As Kelly Ann Scott leaves her position as VP of Content for Alabama Media Group to assume the role of Executive Editor and Senior Vice President at the Houston Chronicle, she shares her insights on digital transformation in local journalism in one of the most fascinating examples of digital transformation. Scott discusses the strategic reorganization of newsrooms into mission-driven teams, the importance of impactful journalism, and the evolution of Alabama Media Group into a digital-first media company. She emphasizes the necessity of product thinking, audience engagement, and the balance between serving current and future audiences. Scott also highlights the significance of empathy and careful decision-making in newsroom leadership, advocating for a focus on solvable problems and innovative solutions.

Episode chapters:
(03:01) – Background of transformation at Alabama Media Group
(08:19) – Success, Pulitzers, serving multiple audiences and making daily choices
(12:24) – Organizing the newsroom to get beyond the daily grind
(19:05) – The innovation cycle: sprints, measurement, current vs. new audiences
(25:19) – Fans, merchandise and brands
(27:10) – Concierge news service
(29:23) – Product thinking and saying goodbye to print
(32:46) – Transformation for smaller mid-sized news organizations
(34:33) – Care and feeding of the team: empathy, listening, not overloading them
(39:33) – Rapid fire questions

Listen to the episode here:

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Bio:

Kelly Ann ScottKelly Ann Scott is the executive editor for the Houston Chronicle. She can be reached at kelly.scott@houstonchronicle.com.

Kelly joined the Houston Chronicle in October 2023 from Alabama Media Group, where she served as editor-in-chief and vice president of content, leading a team of more than 120 journalists. Under her leadership, AL.com won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize in local reporting and commentary.

Born in North Dakota, Kelly received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Nebraska and earned a master's degree in criminal justice at St. Cloud State University. She began her career as a reporter in Minnesota.

Full transcript:

(recorded via Riverside.fm; transcript automated via Castmagic.io, mostly unedited)

Kelly Ann Scott [00:00:00]: As a principle of organization, I've always believed that you need very clear teams with very clear missions and very specific goals, And people can succeed in that and understand what levers they can push and pull on to move in that direction. All of that builds up into an organizational plan that tells you what you are. Right? We do deliver the best daily news report in Alabama. We do have the largest investigative team that does those stories that change lives, laws and minds. We do have the shared experiences, the features, the things that we all rally around. The reasons we love living here, we do deliver that coverage. We do deliver the best sports news, the best in-depth pieces around that, whether it's on our TikTok channel, where we have docs that are going or whatever it is, we do those things too. 

Tim Regan-Porter [00:00:51]: Welcome to the Local News Matters podcast, where we explore pathways to stronger journalism, better businesses, and healthier communities. I'm Tim Regan-Porter, CEO of the Colorado Press Association. 

For this first episode of our second season, I’m thrilled to welcome Kelly Ann Scott. This is the first in an occasional series of exit interviews, where I talk to a leader leaving a position and invite them to reflect on lessons learned. I talked to Kelly just before she left her role as VP of Content for Alabama Media Group to assume the Executive Editor and Senior Vice President position at the Houston Chronicle. 

Alabama Media Group is an absolutely fascinating case study in digital transformation, one that I would put alongside Netflix’ transition to streaming or even Microsoft’s transformation from its legacy software business to services and AI. That transformation first came on my radar because AMG’s previous VP of Content, Michelle Holmes, served on my advisory board at the Center for Collaborative Journalism at the suggestion of Randy Siegel, then president of Advance Local, AMG’s parent company. Then when I did my JSK Fellowship at Stanford, I studied that transformation and spent many hours in-person and on the phone with AMG staff in Birmingham, Alabama and Advance executives in New York. There are so many lessons here. I hope to write a full case study if I ever take a sabbatical.  

But we touch on many of those lessons in this conversation. I start the interview trying to capture the breadth of that transformation and journey so that Kelly can focus on the hows and the whys and add additional color and details to my overview. So that’s why you’ll hear an unusual amount of me talking at the start.   If you like this episode and what we're doing more generally, please follow in your favorite podcast app, leave us a five star review on Apple podcasts and tell your friends about us. This is a side project and labor of love and your support means a lot. You can find past episodes, full transcripts and relevant links, and sign up for our newsletter at localnewsmatterspodcast.com or for lazy typists like me at lnmpod.com. You can also follow us on most social media channels @lnmpod. 

And now I bring you Kelly Ann Scott. 

Welcome, Kelly Ann Scott. It's great to have you. 

Scott [00:03:00]: Thank you. 

Background of transformation at Alabama Media Group 

Regan-Porter [00:03:01]: Feel free to interrupt me, but I'll just kind of give a little short synopsis of my understanding kind of in 3 acts. So in 2012, Advance Local, which is the parent company for Alabama Media Group, cut about 400 jobs, across the three titles that Alabama Media Group published, the Birmingham News, the Press Register in Mobile, and the Huntsville Time. And mixing the timeline this year, those 3 print publications completely ceased printing. And then in 2013, Michelle Holmes came in as VP of content, and along, with Tom Bates, I think came up a year or 2 later, really, shook things up in the newsroom even further and, started remaking the editorial and content side. So Alabama Media Group launched new brands like it's a southern thing, SCC shorts, people of Alabama, this is Alabama, and others, including Significantly Reckon, which is a, you know, what I would call a hard news brand that focused initially on the South, but I think has broadened a little. And you can 

Scott [00:04:14]: Initially, it was Reckon Alabama. It was focused on Alabama as a Facebook page is what it was. 

Regan-Porter [00:04:19]: Right. Okay. And you know, these were wildly divergent brands that were, some of them were completely standalone brands. There were comedy videos, some of them over a 100,000,000 views. And I may be under-estimating at this point. And I know one of the things I talked to Michelle about was just what a big change that was. I mean, she was hiring comedy writers and wardrobe people and makeup people, which is, what you usually see out of local news. And then I believe black joy, did that launch under your tenure? And do you wanna describe black joy? 

Scott [00:04:56]: You know, that that's part of the evolution of of Reckon actually is that, you know, in in the time that I've been here, one of the things we did was we went out and and managed to kinda grab some of that Google, innovation money and fund some human centered design research to help us think through, okay, we have this Alabama focused wrecking page. What might it be if we decided to focus on the South? And then as we started to think about the South, what might it be as it started to focus on the country because we quickly amassed a national audience? That's become a newsletter first brand, and Black Joy by Reckon is one of about a dozen newsletters that Reckon does. You know, Black Joy was the product of Starr Dunigan. She, I mean, it's really her labor of love. She's the founder of it. You know, she was a Knight police reporter in Alabama, and she tells the story much better than I do. But, talking about how she had you know, really heard a lot of criticism in communities about you only come to my community when there's a murder and things like that. And so she started a Facebook group called the Black Magic Project and, you know, to share good news related to black communities in Alabama. 

Scott [00:06:08]: And over time, you know, that merged and and created this newsletter that has more than 50,000 subscribers around the country now, and a whole team that's dedicated to the work that that Starr does and bringing to life, a celebration of blackness as an act, an intentional act of liberation. 

Regan-Porter [00:06:26]: And The Lead, was that a, that started under your tenure as well? 

Scott [00:06:29]: Yes. The Lead is, yes. It it did. So let me just talk I can talk about the things that started under my tenure. Maybe this is a way to say this is that, you know, I joined Alabama Media Group in 2018. And when I did that, you know, the first place of focus was was the news products. And so there were a couple things where we leaned in pretty quickly. One was to figure out, education in Alabama. It is a persistent, wicked problem that had never changed. Alabama's ranking stayed the same, and kids in the state weren't getting the educations that they I mean, not consistently across the state. And so we created an education lab that's focused on what do we need to do to help our kids in the state get the best education possible. That's a 5 person team that is funded predominantly through contributions, and covers the whole state through that lens. We also created The Lead, which is an e-edition. And we set this up in advance knowing that print newspapers were, you know, their future hang was hanging in the balance, I guess you'd say. And so we wanted to have a way to bring print subscribers, many of the people who are our longest, most devoted readers and best customers over time, give them a place where they could they could really sink their teeth into the daily curation of news that they were so that mattered to them on the print side. And so we talked to dozens, hundreds of people around the state to set up those e-editions in Huntsville, Birmingham, and Mobile. And each one of those e-editions is focused on local news and passion topics in each city. So those have started, and that was a way for us to transition to print newspapers. And then thirdly, there is the Reckon pieces of things, that has really that that we can talk more about as we go along. 

Success, Pulitzers, serving multiple audiences and making daily choices 

Regan-Porter [00:08:19]: And so a lot of the brands that were started under Michelle and that you've continued to build on and launch new brands. I say brands because a lot, most of these are standalone brands. These, these weren't attachments to the Birmingham News that just had a little, you know, header. These were Facebook pages, newsletters, YouTube channels, lots of things like that. And, and, and it's such an interesting evolution because I think a lot of purists in the journalist in journalism world would look at a lot of of that activity and say, well, what does that have to do with journalism? You've mentioned some that are very much about local news. And we've seen I mean, I think we've all seen large, news entities focus on growth in sort of whatever manner they can get it with the hope that they can reinvest it into journalism. And to get to sort of the mic drop moment, Alabama Media Group really has done that. So some of these, like Reckon, are very much serious journalism outfits. And I believe, to the best of our knowledge, Reckon is the largest investigative newsroom in the southeast. Is that correct? 

Scott [00:09:32]: That's not no. Not on Recken. AL.com has the largest investigative team on in the South. 

Regan-Porter [00:09:39]: Which is phenomenal. And your team has been recognized for all of this work with just this year, two Pulitzer Prizes, one for reporting and one for commentary. And as I think the New York Times itself said, this was an astounding feat for a local newsroom, but this was added to a share reporting, Pulitzer and commentary finalist in 2021 and a Pulitzer and commentary in 2018. Your team has won, George Polk award for local reporting, the Hillman Prize for web reporting, 22 Emmys, I believe, for documentary work, and Edward R Murrow award for podcasting, and a Webby award for comedy. So very significant impact full work. And I think, impactful journalism is one of the things you've really wanted to focus on. So kudos for all of that and to the skeptics, you know, all, I think all of that trend transformational work has enabled you and your team to really focus on what's impactful. So can you elaborate a little bit about, about your focus on impactful work and how thinking outside of a newspaper brand has really freed you to, to experiment and then do that kind of work. 

Scott [00:10:53]: Here's how I think about it is that we have a portfolio of different audiences that we serve. You know, in some cases, it is a newspaper. You know, we did serve a newspaper audience for as long as we had it. But a big chunk of our portfolio is in the digital space. And so, you know, as a news organization, all of us you know, one of the things we do is we make choices on a daily basis as to what we do do and what we don't do. And what we decided we were gonna do on AL.com is really double down on stories that change lives, laws, and minds. And that is one of our main focus areas, if you will. And that's where we came in and built out this investigative team to take apart Alabama and the South and put it back together again better than we found it. 

Scott [00:11:36]: That that's been a conscious decision. Now, we do that in lieu of other things. Right? We don't have a lot of the mid-level stories. We don't cover events on the same way that we used to. Those things are videos, user generated content, etcetera. We we choose what we wanna do, and we get in front of those things, and we do it. I will also say we have we've we've radically reshaped how we think about our planning, our workflow. What does next year look like as I sit here and talk to you in October, etcetera. 

Scott [00:12:09]: Because I also think if you don't get in front of the daily news cycle, it eats you. And that's probably one of the more important choices that news organizations need to make is, how will I get in front of that daily news cycle? That's what you build your brand on. 

Organizing the newsroom to get beyond the daily grind 

Regan-Porter [00:12:24]: Absolutely. And, so I wanna spend, you know, our our time here. I really wanna dig into the the whys and the hows. So we've just talked about the whys and I and so you highlighted two things that, you know, maybe we can dig a little deeper on. One is the stop doing list, and it's very much related to the second thing, which is feeding the beast and getting ahead of the news cycle. So, you know, you're about to start in a new newsroom, andI don't know, a lot about sort of where they are internally. But as you know, either thinking about that new job or just any, anyone looking to transform and stop feeding the beast and get out of the, just the daily grind, you know, how do you, how do you trans, how do you go into a newsroom and really shape that? 

Scott [00:13:12]: I am also learning about the Houston newsroom, so I don't wanna speak about that yet. But what I'll I'll talk about here is Alabama in this way is that we do deliver the best daily news report and the daily grind report. There's no question that AL.com does that. But what we've done, we have radically reshaped how our newsroom is structured. We have teams with individual missions. We have decided that all teams don't have to be the digital people who are doing everything. People can be organized around missions with very specific goals, and newsrooms can have more than one team doing different things in it, which is you know, I think a lot of times, newsrooms are organized as one large army, if you will, throwing at a certain thing instead of understanding that we can have a lot of different teams with special missions. And that that is how we've reorganized. 

Scott [00:14:00]: We have a trending breaking team that I would put up against any TV station or anything like that in the country. In fact, that team here in Alabama beats TV stations across the whole state regularly in comScore and other data pieces. So but that's what we've asked them to do. We've asked them to double down and do that. Not you don't have to do all the other things too. People have specific missions and then they can go after them. And I think that's really important because you can get so lost in this idea that we have to be digital. We have to do x, y, and z, that in fact, everybody becomes a jack of all trades and an expert at nothing. 

Scott [00:14:37]: And nobody succeeds and no marks—and nothing moves forward. And so as a principle of organization, I've always believed that you need very clear teams with very clear missions and very specific goals, and people can succeed in that and understand what levers they can push and pull on to move in that direction. All of that builds up into an organizational plan that tells you what you are, right? We do deliver the best daily news report in Alabama. We do have the largest investigative team that does those stories that change lives, loss, and minds. We do have the shared experiences, the features, the things that we all rally around, the reasons we love living here. We do deliver that coverage. We do deliver the best sports news, the best in-depth pieces around that, whether it's on our TikTok channel where we have docs that are are going or whatever it is. We do those things too. 

Regan-Porter [00:15:27]: That's great. And so I'd love to actually dig into, a little bit, specifics on that. So you mentioned the breaking news, so you, and we've talked about these different brands. So, how many people do you have and how, how do you organize them by teams and where does the brand fit in? 

Scott [00:15:41]: The brands that we have really, I mean, al.com is an our overarching news brand. Right? And within that, you know, there's a team of about 10 folks who are dedicated to breaking trending news on a daily basis, and they own it. They live it. They breathe it. They own it. 

Regan-Porter [00:15:58]: And what about the other pieces? Like, you know, your investigative team, the people working on Reckon. It's a Southern Thing. 

Scott [00:16:05]: AL.com has, so here's how we're organized. Reckon is a national news brand. It has 26 reporters in 14 states. It is part of Advanced Local more than an Alabama Media Group now, so it's really separate in this way. Ryan Nave is the editor in chief, and he's working on that as this newsletter first brand that is separate from the Alabama newsroom. AL.com is the main news organization for Alabama and parts of the South. Our audience, you know, we have about 11-million unique visitors a month, visits a month. We routinely have a million people on our page a day. 

Scott [00:16:40]: It is the best, biggest dissection of news in the whole state. We deliver everything we can there through investigative work, which is led by Challen Stephens. And his team, along with Ashley Remkus, the two of them deliver everything from local, state, and then national related, investigative news. You know, it's about a 15 person team overall across the room, 16 people. I might get that wrong off the top of my head. But something like that across the whole organization. And, you know, they do everything from managing national partnerships to you know, we had things post—we we published this year with the Marshall Project and the Washington Post, some folks in Oklahoma. All of that comes through that team. 

Scott [00:17:24]: We also have then the local team, which is The Lead. The Lead focuses on local news and coincides with the AL.com local news team as well, local and state. And they're serving the individual cities, Huntsville, Birmingham, and Mobile. And those cities, it makes up about more than half the state's population. So it's significant when you think of it in that direction. Those teams are staff. The lead team has its own staff that handles production, reporting, and content, editing. 

Scott [00:17:55]: The AL.com state, local teams are also staffed in the same sort of way. We have a separate sports team that handles sports video and sports reporting. We have both of those things with separate editors and missions and platforms that they're after. We also have a pretty significant audience team. Elizabeth Hokanga Whitmire  is our VP of audience. She reports to me and has built out an audience team to really support what an all digital organization does. That means content distribution partnerships, newsletters, 1 to 1 relationships, engagement, social media, video, all of the things around that. She also works with This is Alabama. 

Scott [00:18:34]: It's a Southern Thing, as well as People of Alabama. Cool. I left off the Ed Lab. So the Ed Lab also was part of that too, and that also reports up to me in that whole, group. 

Regan-Porter [00:18:46]: Yeah. I'd like to talk a little bit more about the EdLab. So that's philanthropically funded, or is that just how it started? 

Scott [00:18:53]: Philanthropy and contributions, individual contributions and philanthropy. 

Regan-Porter [00:18:57]: And that's covering education across the southeast or what's its footprint? Alabama. Okay. 

Scott [00:19:03]: The Alabama Education Lab. 

The innovation cycle: sprints, measurement, current vs. new audiences  Regan-Porter [00:19:05]: And one of the things we talked very, very briefly about when we were at the Future of Print Convening up in Detroit was sort of the process for figuring out for doing sprints, basically. Figuring out what an audience wants, measuring the results and deciding whether something is worth, you know, continuing or putting more resources in. So you talk a little bit about the innovation cycle and your approach to audience understanding what an audience wants and needs. 

Scott [00:19:36]: Yeah. You know, I think it's important to talk about this in two ways, what your current audience wants and needs and what you need to do for future audiences that you might not have. And that's a really important distinction. You know, you can spend a lot of time just feeding the same audience over and over again, but that doesn't mean that you're growing what you're doing and connecting with new people. We talk a lot about it as kind of like making friends, right? Everybody has people in their lives that you see all the time right now. You know, the people who you spend a lot of time with, the people you all those things. I mean, that's your audience you have today. 

Scott [00:20:15]: The audience that you sometimes have acquaintances you go out for dinner or drink with and so forth, and maybe you're gonna have a deeper relationship down the road or whatnot. Those friends, you know, those are your feature audiences. And what are you doing there? Or then you go to places and you're like, this place is really cool, and these people seem really cool. I want them to be my friends. What does it look like if you're gonna start to do content and products and and and those things for people in that space? And I think you have to think about all of those things. So that's really important to point out because what we're doing and who we're doing it for is one of our base questions. Is this an audience growth initiative, or is this a current audience engagement initiative? And that's really the first question. We look for a proof of concept before we take a bigger swing. 

Scott [00:20:58]: We like to do things for 6 weeks at a time and then understand where it sits or doesn't sit. What do we learn from this? And then the question becomes, do we continue this? Do we tweak this? Do we stop this? Do we go big on this? And that's really where we that's that's the question you have to ask yourself. We have stopped doing things. We have done all of those things based on what we found in a good 6 week sprint. 

Regan-Porter [00:21:20]: Absolutely. And there are a couple of things I wanna highlight there. I was just talking with the head of, the PBS system here in Colorado, and she we were talking about basically audience and how she thinks about that. And one of the things she said that you alluded to was it's not just our listeners, you know, readers, viewers. It's also who are we not reaching? Like, in Clayton Christensen talks a lot about, you know, the nonconsumers is where a lot of the innovation is going to happen and the disruption. And so I think our industry has sometimes gotten in trouble in the digital age to just slavishly looking at Parsley or Chartbeat and looking at the audience we have rather than the audience we could have. And it sounds like you've been very intentional about thinking of your whole community and who your audience could be. 

Scott [00:22:15]: I think you have to do both. I mean, I do think metrics guide what you have today, and you ignore them at your own peril. So I think Chartbeat and things like that serve a really important purpose that are directional and formative about who you're reaching today. You can't confuse that with the people you don't reach and what that means. And newsrooms need to have more than one thing in their head about this, right? Like there's, we can do more than one thing. We can serve an audience today and carve out small teams to understand in an exploratory way, what can we be tomorrow? 

Regan-Porter [00:22:46]: Absolutely. And I think that those, I think part of the nuance there is when you're looking at, say your Chartbeat numbers, it's going to look different for your existing audience than for a new audience you're trying to reach. And one of the challenges that Clayton Christensen got out with Innovator's Dilemma is if a company doesn't understand that a new and emerging market is going to have numbers and a scale of reach and financials that are very different than your your larger existing audience. So when you're looking at that 6 week, you know, experiment, trial, sprint, whatever you call it, how do you gauge what is what is getting traction and what you might need to tweak? 

Scott [00:23:30]: Yeah. Well, I think that depends on what you're testing. Right? And that it it's hard to say. I mean, in some cases, if it is an audience where or an experiment that you set up to intentionally say, okay. How might we build an audience with younger readers? Our measurements are gonna be x, y, and z. After 6 weeks, hopefully, you have that kind of rigor built into it. When we do a test or experiment, that is the kind of rigor that we're trying to bring to the table. Not just, you know, we're testing something to see what happens. 

Scott [00:24:03]: That's not that's not informative. You know, we've tried really hard to add that kind of rigor to what we're doing, so we really are learning things and can keep pushing ourselves forward. 

Regan-Porter [00:24:15]: And those teams that are doing that testing are there I assume there are multi-disciplinary. You've got people looking at audience. You get yeah. 

Scott [00:24:24]: I mean, look, across our whole news organization, if I take AL.com for a moment, you know, the key buckets that we are focused on a daily basis are, you know, are we doing stories that people read? Are we doing videos that people watch? Are we doing podcasts that people listen to? Are we experimenting? And if so, like, how so? What are we learning around that? Do we have impact? Are people sharing our stories? Are we changing lives, laws and minds? What does any of that look like? And then are people converting? Are people becoming subscribers, whether they're paying us through their email address and a free newsletter, or they're deciding to become a contributor to our work and giving us a monthly contribution because they support the type of journalism we do. So those are the four big buckets that we look across the room at. Everyone can participate in any one of those buckets. It's not that there's a unique team that's, you know, off to the side on it. But those are the four goals we measure the entire room against. You 

Fans, merchandise and brands 

Regan-Porter [00:25:19]: You know, one of the things we didn't mention in all of the things you're doing, you also do merchandise because you have fans. You've got a game in Target. Can you talk a little bit about how all of that came about and how you think about it? 

Scott [00:25:31]: Yeah. You know, that is really, a function of This is Alabama, and it's a Southern Thing. Some of it predates me. You know, t-shirts, merchandise, etcetera, has been part of that brand since it's, those brands, since its start. And then the creativity of the team, you know, Elizabeth Hoekenga Wittmeier, Justin Yurkanin. I mean, they're really creative people who led a team with a lot of creative culture to think about how might we do this differently. A game in Target, Things [Just Like] Your Mama Used to Say is, it's funny, right? We have an Amazon shop, thanks to the head of our marketing who's really put together. 

Scott [00:26:08]: He understands a lot about how merchandise comes together now. That's important. I mean, it is the kind of brand that people want to wear the t-shirt for. They find themselves in it. It's very shareable. It's very social, and it's celebrated. 

Regan-Porter [00:26:24]: Do you find much of an uplift, a brand transfer form from something like some of those more entertainment brands to AL.com and then the news you're doing? 

Scott [00:26:36]: I mean, I don't I don't think there's a lot of overlap. And I guess I would even quibble about the idea of calling them entertainment brands. I mean, if you think about it back in the day, features pages and features sections had comics in it. They have had a daily cartoon. They had, you know, columns about relatable moments. People did gardening comments. They had, you know, user photos from everything else. I think much of it is a deconstruction of some of the more traditional things newspapers have done over the years in a modern way. 

Concierge news service 

Regan-Porter [00:27:10]: Absolutely. I think that's an important point. So talk to me a little bit about how you think about particularly the local brands, The Lead and what, what they, what are they doing differently than, than what they would have been doing, you know, 15 years ago? So are you, are you, how present are you at city council meetings and things like that? What have you had to give up to do the more impactful work? 

Scott [00:27:35]: So The Lead is focused on the things that people care about in the communities they live in. And in some cases, that is city council meetings sometimes. It's the decision from the city council. We found that people are you know, first of all, it doesn't look like a newspaper. It is an e edition that looks much more like a magazine than a newspaper. They are rooted in the things that people care about, which is, you know, we've asked, we had three groups of people that we talked to as we rolled this out and kept making it better from our beta product, if you will. And one group was the early adopters. One group's where we call them the meh, They could take it or leave it. 

Scott [00:28:13]: And then we had the haters, the people who really, really hated what we did. And we looked for overlap in certain things. And, you know, like Huntsville, for example, we learned that everybody in all those groups was passionate about growth, redevelopment, and understanding what their city is. It's just become the largest city in Alabama. It's been in the national headlines with so much related to space command and all these different things. And everybody had those so that became the passion topic. We had beats that are related to us. So when the city council has something related to growth and development, yeah, we're there. 

Scott [00:28:44]: When we have things that, you know, the push and pull at a planning meeting around it, yeah, we're there. But that's a focus of what we can cover. Instead of institutions, we cover things that are, that really matter to people's life. Quality of life issues, we heard over and over and over again matter to people. We jump into that question. We started something called Ask the Lead, where we take questions from anybody about anything in their communities and answer them. Kind of a concierge news service, if you will. All of those things come together in a place where it's very local. 

Scott [00:29:17]: It's very much so about community. It's very much so about why do we live here? What are the things we care about? 

Product thinking and saying goodbye to print 

Regan-Porter [00:29:23]: So earlier this year, printing stopped on the publications as we've mentioned earlier. So, and that had been really a long time coming. I know back even, I think before Michelle started in 2013, Advance had had literally, they had separate digital and print operations that they closed down, sort of literally formed a new companies and really tried to get print out of the, keep it from being the driver of everyone's focus, which, you know, I was at a music magazine. I started a music magazine. How long has it been 20 years ago? Even there, we had mostly people in their, you know, twenties and early thirties, who were very digitally savvy, and the print product was only once a month. Even there, that drove so much of everything we did. The pull of that product, I think is what holds a lot of people back. And I know that transformation has already started when you came on board, but were there any steps you had to take to, to sort of, what steps did you take once you started to get to the point where you could just shut those down? 

Scott [00:30:34]: I think every newsroom has a little bit of the love and nostalgia for print in it. And I don't know that that's a bad thing. Right? I do think what it is, to the point, it's part of the portfolio until it's not. Right? I joined in 2018. At no point did we know that there was a certain date in the future that this, you know, 2023 was gonna be the year. When it became not profitable for us, that's when we moved away from print. I would argue that, you know, that particular date and moment in time was just the work that we had done to make that transition happen. It had happened long before the date was there, and it wasn't doing things like building out brands, building out different kind of work for audience, understanding that we could win 2 Pulitzer prizes without a print newspaper, because it, you know, local news is not just in a newspaper. 

Scott [00:31:29]: We truly shifted our mindset into building a digital media company instead of putting news on the web. And I think all those things are really important to lead up to that point, especially that mindset shift. The other thing I'd say is that, you know, I I know you've talked a lot about brands, but I think we talk also I'm really interested in products as well. And newspapers, if you really think about one of the things that is very valuable to our industry about it, it's the product thinking that went into it. We created a killer product with product thinking and all the pieces around that that is very transferable to other products that we do in the newsroom. KA Turner is the editor of, The Lead. She had a 40 year career in doing newspapers. Her product thinking that she developed in that time is invaluable to think through how do you build a new product from scratch, what are the things that come into that. 

Scott [00:32:26]: So I think there's a lot of value in bringing people along and doing things like this that our newsrooms need as we start to realize that products that what we do isn't about a particular product. It's not about a newspaper. It's about all of our products in different places. And that's really an important distinction for us to make. 

Transformation for smaller mid-sized news organizations 

Regan-Porter [00:32:46]: I wonder if you have any thoughts on, you know, the the lessons you've learned there and the things you've done and the transition that's gone on for a smaller newspaper—or a smaller news organization, I should say, that, you know, has, you know, 10 to 20 people let's say, and as, as local with a local footprint and doesn't, can't, it doesn't have the reach that you're going to have within AL.com and know, some of your national brands. How would you think about and I was putting you on the spot. How would you think about a path to transition for something that is much smaller and much more locally focused? 

Scott [00:33:24]: There's a couple things. I think you have to ask yourself, what do you wanna do, who are you doing it for, and how are you gonna pay for it? Those are three very basic questions, right? And I think less is more. Pick a couple things and do them very well, and then keep building on things from there. I think that's really important. So say today you have a, you know, a community newspaper with 10 to 20 people. Great. What is that next step? Is it that you want the best city wide newsletter you can possibly have? Okay? Do one thing or do two things and do them really well and keep building on what you learn from each thing. I think the biggest mistake that newsrooms make, we try to do too much across the board instead of just pulling out things that we can do and understanding what we learn from that and what we can build on from it. 

Scott [00:34:17]: It's actually I think that part is, it's much simpler than we ever wanna say. Sometimes we look for the bells and whistles and etcetera, but there is so much that's truly in our control to try and pivot toward toward. 

Care and feeding of the team: empathy, listening, not overloading them 

Regan-Porter [00:34:33]: That's great. And I think you're pointing to another problem that, you know, you I think we all deal with. We ask too much, we're trying to do too many things, and we burn people out. And we're also in an environment where, you know, it can feel very isolating and sometimes even threatening to do this work. You and then Michelle, before you came into, you know, a newsroom that had been severely downsized, and so that has its own morale issues, it was in probably a much better—I know it was in a much better place by the time you got there. But how do you, how do you think about the care and feeding and growth and retention of your, you know, your people that are doing a very hard job and often asked to do way too much? 

Scott [00:35:20]: There's a lot to unpack there in that. Right? I mean, I think it particularly falls harder on a lot of people in our newsrooms who haven't traditionally been well represented in newsrooms or by legacy media in general. So I think there's different levels of that for different people in our room, and I think it's important to acknowledge that, right, really, really important to acknowledge that, that it has just the last five years has really felt different for different people in our rooms. I think you have to have care. I think you have to have listening. I mean, you really have to have empathy and listening to what people are doing. And I think, as leaders, you really do have to make choices about what you do and don't do. Stop asking people to do things all the time. 

Scott [00:36:08]: Recognize that sometimes you can't make magic without you know, the right kinds of things to get you there in the 1st place, right? There's a lot of different things that we can do in front of us that when you really pan it all out, is on us to set the course. It is on us to make decisions. It is on us to try and help people to get through things as best as possible. And I know that's hard because, you know, I often think editors in newsrooms are some of the most stressed positions that exist. And there's a lot of things that come together around this, and it's really hard, but those are the decisions that we have to make too. They help chart a course, and that that's a huge, hugely important part of what we do. You have to give up things to transition. That's a fact. 

Regan-Porter [00:36:52]: You know, one thing I'd like to just get your thoughts on because it's something that I have come to a conclusion that I am curious as to someone who's who's lived this now, you know, what your perspective is. So as I mentioned, Michelle came there in 2013. You came there in 2018 and in 2012, Advance had done the big cuts. And in some ways, you know, and we see this all, you know, in lots of different, all over the industry. In some ways the core brands there, the legacy brands were damaged in the public's eye. And my theory or perspective is that in some ways that might've done your predecessor and then you a favor in that you weren't tasked with rehabilitating necessarily those legacy brands. Everything didn't live off the Birmingham News and your other papers. And I think that's such a strong tendency for this industry to really form everything around the physical paper and that brand that's been there forever. And that's a hard decision to, you know, to not hang everything off those legacy brands. I wonder if you have any thoughts about, there were some hidden benefits in what happened. 

Scott [00:38:12]: You know, I mean, I don't. So I wasn't here then, and I can't, you know, really speak to what the decisions were made around that. I knew how, you know, the cards that were handed to me at the point when I, when I got here with it. I mean, there are some members of the community who are definitely you know, I still heard about it. You know, almost 10 years later, I'll still hear about it now and then. But I do think journalists have to separate themselves from you have to step back and think about what are—there's this kinda, like, whole industry around journalism and communities and newspapers and things like that. And, you know, local leaders know who to call it the newspaper and all these things, and it lives in a certain space. But I think you really have to ask yourself, is that really who we're doing our work for at the end of the day? They're part of the storyline. 

Scott [00:38:57]: In many cases, some of those folks are people we should hold accountable through our coverage. So I think we have to step back and say, wait a minute. I'm hearing this in one spot here, but you can't live in an echo chamber. And I think it's really easy to get in the spot where you're living in an echo chamber instead of really thinking, you know, okay. Well, if this you know, what else is out there in terms of people who we can interact with, read, listen, watch, all of that? And I think that's an important thing. I mean, sure, you can go down a rabbit hole. I think the industry, if you will, the news industry is real guilty of going down that rabbit hole. I'm not sure that's the right rabbit hole to go down. 

Rapid fire questions 

Regan-Porter [00:39:33]: So now I'd like to move on to some rapid fire questions, and my questions will be quick, but you can expound on your answers. They don't have to be rapid. So the first one is compared to a year ago, are you more or less optimistic about the future of local news? 

Scott [00:39:52]: I'm the most optimistic I've ever been. It is single handedly the best time to be in journalism. 

Regan-Porter [00:39:58]: Say more. Why do you think that? 

Scott [00:40:00]: I honestly think that what we're doing today is building our future. I—see, I will say I don't subscribe to this whole, I mean, there have been choices we've made, and we've made some really hard choices, across the industry. You know, I worked for Gannett for 20 years before I came here. There's tough moments to transform and get there. But we're here now at this spot, and our work has never been more consequential in America. It is important work, and it's consequential, and there's a lot of people we need to interact with. We need to rethink what we do. And that's what's in front of us. 

Scott [00:40:35]: We have a lot of problems to solve. And I'm excited by that. That's by nature, I think, who I am in terms of that. I think you have to build a culture that can say, hey, we have problems in front of us, but these are solvable, and we're gonna get toward them. And it's a mindset shift that makes it one of the most exciting times to do what we do. More people are involved with what we do today than ever before. 

Regan-Porter [00:41:03]: Agreed. And and and it's such an opportunity to—our convention was themed Build Back Better because, you know, we, this it's almost like a reset. I mean, we can be more equitable. We can be more inclusive of the whole community. We can involve them deeper into the into what we do. So, yeah, that's one of the things that excites me. Mhmm. Does AI fill you with more hope or dread when it comes to journalism? 

Scott [00:41:30]: I don't know yet. I mean, it's a tool, and I'm eager to understand how that tool can work for what we do and where it can help and hurt. 

Regan-Porter [00:41:40]: Best piece of advice you've been given or that you like to give? 

Scott [00:41:45]: Oh, boy. Don't debate what you can test. 

Regan-Porter [00:41:48]: Is there a piece of common advice or conventional wisdom that drives you crazy in its wrongness or oversimplification? 

Scott [00:41:57]: I get real hung up on how our industry sometimes sees ourself. I mean, the opportunity is pretty great in front of us. And I think when we start to think about how do we build what we wanna be, it's a really interesting opportunity and a great time. If you if you can't sit with that spot, it gets a little frustrating. I find that frustrating. Cassette tapes were really cool when they were around, and I still have some. But I wouldn’t trade my Spotify for anything. 

Regan-Porter [00:42:29]: We like to talk about how failure can be a good thing, especially in innovation circles in Silicon Valley, but we don't actually talk about our failures very much. Do you have a favorite failure of yours that was instructive or put you in a different place? 

Scott [00:42:42]: I don't even know where to start. I mean, there's so many. You know, I mean, I've had all kinds of different things that I've wanted to try that haven't worked that we've learned from. I mean, even recently of how we formatted AL.com stories, could we format them in a specific way that I seemed to hell bent that this was the right way on? And, you know, it was gonna increase stickiness, and it did nothing. In fact, it might have done the opposite, but now we know and we move forward with it because you don't have to debate what you can test. You can try it for a couple weeks and find it. You know, failures are a thing, but I  think, you know, I get kinda stuck on that failure point too because everything has a learning in it too. So I think it's how you learn. 

Regan-Porter [00:43:25]: Do you have a favorite place to think big? 

Scott [00:43:28]: I have to be outside every single day. And I have two spaniels that have heard more about the industry and our work than any living creature should have heard about. 

Regan-Porter [00:43:40]: Mental health, I think, is a big issue in the country, obviously, and I think in our industry. And I think we’re still coming to terms with that. How do you maintain your sanity and restore yourself? 

Scott [00:43:53]: It’s funny. You know, I have a lot of friends who are editors around the country, and we talk about this some. I feel stressed to do right by our team and help us move in a direction, But I truly believe that problems in front of us are solvable. And so, you know, it's a matter of how you go about this in different ways. And after I've—I don't know if I would say I shifted my mindset toward that, it’s really changed my relationship with the stress and what we do at a job is that every day isn't, it's not the end of the world about x, y, and z. These are problems we can solve, and there's probably different ways to solve them. They're just like, you know, like a map, there's different ways to get there. The other thing I'd say is that I've spent more time looking outside the industry at how other people do things than inside the industry. I don’t mean that as a dig on the industry or something, but I find it pretty inspirational to see how different places, different businesses, different things have evolved, and different ways of thinking. So I think that's pretty exciting too to think about as we do this. 

Regan-Porter [00:45:00]: Do you have a favorite time saving hack? 

Scott [00:45:03]: You know, I do use my Apple Watch for all priority stuff in a way that my Apple Watch has changed my life. 

Regan-Porter [00:45:12]: Really? I wanna know more because I use it for step counts, but not a whole lot more. 

Scott [00:45:16]: I know. I I have said I mean, for a way for me to distinguish through must do immediately and the things like that constant ping of email and so forth, it has changed my life and being able to understand what comes to my wrists that I need to do immediately and from what versus just the constant ping of things. 

Regan-Porter [00:45:37]: I'm stealing this from Reid Hoffman and his podcast, but do you have a creative measure of success that you've set for yourself or your team? 

Scott [00:45:46]: No. I mean, I think impact is probably one of the most important things that we talk about on our team, and it's been the biggest shift. And understanding that impact doesn't have to mean, today, I changed three laws. It can mean so much to so many different people in so many different ways. The impact we have, whether it's, you know, a story that got more stray dogs adopted at the shelter to, you know, people sharing things to somebody understanding the world in a different way, that measure of success really gets at the mission of what we do. Right? I mean, we have so many people in our room who are creative people, but I think most people join a newsroom because they are driven by the mission of what we do. And that mission does exist around us all the time. And when you talk about it a lot, it takes up the space in the room in the way that it should because that's what we do and that's what's different about what we do. 

Regan-Porter [00:46:39]: And then the penultimate question, is there anything, I haven't asked you any, any other highlights or unique, unique aspects of Alabama Media Group that you'd wanna point out? 

Scott [00:46:52]: I think this is one of the most creative, talented teams in the business. You know, this team that's here today, so many of these folks are here in Alabama because this is a place that they call home. And they could be anywhere in this whole country, and they choose to be here. They choose to do this work in a place that sometimes doesn't want them here. And they do this so that, to make the place that they love better. And I I I think that's never something that should be underestimated or, you know, I mean, to do that kind of work from a sense of place is truly magical. It is magic to watch these folks work and do the things that they do around it, ask the tough questions of people that they've known in different ways, to report on murders and communities that they know. I mean, it's it's it's truly magic to do that. 

Scott [00:47:47]: And I hope more often than not that news organizations across America continue to thrive in that way because, you know, it is one thing to do work for a national organization that covers local issues. It's another thing to do it in a place where you can actually have impact and change. And that's what this team does here across the board, whether, you know, they're at Bryant-Denny Stadium telling you know, taking you behind the football game or whatnot. These folks know how to bring home what is home to a state that sometimes in the national conversation is, it's looked down upon, if you will. And these folks know how to bring it, and they've done it and proven that they can do it with the best of anybody in this country. And I, I'm pretty grateful for them. And I think that the work they do is worth noting. 

Regan-Porter [00:48:41]: And then the last question, can you give us three to five pieces of media that you would recommend and they can be entertainment news, you know, movie books, podcasts, newsletters, what really has been engaging you or has been super influential. 

Scott [00:49:01]: Wow. Okay. So what's going on there? Let's see. Basically, you should have my book club list because almost everything we've done in there has been remarkable reading across the board. You know, I actually read The Wall Street Journal pretty regularly, which has become my habit during the pandemic and I’m a big fan. I follow Vox pretty carefully and a lot of the work that they're doing. I just, I'm reading a bunch of different books all at the same time. And, actually, I just started reading old spy novels again recently because I love the plot. I had forgotten sometimes, and maybe this is other people do this too, but sometimes when you read these good books like this, right, and they're just the plot lines are so crisp that you forget what that means in terms of storytelling. 

Scott [00:49:51]: Right? So I've been spending a lot of time with old books lately just because. The other thing I recently read that is also gonna seem strange is a Nordic cookbook. I forget sometimes how much a sense of place matters and how much you learn about a sense of place through things like recipes, how we share them, what's in them. So I, those are just random things that have probably nothing to do with one another, but I'm really interested right now in things that convey a sense of place and sense of wonder and sense of awe around things. 

Regan-Porter [00:50:30]: Well, thank you very much for your time, and, good luck in Houston. And the 

Scott [00:50:35]: Thank you. 

Regan-Porter [00:50:35]: Paper there. And to your team you're leaving behind, good luck to them too. 

Scott [00:50:39]: Yeah. Here's to that. 

Regan-Porter [00:50:43]: Thank you for listening to the Local News Matters podcast. 

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