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How do news organizations find their footing when the ground starts shifting? We’re providing a hands-on view into the process that’s unfolding as newsrooms at the Missouri School of Journalism begin exploring and launching over-the-top (OTT) products and projects.

The act of spinning plates on stage was such a memorable part of the Ed Sullivan Show that it became a cultural metaphor. (If you don’t recognize it, perhaps a good excuse to call your grandparents!). Plate-spinning is what Sean McLaughlin and the content team at Scripps are doing as we check in during another brief stop on The Road to OTT.

In the past five years, the television group, with roots back to 1878, has transformed itself through acquisitions including Newsy (2013), Journal (2014), Stitcher (2016) and Cordillera (2018) along with several other individual station acquisitions from Nexstar and Raycom Media. Integrating the recently acquired stations would be a full-time job for some companies, so, how do they have any time to think about OTT?

“OTT is the marriage of old and new,” according to McLaughlin who agrees with other industry observers who say the evolution of streaming is fundamentally changing what we now call TV. “We spend a lot of money for stories that only last a few hours,” says McLaughlin talking about linear television—a business that still generates significant profits for Scripps.

McLaughlin insists local television remains important and relevant to communities and he disputes the notion that television anchors and meteorologists no longer matter. “They want real people sharing relevant information,” according to McLaughlin who says the company’s research still shows weather as a leading content driver despite the ubiquity of digital weather apps. “Its about how to make sense of the chaos for local audiences,” points out McLaughlin.

Scripps plans to use what it knows from on-demand platforms like Newsy and Stitcher to advance their OTT strategy. Newsy is the online video service Scripps acquired for $35 million (in full disclosure, the Missouri School of Journalism has been a longstanding partner dating back to its initial days as a startup in offices across the street in Columbia). McLaughlin says Newsy is a good example of how Scripps plans to learn more about on-demand while sharing what it already knows about the linear “cable” business.

McLaughlin admits the challenges are serious for Scripps News Directors Next generation local audiences define relevance very differently than their parents and McLaughlin points out the economics are going to vary greatly between large and smaller markets. Scripps now produces local news in 42 markets ranging from DMA Market #11 (Phoenix) to a collection of Montana newsrooms that collectively serve the entire state. The company’s central news desk in Denver is charged with finding at least one story each day that is relevant across the footprint. McLaughlin says his team is working hard to help newsrooms find less perishable stories that will “scale more easily” beyond the local audience.

While the content piece requires different kinds of stories, McLaughlin says the technology piece is also important. That means making workflows as efficient as possible and also evolving the consumer apps. “It is about convenience and control,” says McLaughlin echoing others in the industry that say the cord-cutting phenomenon is here to stay and that it is no longer just about reducing cable bills. Scripps cites several years of audience research showing on-demand viewers are interested in longer-form storytelling as long as it is well done and relevant to their lives.

It is a lot of plates to keep spinning, but McLaughlin says Scripps remains committed to the company’s 1923 motto, “Give light and people will find their own way.” Next stop on The Road to OTT: We are back in the conference room at KOMU where the team is ready to forge forward.

Steven Ackermann  
 
Special Projects Consultant



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