A look inside the evolution of E.W. Scripps Company with digital revenue leader Tom Sly

At the May 1-2 Digital Revenue Summit, we’ll kick things off with a conversation about creating digital priorities with Tom Sly, VP Digital Revenue at E.W. Scripps Company and Jason Jedlinski, VP Product Management at Gannett.

In this frank discussion, the two media executives will share where they see opportunities in the digital space over the next 12-18 months.

We caught up with Sly to learn more about what’s happening at Scripps and where he’s placing his bets.

Tell us a little about what you all are working on at Scripps right now?

We’re in the middle of a corporate restructuring. Adam Symson our former Chief Digital Officer took over as the CEO last August. At that time, he announced that we would be looking at the company as it was structured at that time, and begin to think differently about how to structure our business for the future.

In December, he announced that we would be re-structuring the divisions of our company.  Instead of having separate broadcast and digital segments, he asked us to re-align based upon the market places that our businesses transact in.

We now have national and local segments. Our former broadcast leaders are now managing the digital products within their local businesses.  News no matter the platform, is managed by one team.  Our sales organizations are integrated selling a broad menu of local products including TV, radio, and all of our digital solutions.

This has been a big part of the last 8 months for Scripps.  At the same time, we’re looking to bring more efficiency to all of our processes and products.  We’re working to make digital easier, integrated cross-screen or multi-product solutions feel more natural and improve margin at the same time.

Nothing is sacred. We’re going through all processes and products.

We of course, also have our national products that include Newsy, our OTT News Network, MidRoll Media, the largest podcast company in the US, Stitcher, our podcast distribution platform, and Simplemost media, which includes Simplemost.com and Cracked.com. Our local business, which are still quite healthy spinning off respectable amounts of cash flow, are mature businesses. Our national businesses are the future growth engine for the company.  We’re investing in these businesses, hiring aggressively, building and buying technology to allow us to be industry leaders in these businesses.

Today, I’m spending the majority of my time in our national businesses. Working with our teams to develop our revenue strategy, look for opportunities for revenue innovation, and ensure that we’re looking out far enough down the road that we understand where we need to be investing today, to allow us to achieve our long-term revenue expectations.

What opportunities do you see being important in the next 12-18 months?

Data is a hot topic today and I think it’s going to be something that we will all be focused on. Several years ago, data was icing on the cake for programmatic transactions and for audience targeting. Today, in a world where the market demands more transparency in what brands the advertisers brand is aligned with and the audience that is viewing their ad, data is essential.

Of course, there is also GPDR and the whole Facebook issue in the news.  There is going to be a great deal of conversation around how publishers can responsibly collect and utilize audience data.

I also think that we are at a point where we agree that creating premium local news content at scale is difficult to financially justify with a 100% ad supported model.  We’re all looking at subscriptions or perhaps exchanging valuable audience data for access to our content.

The final item we’re talking about is AI/ML.  How can we use artificial intelligence to enable us to run our businesses more efficiently, while improving audience engagement and monetization?  We’re working on getting our data organized and indexed in a way that we can act on it, but I think that we won’t be able to begin testing until 2019.

What are the trends you are seeing with digital right now at Scripps?

Less audience coming through the side door via Facebook, more coming through via AMP and organic.

Local advertisers demanding more sophisticated solutions.  We as an industry have educated them in a way that basic solutions are not acceptable because our competitors are bringing more advanced products to them

Video is still in high demand, though more buyers are talking about OTT/CTV than pre-roll. YOY digital growth is slowing.

How is the digital transition at Scripps going for sales and content?

Brian Lawlor, our head of Local Media is holding the news, marketing, and sales organization accountable for achieving their specific goals. In the past, when we had digital and broadcast divisions, we worked well together, but there were challenges holding the teams accountable. Now being structured under one leader, a very strong leader, there is no us and them. It’s all us.

I do think that 6 years ago, when we set up a separate digital organization, that was the right decision for the time. And I also think that the restructuring that we are going through is the right decision for Scripps today.

When we had both TV and newspaper operations, there was definitely a difference in mindset in the leadership.  Newspapers had to quickly evolve because their business was seeing huge YOY declines. TV is still not feeling the pain like newspaper. Their reps are still making healthy livings, and at times, I think there are some in the business that aren’t motivated enough to learn the products and ensure that they have a fully integrated solution in every proposal. When you look at the data I think the number is 88% of local businesses are buying digital every month. If they are not buying from us, they are buying from our competitors.

How are you thinking about social media today? Friend? Foe? Both?

I think that there is still value for local media to utilize social media.I know that the FB Journalism team is working hard to support our industry as much as they can. By that I mean that Zuck is first and foremost always about serving the community. That means that decisions are made that are not always in local media’s best interest.

As an industry, we got lazy. We enjoyed the traffic that Facebook drove to our sites, and we didn’t have to work very hard to get traffic growth. Today, it’s different, Facebook algorithm changes have caused referral traffic to drop. Publishers have to work harder to drive new traffic to their sites. It’s better for the industry, but painful. Hopefully, we’re more focused on the user experience on our sites, we’re paying more attention to the quality of content that we producing, and using data to improve engagement and time on site.

*You can register for the Digital Revenue Summit here*