This month, Local Media Association’s new Chief Innovation Officer Jay Small officially began with the organization and is already ramping up efforts to take over some of LMA’s most popular programs.
Small will be leading programs like Chief Content Club and Chief Digital Club as well as Innovation Missions. LMA’s Jed Williams, who previously led those programs, was promoted earlier this year to Chief Strategy Officer and is leading the Business Model Accelerator.
We caught up with Small to learn more about his background and what he will be doing at LMA.
First, tell us a little about your background?
I grew up in the news business. My family ran our hometown newspaper, The Daily Register of Harrisburg, Ill., for many years, starting with my grandfather. When I was a kid, he was general manager, my dad was managing editor, and my uncle ran production and the job printing shop. My brothers and I worked there as teens. I was a carrier, mail room clerk, delivery driver, sometimes janitor … whatever they asked me to do. Later, I covered high school sports as a photographer, and helped my dad with advance features wire editing on weekends.
In the mid-1980s, I got my degree in journalism and political science from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
After college, I worked as a copy editor, copy desk chief, page designer, then art/design director at newspapers ranging from The Sun Herald of Biloxi, Miss., to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and The Indianapolis Star.
After four years as art director, The Star gave me a shot at “this thing called the internet” starting in late 1994, as its first full-time employee focused on building web products. Those days, you felt like Harry Potter living in a closet under the stairs — colleagues rarely knew what you were doing, or ever saw your work, unless it got in the way of what they were doing.
Later in the ‘90s I tried my hand at strategic consulting on interactive services (“digital” wasn’t the common term yet), and by 2000, joined a team at Thomson Consumer Electronics tasked with building business models and tech platforms for content and commerce services in early connected electronic devices: ebook readers, digital still cameras, and primitive “smart TVs.”
I spent almost four years at the old Belo Interactive, as a regional director of news and operations for six Belo TV stations and The Providence Journal, then as director of product development. Spent another five years at The E.W. Scripps Co. helping run the digital group for its newspapers.
At the start of 2010, I joined Cordillera Communications as president of its digital business, leading digital revenue and operations for its 14 stations in 11 midsize markets. The group was part of Evening Post Industries, which also owns a really good newspaper, The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C. In nine-plus years at Cordillera, our team multiplied annual digital revenues by more than 4 times, brought the division up to double-digit operating profit margins, and modernized site content and advertising systems.
Cordillera was a great run, but TV industry consolidation keeps going at an amazing pace. Evening Post announced its intention to sell the stations back in late summer 2018. Meanwhile, the LMA folks had started cooking up a new role to help keep the association’s ambitious learning programs and events growing and moving forward. Nancy Lane first contacted me about the possibility last fall. The more we all talked about it, the more I loved the prospect of the job and the infectious enthusiasm for LMA’s mission. I just joined LMA on April 1, and have been sipping from the proverbial fire hose since. That’s great, because I thrive when I’m busy and the synapses are firing.
What will you be doing at LMA?
First, despite a bit of title shuffling and evolution, I will not be replacing Jed Williams. He was chief innovation officer, which is now my title, but Jed is now chief strategy officer and will shift the bulk of his time to LMA’s new business model accelerator and other major development initiatives. So I guess you could say I’m succeeding him, but no one could replace him. And, in fact, some of the work Jed has done up to now will transition to me in the coming weeks and months: the Chief Digital Clubs; helping plan and program Innovation Missions and experiential learning events; conferences; some consulting and speaking engagements. I collaborate with Jed often as the accelerator and our other big-ticket initiatives move forward.
I will also gradually inherit the role of coordinator for Chief Content Clubs from David Arkin. He has led those groups expertly but will soon start a new full-time role with KPRC-TV in Houston.
Then there’s working with Julia Campbell, as well as our friends at Local Media Consortium, on The Branded Content Project. A good branded content program, in context of a good overall user experience, can be a great counterpoint to some of the digital advertising formats that have grown long in the tooth. I am eager to see what we learn and what the industry partners can take to market as a result of the R&D work in this project.
And I’ll be working with Emilie Lutostanski as she continues building out our Local News Resource Center, as well as helping shape social media strategies for us and the industry. And Jack Zavoral, whom I have known for almost a decade — he guides LMA’s digital sales training programs and I’m eager to collaborate on everything he’s cooking up.
We’re always working on improving internal processes and systems, too, and I’m used to wearing that hat in past jobs. So let’s just say we’re expecting to roll out some nice enhancements to member services and our own digital presence in the coming months.
When you were at Cordillera you really helped grow the station’s digital revenues. What was key and what are effective strategies you would encourage others to try?
Patience and persistence. The company had enough patience to let us roll out new sales programs, including products that had little or no profit margin to start, and give them time, resources, and focus to grow. We watched as peer companies rolled out things like paid search, then retreated or de-emphasized when finance managers balked at the margins and account executives balked at lower commissions. We stuck with it, difficult conversations and all, and by the time I left paid search alone represented about a quarter of our net revenue in digital — that’s after paying the media costs to Google and the others.
We chose in many cases not to compete on price, especially on those same low-margin, third-party products. And believe me, you lose some clients and prospects that way. But we couldn’t see racing to the bottom just to add clients that we might never persuade to level up to profitable spending levels or product mixes. We competed on service, and though that is also a tough strategy to sustain consistently, it served us better than being the low-cost provider.
David Buonfiglio, our VP/digital sales for the whole time I was at Cordillera, gets a lot of the credit for shaping our product portfolio and the sales collateral to support it. He kept our local digital sales teams abreast of third parties’ program enhancements, and he was an outstanding over-the-shoulder coach for all our local teams. Most of the time we worked together, Dave did three Cordillera market visits on average every month. That’s showing up, and that’s a big reason for our success.
One of your focuses at LMA will be on Innovation Missions. Why do you think they are so important?
The IMs give attendees — and, through LMA’s coverage, the industry — extraordinary views to the work of leading technology and digital companies, intriguing startups, and innovations at media companies and R&D partners. It’s one thing to invite leaders from those enterprises into our world, as speakers at LMA conferences or some such. It’s quite another to show up for a day or even a few hours in their world.
To me, each IM should be a new milestone that helps set up ideas for conference sessions and even club call topics to come. Not everyone can make it to an IM, so I also think the coverage of key takeaways is critical for people who weren’t in the room.
At LMA, their core mission is to help discover new and sustainable business models. How do you see yourself doing that in this role?
Since I started doing “digital stuff” in the mid-1990s, every role leading up to LMA has included heavy involvement in product and service innovation and business modeling. Some of those initiatives worked out well, others floated as “ghost ships” for a while before disappearing, others never got going. Every one provided lessons, though, and I hope to bring those lessons to my colleagues at LMA and in the industry. Here I’ve just started work with an association that provides such great strategic value to the industry and plans to double down and more on its mission. It feels to me as though the first, most appropriate thing I can offer is the memories of all my relevant learning mistakes.
Anything else you would like to add?
I welcome conversations with folks in the industry on any of these topics or whatever else you might need — or to answer the burning question, “What’s a Saluki?”
I’m pretty easy to find, so hit me up:
Local Media Foundation will use new support to consult, report on content platform upgrades for publishers of color