Why so many legacy media outlets can’t adapt, in one quote

What layoffs at a Las Vegas television station tell us.

It’s no secret legacy media outlets are scrambling to grow their audiences, many having to play catch up with digital-only publishers. But after another round of layoffs hit KLAS-TV in Las Vegas on Wednesday, you have to wonder what whether the station’s parent company has any idea what it means to be digital friendly, let alone first.

Eighteen people lost their jobs Wednesday at KLAS, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported. Many of those laid off worked on the business side, but another surprising area took a hit: the digital team.

And this is where we see why so many legacy media outlets are failing miserably at playing catch-up. Take a look at what Nexstar executive vice president Brian Jones had to say about the digital layoffs:

Before Nexstar purchased the station for $145 million in a deal that closed Feb. 13, Channel 8 was the sole TV station in the portfolio of Landmark Media Enterprises. But with Nexstar operating 107 stations in 58 markets, some of the lost jobs were considered redundant.
“Now, we can bring the resources of the company to bear on that,” Jones said of the online positions, “and it’s not necessary to have a digital department servicing a digital platform locally.”

Executives at Nexstar, which recently acquired KLAS, think news outlets don’t need a locally based digital team for a local newsroom. This, despite president-CEO Perry Sook’s claim to AdWeek when the sale was first announced:

“Under Nexstar’s ownership we intend to build on KLAS’s rich tradition of local programming and local community involvement.”

Nexstar wants a local-first outlet without the inconvenience of actually being local. What they’ve failed to realize is that having a successful website isn’t about making sure your station’s (or paper’s) content is getting thrown online and blasted out on social media. It’s about a developing a highly nuanced, constantly evolving strategy targeted to your audience. And if the majority — or even plurality — of your audience is local, you won’t be able to do that if you don’t understand what it means to be local.

Rumor has it KLAS-TV’s digital team could be centralized in Salt Lake City. Having worked at a website associated with a Salt Lake City television station (KSL), I can say with confidence that we wouldn’t have been as effective working on Las Vegas content from SLC. We wouldn’t have known the nuances of local language and preference. We wouldn’t have known how to effectively write headlines to target our local versus national audiences. We wouldn’t have been able to navigate local politics and sensitivities.

We wouldn’t have been able to use data to inform our decisions — we would have had to let it dictate them.

KLAS was long the Review-Journal’s closest (Las Vegas) competitor online, but traffic has fallen steadily since the Nexstar purchase, according to comScore, allowing the Las Vegas Sun to overtake them. And it will undoubtedly only get worse as digital takes more and more of a backseat.

Just take a look at the U.S. Alexa rankings for Nexstar sites in the five largest DMAs in which the company operates traditional news outlets: WHAG in Maryland (29,247), KTVX in Salt Lake City (22,161), KLAS in Las Vegas (10,405), WATN in Memphis (78,031) and WYOU in Scranton (55,483). For reference, the Review-Journal’s current rank is 1,051.

Even in Salt Lake City, the Nexstar station is at the bottom of the pack among its local competitors, far below ksl.com’s 456 ranking or the Salt Lake Tribune’s 2,654. As one Utah resident told me when I sent him the KTVX site, “I’ve never even been to this site till now.” Neither has almost anyone else.

Nexstar plainly undervalues digital content if it thinks it can be a locally focused outlet without a local digital team. Enterprise content — reporter packages — are their own problem, but what will happen when news breaks? Media outlets live for breaking news, and for better or worse we’ve trained our audiences to feel the same way. There’s no way Nexstar can compete on breaking news if there’s no one in the newsroom available to post the news as it happens. You can’t really ask a TV producer to post something online five minutes before a broadcast.

And there’s another problem with gutting the channel’s digital team: Newsrooms across the country — around the world — are still tripping over themselves trying to figure out how to survive in a digital world. The ones doing it most successfully are the ones who have editors and reporters working with the digital team to produce and present content for the digital audience, a process that begins well before the finished product is created in the CMS.

Regardless of what people like to say, digital isn’t something just anyone can do successfully. You have to be immersed. You have to be able to prioritize the digital platforms 100 percent of the time. You have to be able to derive insight from data while developing an instinct for what needs to be done — and you have to make those decisions on a moment’s notice.

As soon as you remove everyone from a newsroom who was focused solely on digital, you start asking legacy platforms to prioritize both. And when that happens, legacy will always win. Your local content won’t be produced with a digital audience in mind; it will be produced with a TV audience in mind and will then be put online by someone sitting at a desk 400 miles away.

It’s challenging enough to transform a newsroom to a digital-first way of thinking when the digital team is sitting right in the middle of it. Remove them from the mix and it becomes impossible.

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