How much would you pay for online access to Ron Burgundy — or at least the Ron Burgundys of Cincinnati?
In an industry-shaking move, E.W. Scripps’ WCPO.TV — that’s the website of Cincinnati’s ABC affiliate — is putting up a paywall Jan. 1. While it may not quite be the first TV broadcaster in the U.S. with paid digital access, it is the first toannounce the move. With another station, a Press+ client, preparing to go paywall before the end of the month, this mini-revolution in local TV news may be starting small, but its ramifications could be profound: Local TV news — itself facing a transitional struggle because of digital disruption — is re-orienting itself for a battle with local newspaper news — and therein will lie lots of drama over the next few years.
It was the news of a TV paywall — a hard paywall at that — that caught a few headlines two weeks ago when the news broke. But that isn’t even the most intriguing thing about the WCPO push. Scripps is investing in content and in engagement in Cincinnati. In total, 30 people are being hired, “the vast majority” of them in editorial, with multimedia producers, community-oriented staff, and digital sales people filling out that number.
How big an investment is that? WCPO, in the 34th largest U.S. market, started out with a newsroom of about 75. Adding more than 20 new people to focus on digital is a substantial increase.
“That incremental staff produces content for the digital platforms, but when a reporter breaks a story exclusively (which is happening almost every day) that information/coverage/story makes its way to on-air, though it might be written or wrapped in a different way, appropriate for that medium,” says Adam Symson, Scripps’ chief digital office. “Our digital reporters often end up interviewed on set as part of the tell. Bottom line, they aren’t producing TV stories because they aren’t broadcast journalists, but expansion of coverage as a result of the strategy is absolutely positively impacting the depth and breadth of our on-air product every day.”
What’s behind Scripps’ contrarian play, in an age of news cautiousness? “It’s about winning digital,” Symson says. “At the end of the day, there is room for one, two, or maybe three local dominant media brands. Winning the digital consumer will be the price of admission to being one of those winning brands.”