Clear new focus of Scripps newspapers: “Create great content and sell the crap out of it!”

The other day, Rusty Coats, the new vice president for content and marketing for the E.W. Scripps Company, shed some light on the recent reorganization of the firm’s newspaper division, which includes the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Rusty Coats

Rusty Coats

And, he revealed that it centers around a recognition by the company that there have been “tectonic shifts” in the journalism profession and that the firm’s newspapers must adapt to survive. I was relieved to hear that Scripps has implemented a clear-eyed plan to address these changes. Basically, Coats’ message was that being an “old-fashioned newspaper man” is no longer an option – not even a little bit. That train has left the station.

“Last week I rewrote the job descriptions for all Scripps editors making it clear that in 2009, you are either a multimedia editor or you are unemployable as an editor,” he said bluntly. “We recognize these tectonic shifts in our business and are willing to reinvent our newsrooms to continue serving our communities for another 100 years — rather than stand over our open grave and weep.”

All editors and Web managers in Scripps’ 14 newspaper markets report to Coats. As do all the newspaper marketing directors. This makes sense when you understand the philosophy behind the reorganization. “We must align around our core functions: creating great content and selling the crap out of it!” he said. “And recognize that we must obliterate the wall separating print and on-line.”

Coats said all Scripps newsrooms must become “platform agnostic.”

Scripps recognizes that the Internet has fundamentally changed the way people gather and use information. And that has changed what journalism is, he said. In the old days, journalists gathered data – much of it publicly available data – and then told readers what the information said and what it meant.

Today, because of the Internet, everyone has access to the same raw data – whether it is records down at the courthouse or a public meeting that is being broadcast live on-line. And people use that data to draw their own conclusions and tell their own stories about it to the people in their personal networks. People essentially are their own publishers, editors and reporters. “We are redefining who is a journalist and what is journalism,” he said.

“The era of mass media is being replaced by one in which masses of people transmit news and information personally within their own network of self-selected correspondents and followers,” he said. That’s exactly what Twitter is. It’s just people spreading information and opinions to their own circle of friends and acquaintances. Coats said he uses Twitter and other social media tools essentially like his grandmother used a police scanner. “I use it to keep an ear to the ground,” he said.

The new tools also allow journalists to listen to their audiences as well as speak to them. And expect a lot more of that, he said. The reorganization puts audience interaction at the core of the newspaper’s work, he said.

A very important role for newspapers and their on-line arms will continue to be their function as a “watchdog” over government. Coats called that journalism’s “iron core.”

“Journalism is not just measured in page views and single-copy sales,” he said. “It is measured by the difference it makes. It is our relationship with our audiences and our iron core – not our presses – that makes us strong.”

Coats said that while most newsrooms are still struggling with the idea of “Web first,” which mean putting breaking news on the paper’s Web site as quickly as possible, the next big challenge will be “thinking about how journalism plays in the exploding mobile phone space.” Currently, he said, there are three times as many mobile phones on Earth as there are computers. “The driving force is not people wanting to talk to each other,” he said. “It’s about people seeking information – news, if you will – in the most convenient form.” He said the emergence of so much readily available data allows people to access information about their own specific location on their mobile device. “You can get information about your school or your neighborhood,” he pointed out. “And the rise of social media allows everyone to tell the news,” he said.

When he made his remarks, Coats was speaking to the Knoxville Social Media Association meeting in the courtyard of the Crown and Goose in the Old City. In a conversation later, he expanded on his comments. He predicted that like the other Scripps papers, the News Sentinel also will put more emphasis on interacting with its audiences, both on-line and in the print product. “We will actively seek more local voices, step up our pursuit of public records that impact readers’ lives, increase our focus on breaking news and deliver stories, video, photos and even tweets that serve the community,” he said.

Coats, who is stationed in Knoxville,  lives in a downtown condo. His wife still lives in Florida for the time being and his children (from a previous marriage) live in Minnesota. So he sees a lot of the airport. “I really like Knoxville,” he said. “With UT, TVA and Oak Ridge, the collective IQ is higher than you might expect from a city this size. There is no ‘weather’ here to speak of, yet there are four seasons. You get the feeling the city’s best days are ahead. Scripps is here, proving you can recruit employees. The Smokies offer natural beauty. And there is no pretension about this place.”

“I’m in my forties,” he added. “I can do business here. It is a livable city and it has an airport that connects me with the places I need to be. Knoxville is a better place than Nashville when it comes to air travel.”

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