Scripps Chief Urges Grads to be “Risk Takers”

Thursday, Dec. 14, 2006


The head of the E.W. Scripps Co. urged graduating journalism students at Arizona State University to be risk takers and help mold the future of a fast-changing media industry. “Our traditional media businesses are undergoing fundamental change and the economics that support them are shifting to all of those new electronic platforms that consumers are using,” Kenneth W. Lowe, president and chief executive officer of the Cincinnati-based media corporation, said Friday at the fall convocation of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “We – and by we, I mean the business of media as a whole – will be depending on the risk-takers of the world to identify and seize all of the opportunities that flourish in a world of constant change,” he said. “My hope is that you’ll be those risk takers.” The full text of Lowe’s convocation address follows: “Dean Callahan, associate deans Marianne Barrett and Frederic Leigh; Manny Romero, president of the Cronkite School alumni chapter; honored guests, families and most importantly, graduates…thank you for this privilege. Let me start by saying what an amazing time this is for you to be starting a career in media and communications. No matter what your discipline, believe me when I say that opportunity abounds. Think of it. Never before in the history of human development, has so much information been so easily accessible to so many. Never before has there been such a free flow of ideas and commerce across such diverse political and cultural boundaries, both here and abroad. We live in a world today that has been conditioned to expect – no, demand – instant access to news, information and entertainment. As media consumers, we’re impatient if an Internet search takes more than a couple seconds. And, we’re annoyed if CNN and Fox, aren’t updating breaking new stories by the minute. We’re in complete control, able to pick and choose when and how we access a world of information that’s literally at our fingertips. We’re also becoming citizen journalists. Just ask Michael Richards how much power one outraged fan with a video cell phone can have. News travels faster than ever before, and the pace is only accelerating. So, what does all of this mean for you? Job security: That’s what. The demand for good writers, reporters, editors, videographers, producers, communications managers – you name it – isn’t diminishing in this age of information ubiquity. Far from it: It’s growing and it’s growing fast. Google and Yahoo!, with their powerful algorithms, aren’t divining the huge databases of information they’re aggregating. Creative human beings are behind every Google search. When you click on Google News, you’re linked to great names like The Washington Post, Reuters, ABC News and more. The great Internet search engines are platforms, just like ink on paper. It takes creative people like you to give them heart and soul. As you make important career choices, you won’t be fettered by traditional notions of what media is. Videographers can work for newspapers and the best writers and editors can work in television. And if newspapers and TV aren’t your things, well, you can bypass them altogether and work for some Web-only enterprise. I’m envious. You have so many more opportunities than my contemporaries and I did when we started our careers some 30 years ago. Of course, along with all of that opportunity comes responsibility. We’ll be looking to you – the next generation of media professionals and managers — to set high standards for yourselves by following in the tradition of your school’s great name sake. The very name Walter Cronkite is synonymous with excellence. He and other great pioneers of television journalism set the standard for a brand new medium. They set the bar high while navigating uncharted waters. You face a similar challenge as you join an industry that’s adapting to a rapidly emerging digital world. It’s a tall order, but I believe you’re up to the task. We’ll be looking to you to embrace lofty ideals like accuracy, integrity and honesty. These are the bedrock values on which our industry stands, but my fear is that left unguarded, the foundation is in danger of eroding. Too often, our core values give way under intense deadline pressures to meet this incessant demand for immediacy. My hope is that you’ll stand fast. Don’t sacrifice the fundamentals just to be first. We’ll be looking to you for common sense and good news judgment. As a media consumer and as a news media manager, I worry when I see those in our profession who would play fast and loose with the facts. Think of how the Jon Benet Ramsey case spun out of control when it resurfaced a few months ago. With just a few exceptions, the coverage was marked by rumor, innuendo, half-truths, out right inaccuracies, unqualified opinions and questionable sources. If I had to come up with an adjective to describe it, pathetic is the word that comes to mind. Challenge lazy reporting. Demand more of yourselves and your colleagues. Our credibility is at stake. We’ll also be looking to you to be good story-tellers. We believe this is critical to the future of our local news franchises. To stay relevant in oday’s crowded media environment – to rise above the din – we have to tell compelling stories. We may have to jettison police blotter reporting. We may have to miss some city council meetings. Or it may be a matter of breathing life into the mundane and providing insight and perspective. All I know is that everyday, our readers should be afraid of what they’ll miss if they don’t pick up their local newspaper off the front lawn or log on to the Web site. Likewise, local TV news needs to move beyond the “If it bleeds it leads” mentality. Dare to break out of the pack. There’s more to our communities than covering every shooting that occurs in our most challenged neighborhoods. A garage fire might make good film at 11, but it doesn’t mean that we have to cover it. Be compassionate. Immerse yourselves in the fullness of the communities in which you work and live. Know your neighbors and know what really matters to them. It’ll make you better reporters and great storytellers. When it comes to changing technology, we’ll be looking to you to be flexible. You’re probably already well aware by now that change will be the only constant in your lives. My recommendations to you are to keep an open mind. Be early adapters. And reject complacency and the status quo. During my own career, I’ve seen television evolve from just three big networks to hundreds of channels. Back then, there weren’t any other channels to turn to, except for maybe PBS, if the president had something important to say. Since then, the hardware’s evolved from black and white, to color, to high definition, and now searchable video content on our PCs and Macs. The word Internet wasn’t even in our vocabulary when I started. Computers were the size of refrigerators, and nobody thought about having one at home. I’ve seen the music industry morph from vinyl, to eight-track, to cassettes, to CDs and now a whole range of MP3 players. The idea that everybody would have cell phones, let alone cell phones that could send and receive images… well, that was just nuts. Man! I’m old! It was hard to imagine any of this in 1974, and I can’t even begin to guess what media will look like three decades from now. But, whatever it becomes, we’ll be looking to you to shape it. You know, I have the privilege of being CEO of a company that’s 128-years-old. Scripps got to this ripe old age thanks to some visionary leaders who preceded me. Each of them, in their own way and in their own time, was smart enough to recognize a good thing when they saw it. It wasn’t rocket science. They just paid attention to how the industry was changing and then got out in front of the trends. Scripps started as a newspaper publisher in the 1870s. It was a broadcast pioneer, first in radio and then broadcast TV. We got in on the ground floor of the cable TV business, first as a systems operator and then as a lifestyle network programmer. And now, we’re building viable new businesses on the Internet. With each new venture, there was an element of risk. There were no guarantees. Failure was – and still is — a distinct possibility. But as we look back at each success, it’s apparent that the bigger risk was to do nothing. So this is my final challenge to you. We’ll be looking to you to be risk takers. Our traditional media businesses are undergoing fundamental change and the economics that support them are shifting to all of those new electronic platforms that consumers are using. That’s causing plenty of angst as we slog through the transition. I’m sure you’ve studied all of the scary trends. Newspaper circulation continues to decline. Fewer people than ever before are watching local TV news. Even the cable news channels – young, by old media standards – are ceding viewers to the blogo-sphere. On the flip side, there’s explosive growth on the Internet. Web traffic is ramping up right along with rapid consumer acceptance of high-speed Internet services. The big electronic pipe that we call broadband is making high quality video via the Internet a reality and consumers are responding. Video streaming on the Web has spiked dramatically. I mean who’d even heard of YouTube just 18 months ago. Now, according to Google, it’s worth one-point-six billion dollars. I wouldn’t be surprised if five years from now, downloading our favorite TV shows, movies, whatever, will be as commonplace as a trip to the video store. These are the things that keep me up at night. We – and by we, I mean the business of media as a whole – will be depending on the risk-takers of the world to identify and seize all of the opportunities that flourish in a world of constant change. My hope is that you’ll be those risk takers. Congratulations to each and every one of you, and the best of luck. Thank you.”