercial perspective, but we need to use it to help bridge the digital divide.
One of the things that I am frustrated by in many ways is that as an industry, broadcasters have almost forgotten how to broadcast. We have become so focused on retransmission and pay TV that we have forgotten that broadcast transmission is our one-to-many link to ubiquity across this country. I see what is going on in this country and think about the natural disasters we have had with respect to tornadoes, fires, even the recent snowstorm in the Mid-Atlantic, and I think to myself what is it going to take for people to recognize the vulnerability of our information infrastructure and the reality that only broadcast can step in and reach all of America with ubiquity not only for emergency alerts, but frankly, for the news and information that we need to keep everybody up to date?
There is an entire generation of consumer that doesn’t realize that when the power goes out or when the internet goes down, they are going to be in the dark literally and figuratively from an information perspective. We need to get those people to recognize the power of having a digital antenna at home.
I am very focused on making sure that the FCC and Congress keep their eyes on the role that broadcasters need to play to keep Americans informed. It is an incredibly important part of our ecosystem, but we have to remember that the power of broadcast and the responsibility of broadcasters have to leverage it especially in the times that are most critical in this country.
Is Scripps still in the hunt for more stations?
I definitely think that were stations to come up that fit our strategy, to be accretive to our portfolio, to improve the economics of our business, to be available at a reasonable price, we would definitely take a hard look at them.
Given the “Great Resignation” phenomenon across industries right now, have you felt an impact on Scripps stations? Are you finding yourselves unable to fill open positions?
I wouldn’t say we are unable to fill open positions. We have a stellar employment brand. When people think about wanting to spend their careers in journalism, in television, we rise to the top as a destination employer, but it has been a tough two years. We have moved through a period of intense hostility to journalists and the media. There are a lot of people that are tired from the executive ranks to the journalists that work the streets to the sales folks that are working tirelessly to support the Main Street economies. It has been a very long two and a half years.
We have to do more to support our industry, and we need to recognize that we are not immune to the kind of economic pressures that we have seen impact the print industry. If we want to have a robust local and national journalism marketplace that American consumers can turn to in order to be informed, we better make sure companies like ours continue to remain vibrant and healthy contributors to the economy.
That means ensuring that they are economically viable and allowing us to continue to invest in our people and to ensure that we are able to hire the best and the brightest storytellers, salespeople and support staff so that we can continue with our mission.
Omicron is sending a lot of people back home to work remotely once more. How is it impacting Scripps stations? Are you moving back toward more work from home?
We did delay our en masse return. I feel good about the fact that we instituted a vaccine mandate and with very few exceptions our workforce is vaccinated. We made the decision over the winter break to delay the return a bit to allow people to get through the Omicron surge with their friends and family. We want to get through that before we return to the office. But to be clear, we believe it is necessary to [move to] a more hybrid version of operating.
Where do you see hybridity becoming a permanent dynamic at Scripps both at the station and corporate levels?
We will return to whatever the new normal is, and it will be different than it was. It will be a hybrid situation. That means for different roles, different things. At the corporate office, it means that some of our employees will work two, three days at the office while others will just come in once every other week. At the station level, there are certain roles that we have found [where] we didn’t miss a beat.
In some cases where our reporters live in the communities that they cover, having them start from home and not come in for a morning meeting and immediately contribute to a morning conversation from home and then hit the streets and begin their story coverage of the day has actually been beneficial. We have learned that there are opportunities for us to hire incredible talent across this country in markets that we might otherwise not have business in.
We will continue to be very flexible as a workplace. I know some of our peers have moved back to a 2019 model and assumed that we have to get back to work exactly the same way that things have happened before. We are taking a much more flexible approach.
That is one of the reasons why people are making their home at Scripps because we are thinking about what we have learned over the last couple of years relative to employee experience and we want to make Scripps the kind of company where you can work for the entirety of your career and continue to grow and for it to be an adventure. That means listening to your employees, being attentive to what is going on in the marketplace and adjusting.
Scripps set its own fairly extensive goals towards diversity, equity and inclusion. Where is the company in terms of meeting those goals, and what remains the more challenging or elusive components of really achieving DEI?
I have been pleased with the work that we have been doing because it has extended beyond just the work necessary in our industry around representation. We have been focused on making sure we are changing the culture at our company and thinking about our product as an extension of our DEI initiatives.
I will give you a couple of examples. Almost all of our stations at this point have, as a policy, moved past using mug shots in our coverage because we recognize that it wasn’t adding to it at all. It actually exacerbates a problem that we saw when we talked to members of our African-American community. We also conducted extensive in-home research with the Latinx community to better understand where we win and where we lose with respect to our product offerings with them and what we can do better. We have adjusted a lot of our coverage in order to be more inclusive there.
What we have recognized during this period, while still pursuing aggressive representation goals, is that it is not enough to make sure your anchor desk reflects the community it serves. What is necessary is to make sure that from the board room to the newsroom floor where the editorial operation is happening and decisions are being made that that reflects the fabric of the communities that we serve.
We are very focused on ensuring that we are having a constant conversation about what we have to do to make sure our product lives up to the very high standards that we set. At this point, we have employee resource groups set and active for our Black employees, our Latinx employees, our LGBTQ employees and we have a very active resource group for our veterans. We leverage those resource groups not only for them to provide greater opportunity internally, but for us to listen for how we can do better as a company and as a media entity meant to really serve the American people.
Scripps is among the more bullish on NextGen TV. What is the business model there and what are its prospects, revenue-wise?
We are still working out what the business models are. The opportunity exists for us to continue to effectively monetize our spectrum through programming. For us to compete with digital distribution means that we have to be broadcasting in 4K and delivering an immersive audio experience that consumers expect at this point. It is what they are getting from the OTT and connected TV platforms, and it is what they need to get from us. Those are the price of admission items that will come with the transition to ATSC 3.0.
One thing the industry isn’t spending enough time talking about is it is not enough to sell an ATSC3.0 set. An ATSC3.0 set without a digital antenna is just an expensive monitor on the wall. We have to make sure consumers understand that for them to unlock the power of ATSC3.0 and to have that connected TV-like experience, they have got to go out and leverage the power of that digital antenna. We will be out with a marketing campaign focused on exactly that.
We are very active in pursuing the work in Detroit around the testing of 3.0 as an efficient broadcast distribution for data streaming — updates for cars, firmware, the internet of things. We will continue to work toward developing more applications that allow us to leverage what is essentially the most efficient way to data in a broadcast one-to-many distribution mechanism. The question is how is that going to evolve into a business model. We are going to be working together, all of us, to determine the best way forward.
The pandemic has tested CEOs like nothing else before. How has it changed and continue to change the way you lead this company and the way you think about your own role as a leader?
I have always tried to think about our people first and to lead with empathy. The key to Scripps’ success over the last year has been that our entire senior leadership team through the pandemic treated our team, our employees, with a high level of respect, and we are very transparent with them. They really stepped up and worked twice as hard through very difficult circumstances. This has continued to reinforce for me the need for C-suite leadership to be incredibly empathetic and very transparent with employees, shareholders, stakeholders.
The other thing that I have become better at is what we term stakeholder agility, the ability for us to balance the needs of our employees against the needs of our shareholders, against the demands that we have as a mission-oriented company committed to producing news and information in this very perilous time and navigating that almost on a day-by-day, sometimes minute-by-minute basis.
You are trying to make decisions to determine what is best for the company, but also best for employees [and] investors and will still allow you to execute your mission. That has been like being in the gym lifting weights. The more we have exercised that stakeholder’s agility the better we have gotten, and I think it will pay us back over the coming years.
Read part one of Adam Symson’s Executive Session interview here.