Adam Symson, president and CEO of the E.W. Scripps Company, joins the National Association of Broadcasters' chief operating officer Curtis LeGeyt to reflect on his career in journalism, what it means to helm one of the industry's most esteemed brands, media literacy and the growth of the ATSC 3.0 television standard.
Edited and Paraphrased for Print
Welcome to Voices from the Field, where we hear directly from television and radio broadcasters on their impact on our communities and what drives them. I'm Curtis LeGeyt, chief operating officer at the National Association of Broadcasters, and today I'm pleased to be talking with Adam Symson, president and CEO of the E.W. Scripps Company. Adam, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. Scripps spends significant time and resources into promoting news literacy and helping combat misinformation. But before we jump into that, I would like to start with some background on your career path in broadcasting that I think is extremely relevant for today's discussion. So first, Adam, what brought you to the E.W. Scripps Company?
In a word: journalism. And to expand on that, the company's commitment to journalism, I had spent the first 15 to 20 years of my career in local broadcast journalism, mostly in television. I spent most of it as an investigative journalist in Los Angeles and Chicago, and I was brought to Phoenix to the E.W. Scripps Company's ABC affiliate to launch an investigative team. And I found at KNXV, and in Scripps, a company completely committed to journalism, one that really held journalists to the highest standards, was very focused on stewardship. And I realized I could make a career at the company, I left the station in Phoenix and joined the corporate office about a year and a half later to oversee investigations and special projects. And then ultimately, news for our station group. At the time, we only had nine TV stations that did news at the time. And I've really had quite an adventure ever since at the company.
Well, I think the 'ever since' is a key part of today's conversation. Obviously, there's been a tremendous amount of change in the media landscape over the two decades since you arrived at Scripps. I wonder if you can just talk about how that background as an investigative journalist during your early days at the company prepared you for what's happening, all the transformation in the news landscape today?
Yes, so investigative journalism is all about curiosity. It's all about trying to connect the dots, understand the world around you, and help storytell what's going on so that the consumer, the audience can follow. And when I think about the skills necessary to navigate this landscape, those are really the skills I think that have helped me excel: a high level of curiosity, entrepreneurship, creativity. The company has long been focused on evolving to be where the media consumer is going. And that's really what we've seen, over my time, almost 20 years at the company. We've been in and out of media, we were certainly at one point of the nation's largest newspaper companies. More recently, in radio, and we've doubled the size of our local television portfolio. We were in digital audio, one of the first public companies in podcasting and have since exited those businesses. And today, we're really focused on the future and television, a future that we think is very, very bright, and involves over the air television, over the top television and pay TV.
Adam, I'm glad you touched on those points, because obviously, at the National Association of Broadcasters, we're focused on telling the broadcast story in Washington, D.C., and the elements that we focused significantly on is the fact that we are uniquely free to consumers all across the country. And that means we are over the air and we are local. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that specifically, especially given your recent acquisition of ION. A big part of your messaging, both in Washington, D.C. and to the investor community has been really doubling down on over the air. And you're want to raise awareness of OTA with consumers and stakeholders across the media landscape. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Sure. The OTA marketplace has been growing naturally between from about 7% of U.S. households, at this point to between 30 and 40% of U.S. households. And that's happened without anybody really advocating for it. It's happened because as people have cut the cord and moved towards subscription services, they've recognized that free over-the-air television is also a really important and efficient companion to their subscription video-on-demand services. Over-the-air television is ubiquitous, and it's free. It's the most efficient way for us to reach Americans. It's the way that Americans stay safe during natural disasters. It's the way that Americans stay informed. And our local presence in our markets, I think, is critical. When we think about the underpinning of the news ecosystem, we have to face facts. The newspaper industry is damaged. And not only - as I say to our teams - not only is that an opportunity for local broadcasting, it's actually for Scripps an imperative. If we don't step up and ensure that our local communities are served with local news and information, then frankly, I believe our democracy will be at risk. And I don't mean to be hyperbolic about it. But that's the way we think about it at Scripps.
I want to drill in on that point for a moment, because there's so much discussion going on nationally on just the demise of the local newsroom, so much focus on newspapers, news deserts, but I think you hit on an important point, which is that in the moment where newspapers are really suffering, there's a tremendous opportunity for local broadcasters, especially when it's our programming is transmitted through that lovely, focused free signal, combined with your online offerings. Do you see what's happening with the newspapers as an opportunity for local broadcasters? Or a cautionary tale?
It's both. I mean, it's an opportunity, certainly for local broadcasters. And it's a cautionary tale. I think it's important that we have to recognize that in this era, where people have an unlimited number of choices, whatever we serve up has to be either lovable or necessary to the consumer. We can't get away with anything less. People are time starved, the amount of options they have for media, the way they can spend their time are at this point unlimited. When I think about when I began in my career, I remember thinking about the 11 o'clock news. You either stayed up and watched the 11 o'clock news, maybe you watch something else on syndicated programming, or on a VHS tape, or you went to bed. And those were your choices. But today, the choices where you can get information about what happened during the course of the day are really unlimited. So we've got to make sure that our product is top notch, that it's not a waste of people's time, that it serves the communities where we operate. And that's the focus we have at Scripps with our content strategy. I would say further, local journalism is not dying, it's not disappearing, but the platforms through which it is being consumed, where the public finds its relevance have changed. And I get a little frustrated about a lot of the navel gazing and hand wringing happening in the newspaper industry when it comes to the commentary around the death of local news. Local news isn't dying. I don't necessarily know that all companies are created equal. But at this point, our company is out there producing more local news than ever. We have investigative journalists and investigative teams in every one of our markets. We have been very committed through the pandemic to creating products that both support the local news ecosystem, help our audiences connect with the world around them, and frankly, support the main street and local economy. And that's what we serve to do. The company has been around for 142 years. At one point, we were the nation's largest newspaper company. And at this point, we're one of the nation's largest broadcasters. And we carry that mantle as a heavy responsibility because we are here to serve.
Taking that a step further, as you're looking at what's happening in the world around us, it's not lost on me that you and I are both doing this interview from our homes today. And that's really a result of a transition that's taken place as a result of COVID. The silver lining to the events of the last year is that I do think broadcasters have really demonstrated the unique focus, the unique lifeline, the source of news that you can't get anywhere else. Yes, newspapers do some of that. But at the end of the day, if you are trying to get the latest information on local schools, local businesses, "where can I go and get my vaccine? How do I sign up?" Local broadcasters have really filled that void. But you're right, that it's not just traditional access of our information. It is a lot more than that. As your company and your stations have positioned to inform communities across the last year, what have you learned in terms of the demand for what we provide versus some other mediums.
The demand for our product over the last year has been higher than we've seen in years. There's no question that everything this country has gone through over the course of the last year - from the pandemic, the civil and social unrest, the election - all of it has been essentially a local story. So our brands, our journalists have been out on the street, our brands have been there for the communities, even in the face of losing - at one point 50% of our revenue - the reality was we redeployed our resources to ensure that we were going to be there to ensure that the communities where we operate, the communities where we live, where our staff lives, would be able to make it through this year. And I think what we're seeing now as the economy rebounds, is sort of a bit of a bit of a payback. And we've heard from small businesses that use the resources that we provided to them for free, during the pandemic, that we helped them through a period of austerity. We've heard from our audiences that over the course of the last year, it was our newscasts, our anchors, our journalists who themselves were working from home, really held their hands through this incredible year. This crazy news year. And when it comes down to trust, we've heard over and over from the audiences through direct communication, as well as through surveys, that local news brands are still the most trusted sources for local news and information. More than the cable networks, more than the newspapers, it's really local television news that has maintained that connection to the communities that we serve.
We have all seen those statistics, Adam. The public mistrust of the social media platforms, the concerns about the politicization of cable news. Is that really providing a renewed appreciation for what your stations do relative to the rest of the media landscape?
I think so. I think people recognize that they can still trust those local news brands, I get very frustrated thinking about the cable news outlets, quite frankly, because they still get to keep that word "news" in their titles. But in reality, most of them at this point have transitioned from journalism, to what I would consider talk radio on television. They spend most of their time actually debating topics and providing their audiences with access to an echo chamber of ideas. We take a very different perspective. Our mission at Scripps has been for a long time, to give light and that people will find their own way. And we really intend to do that. To provide information, to provide context and perspective and to allow our audience to draw the conclusions that they will, from the facts that we put on display. And that's been the way this company has operated for 142 years. As the founder of our company said, "E.W. Scripps: independence in all things." That's really the mission that drives us forward.
And I know a major focus for you has been on news literacy and really ensuring that as the just the public of obsession with social media and all of the distrust and disinformation that's being sown there is really prevalent, that local broadcasters are playing a role as an antidote. But to do that, we've got to be, as an industry, well-trained and do our jobs better now that we've ever done it before, because we're going to be scrutinized like never before. I wonder if you could just tell me what types of resources you have Scripps are putting into this news literacy issue.
For several years now, we've partnered with the News Literacy Project. And with the News Literacy Project, we founded News Literacy Week. Last year was our second year where we really brought attention to the subject of news literacy. We worked with the News Literacy Project to help develop and deploy a curriculum into high school and middle school so that we can educate the next generation. You know, I think about my children. My children are growing up in an era where there's less and less civics education in high school. There's no testing on it. And so it's sometimes minimized. They're emerging from high school into a content ecosystem that's more complicated than ever, certainly more complicated than we've had to contend with. And sometimes they're not educated with the skills to be able to determine the difference between native advertising and facts and journalism. Press releases and propaganda. Rumor from journalism and reporting. And a lot of this is amplified because they get their information from social media, from their friends. They're born into an echo chamber. And it's incredibly alarming to think about this generation. So we're really focused on deploying our resources, putting some of our journalists into classrooms not to teach one thing or the other, but merely to teach how to determine if something is fact or fiction, to be a good consumer of multiple sources, to understand where the sources come from, to fact check yourself. More recently, this is something that we've gone beyond school into adults. I think we've all seen what happens when misinformation prevents people from getting vaccines, or creates conflict in certain populations. The fact is, we have to somehow fix this problem, or I really do believe our democracy will be at risk. We will ultimately end up with an uninformed electorate, or maybe an ill informed or misinformed electorate, we already know we have the threat of that. But it's incumbent upon us to make sure that we can deploy resources to try and do that. At Scripps, we're doing that for a couple of reasons. One, we're a news company, and we need news consumers. So it's a it's an economic argument. But secondly, this is a company of mission. As I said, for 143 years we've been at it. We really do believe that the country is made better because of the work journalists do and we want the general public to understand the role that journalism plays and that they need to be savvy and informed consumers in order for them to play a role in civic life, to be engaged consumers.
As a broadcaster, I'm also fascinated by the role ATSC 3.0 is playing in your efforts. I think so many of us are focused on ATSC 3.0 in a more traditional sense, meaning taking what broadcasters are doing today, their over-the-air signal, and enhancing it better picture, better audio, better, better consumer experience, better advertiser experience, but you're doing a lot more. And one of the places where that is really relevant is in this News Literacy Project. I wonder if you can talk about the way that you're leveraging ATSC 3.0 here.
The interactive elements of ATSC 3.0 are going to provide the opportunity for us as broadcasters to allow a dialogue with our consumers as they're watching. So while we tend to hear a lot about the interactivity with respect to advertising, the interactivity with respect to the news product is just as critical. So we've done a lot of experimentation with trying to provide greater depth and perspective using the app-like user experience in the in the ATSC 3.0 universe. The other opportunity we see in the ATSC 3.0 universe is to leverage broadcast spectrum to help bridge the digital divide. So we've been doing a lot of work identifying ways that we can use our broadcast spectrum to participate in education particularly in areas where connectivity is a problem. Broadcasting is the most ubiquitous and efficient way to deliver packets of information and 3.0 will allow us to deliver information to set-top boxes, to hard drives, in a way that will allow broadcasters - if they use the resource right - to participate in doing what needs to be done in this country, helping everybody remain connected, educated, informed, and of course entertained and enlightened.
It's just fascinating the way that these technologies can can really be used to the benefit of our consumers in ways that I think weren't initially contemplated when we were all talking about the deployment, the potentials of ATSC 3.0 and really, the moment couldn't be a more important one. For all the reasons that you stated in terms of the need for a well-informed American public right now at this time more than any other. But also, frankly, in this moment where you've got more people working from home, doing school from home, the fact that broadcasters can leverage ATSC 3.0, as a complement to broadband to help deliver certain types of information. I think there's a lot of potential here for the industry and look forward to working together with your company on all of that. Before we conclude today, I want to talk a little bit more about your passion for journalism. I think it has shown through in this entire conversation, but you in particular, have worked very closely with the Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press, around all of the First Amendment issues that are so relevant in Washington right now and in the courts. I remember one of the first conversations you and I had about NAB and our advocacy agenda, you asked me, "Yeah, I understand what you need to do for the business of broadcasting, but what are you doing to protect journalists?" Because that is really our calling card. And I couldn't agree with you more. So I'd like to before we conclude here, just touch on the work that you've done with regard to the access that media outlets were able to gain for the Derek Chauvin trial, and where you think that that fits in for local news outlets on a going-forward basis, that that role of activism while also doing reporting?
I think everybody has to recognize that a government's legitimacy rests on its transparency. We see in foreign countries, where dictators and despots and governments try to hide from the people, and this country has been founded on the basis that that's not healthy for a democracy. And in order for us to ensure that transparency comes to life. It's the media's role. It's the journalists' role to play that intermediary, to help facilitate that transparency on behalf of the public. Recently, we worked through our brand, Court TV, to bring the Derrick Chauvin trial to all of America. We broadcast gavel-to-gavel coverage of that trial in a respectful way, that I think helped make sure that all sides of the issue were on display, that when the verdict came down, it happened in the full light of day, and that all of America had the opportunity to witness justice on display. And that's really, I think, a good example of the role that the camera can play in the courtroom, cameras in city hall, certainly journalists on the floor. And that's our job - to bring what's happening inside our government, to the people and we we provide a voice for the voiceless, oftentimes connecting the government with its constituency, we ensure that private business is kept in check. Going back to Upton Sinclair's jungle, it's the journalists' job to ensure that we do right by the entirety of this country. And we take that mission very, very seriously at this company.
On behalf of the broadcast industry, I want to thank you for your tremendous leadership. Before we wrap up, any other personal reflections of the last year either as it relates to the broadcast industry, or frankly, just the workplace in the country that you'd like to add before we close?
We're still operating in perilous times, when social media and big tech has such great influence over the way so many in our country think. Again, we need to go back to a time when our role is to provide information and facts and that people are allowed then to draw their own conclusions. I think that's the best way to facilitate an informed electorate. And that remains the focus of our company. I think we'll be around for the next 143 years through broadcasting and through other future media that we we expect to evolve, to ensure that journalism continues to play critical role in our democracy, and that we'll continue to be stewards of the communities that we serve.
Well, we look forward to the ongoing partnership. Adam, I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today. It's been an absolute pleasure. And good luck getting back to what's hopefully a new normal on the other side of this pandemic.
Thanks so much, Curtis. It was great to be with you.
Adam Symson is president and CEO of The E.W. Scripps Company.
Prior to becoming CEO in August 2017, Adam was Scrippsâ€? chief operating officer, overseeing the companyâ€™s broadcast TV, radio and digital media divisions.
As chief digital officer from 2011 to 2016, he was responsible for driving the companyâ€™s digital transformation in Scrippsâ€? local television, newspaper and radio markets and for national businesses, which included Newsy and Midroll. In this role, Adam oversaw the strategy and execution across product development, content, revenue and marketing for Scrippsâ€? portfolio of web, mobile and over-the-top businesses. He was responsible for leading the companyâ€™s efforts to develop new businesses in emerging media through investment and acquisition.
Since joining the companyâ€™s corporate operation in 2003 as the director of investigations and special projects for the TV group, Adam has held roles including director of content and marketing for the companyâ€™s interactive media division (which was spun off into Scripps Networks Interactive in 2008) and director of news strategy and operations. Adam joined Scripps as executive producer of investigations and special projects for KNXV, the Scripps-owned ABC affiliate in Phoenix.
Adam began his broadcast career at KGIL-AM 1260 in Los Angeles and has a bachelorâ€™s degree in communications from the University of California, Los Angeles.
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