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Good news for true journalists

24 February 2011 By Daniel Gross, Editor-in-Chief No Comments
Rich Boehne of Scripps - Daniel Gross/ The Towerlight

Rich Boehne of Scripps - Daniel Gross/ The Towerlight

In the digital information age we live in today, we all know that the journalism industry is dying, right? I mean, haven’t you heard your colleagues or co-workers point to journalism as a washed-up industry with no hope of survival? If you have, try to take a step back and consider the following.

Over the winter break, I had the opportunity to sit down with the head of the E.W. Scripps Company, Richard Boehne.

Boehne, 54, is the president and CEO of the major media conglomerate. This is the same corporation that owns newspapers in 14 American markets and 10 television stations in nine markets. In addition, it has several schools at major universities in its name, sponsors the national spelling bee, and is partnered with the Scripps Networks Interactive, which owns television stations like the Food Network and HGTV.

It is also a company that, like many others, has had to make major business cuts, several changes in payment plans, and some big-time investment decisions. Scripps has shut down several major newspapers, including well-known daily the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, Colo., a year and a half ago.

“I’ve been through a lot of wild things. In a career, that was the worst day of my career,” Boehne said.

“You just look at a paper that’s losing money and don’t see any way to make it profitable and decide, ‘Do we need to make everybody else in the whole company subsidize one market?’ It just didn’t make any sense.”

But the big-time closure does not mean the company is on a downward spiral to non-existence. In fact, Scripps appears to be thriving, and although Boehne has had to make some difficult executive decisions in the past several years, he has much hope for the future of the company and the future of journalism as a whole. All of Scripps’ newspapers are now self-sustaining and even profitable, according to Boehne. Once again, cuts have been made and newsrooms are now operating on a smaller scale, but news is still there and journalists still have opportunities.

The Internet’s impact on journalism

Boehne said he attributes much of the decline in newspapers to the global economic crisis, which has affected much more than the news industry. In addition, he said there is no question that the entire realm of print media has had to adjust since the rise of the Internet.

The popularity of the Web has completely altered the profitability of newspapers, and that’s no secret. But because of this, professors and students alike are raising their hands in confusion as to how the industry can be saved. For Boehne, it’s not a mystery.

“What’s happened to the newspaper industry, it’s really not complicated at all. The Internet came in and changed the economics of classified advertising, primarily. You got to the point where classified advertising was 50 percent of your revenue,” he said.

In addition, journalism jobs have been altered in terms of newspaper content. There is no longer a need for journalists wasting their time on “spot news” or event coverage-type stories for the print media. He said that is what television, social networks and online news websites are for. For print to survive, journalists need to take on the role of news analysis, investigations, commentary and other enterprising story assignments.

“We continue to invest and protect strong local enterprise reporting, believing that that’s the guts of what we do. So in every city, including on the TV side, we continue to put money into enterprise reporting and investigative reporting, feeling that if the market’s consolidated, its weaker players disappear,” Boehne said. “It’s an opportunity for those who have a good base. So we still do investigative reporting, true enterprise reporting, and cut out other things if we have to.”

Moving toward a pay model

In addition to revamping the reporting model for print media, changes must also be met in the online fields.

“What you’ll see out of us very shortly is a move to more and more what is sort of crudely called pay walls, and just accepting the reality that what we’re doing today is not sustainable, either in television or in newspapers,” Boehne said. “You can’t produce all of this high value content and give it away for free – it’s just not going to work.”

Boehne said he believes once pay walls become more of a reality, consumers will have no problem spending a little to receive quality content. As for the news sites that choose to remain free, Boehne said that may work, but only for people who are comfortable with having that level of quality in the content they consume.

“What I like to think over time is that [a pay model] will have to work because what you see on the Web today for free is not going to be there. It’s just not sustainable,” he said.

There is hope

There is hope and a future for journalists on the brink of graduating college and entering the field. While there may not be as many open positions as there used to be, the positions exist, and they exist for true starving journalists who are not afraid to dive into an investigative piece.

Scripps plans to stay around for as long as citizens are obtaining information. Boehne said there may not be physical print newspapers in the future, but the company intends on being a leader in the news market using whatever format that may be.

Although there are some major shifts happening in print, the journalism industry is just beginning. Boehne said that he enjoys being a part of these days in history when change is happening at a much faster rate than ever before, and I must say I agree. These are truly exciting times.

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