Dave Lougee's job got a whole lot bigger when Gannett acquired the Belo group last year. As president of Gannett’s expanded broadcast division, Lougee—a former executive VP at Belo—now oversees a massive 46 stations in 38 markets. Lougee is also a key industry figure outside of Gannett, including being chairman of the NAB Television Board, and numerous other leadership positions.
The former newsroom denizen picks up 2014’s B&C Broadcaster of the Year honors for his unflinching commitment to broadcasting and the good it can do in the local communities. He spoke with B&C deputy editor Michael Malone about what’s ahead for Gannett—and for local broadcasting in general. An edited transcript follows.
What’s your workload like since Gannett has essentially doubled the size of the group?
Both the increase of our size and the nature of the times have meant a different structure for the organization and a different focus of attention and energy for me. I have delegated a lot more. I’m still learning; like every operator, I’m sure folks would say I could delegate more. I’ve restructured and we’re blessed to have a great team here—I’ve got [executive VPs] Peter Diaz and Lynn Beall, and Julie Heskett, our senior VP of technology and finance. They handle a tremendous amount of the operating side.
Give me a snapshot of what your September looks like. Is it budget season?
September’s the re-engagement month, where the industry sort of reboots itself. You’ve got the TVB conference [Sept. 9], I’ve got meetings with network representatives on both industry and Gannett issues, I’ve got a strategic off-site specific to the future of Gannett Broadcasting with key members of our team and an outside consulting firm. That’s part of an ongoing process. I’ve got meetings with senior members of our team and an outside consultant about a change in our go-to-market strategy in sales, which involves some pretty radical things—trying to keep pace with the nature of change in the marketplace, the rapidly changing needs of the advertiser.
The end of the month is the start of budget meetings which will be our first full budget process with the former Belo properties. We’re going to do a week in Dallas for some and two weeks here [in McLean, Va.]. I will be involved with the larger Belo stations, but I won’t do all of them. I’ve got meetings here in McLean with a high-tech company that we’re in some interesting discussions with about possible business opportunities. I’ve got several meetings with members of our team from outside players who are bringing us some interesting ideas.
In terms of programming?
In terms of ideas.
What can you share about the radical reboot of your sales operation?
The ecosystem has been structured one way for a long time. All of us have made great strides in business development, but there are a lot of new tools out there with analytics and other things that allow us to offer much more sophisticated soup-to-nuts solutions for local advertisers that can eventually be applied to national. As you know, we have a nationally scaled business called G/O Digital, which is offering digital marketing solutions to local businesses. We’ve got several seven-figure deals across the company offering just those types of services, like search engine optimization, search engine marketing. Not just pay-per-click but also social reputation—the types of services where there’s a lot of competition in the space, but a lot of times it’s, one company does one thing and another does another. So it’s an attractive proposition for a trusted partner in the market to provide one-stop shopping for that, and we’ve got a big operation in Phoenix that does that.
So [it’s] integrating more of that into our sales proposition, and there are a lot of companies out there that are providing new opportunities in the digital space with very interesting targeted solutions that we can offer advertisers in addition to the great reach of our television properties.
The future is no longer about selling spots; that may sound obvious and people have been saying that for a long time, but to really, really change how you go to market, how you allocate research, how you allocate resources, is really important. One of the advantages of scale is to be able to create some central support things that you maybe couldn’t do before.
With acquisitions, most times it’s ‘here’s the way we do things’ for the acquired stations. But with Belo, that group is part of your DNA and has real good bones. What about Belo have you incorporated into your expanded group?
No. 1, some key people. More than ever, this is a talent business. It’s less about satellite trucks and cameras; the most important capital is talent. We’ve really focused on who the key talent are—we’ve integrated several into the management team. With the London [Broadcasting] acquisition, we are now across 83% of Texas, so we’ve got an innovation project underway with some digital stars at the former Belo properties in Texas, who are working outside the core of our business on innovative ideas to bring better products to market and better serve that state. That’s the kind of stuff that really excites us.
Belo had some good strategies on the digital sales side that we’ve brought here to McLean. We promised when we purchased [Belo] that we’d take the best of the best and put them together, and we’ve done that. And the flip side is, by being a little bit bigger, we have advantage of scale. We had some technology things that we can incorporate into them that will allow them to better allocate a higher percentage of their resources to journalism and sales, which is our stated goal, and we’re well on our way to doing that. It’s been a lot of change in a short period of time but they’re doing a terrific job with it.
Is Gannett big enough now?
In the broadcasting space, yes, we have sufficient scale. Now when you talk about it relative to AT&T and DirecTV or Time Warner and Comcast, it becomes a different conversation. But we do have a good amount of scale that is very helpful for us. It’s not just scale from a mathematical standpoint; what we like to think about is the quality of the stations we have. When you look across the portfolio, it’s scale with really strong brands in key markets. Not to leave any of them out, but when you look at WFAA [Dallas] or KUSA [Denver] or KHOU [Houston] or KARE [Minneapolis] or KING [Seattle], those brands have a lot of value when aggregated.
Do you think all this broadcast consolidation is good for consumers?
I think scale on the broadcast side is inevitably benefiting the consumer because companies without scale would have less ability to innovate and compete. One of the key mantras of our company is, with scale we’ll provide resources and backbone technology so the stations can focus more resources—like I said—on journalism and sales. We don’t have a central formula for news. We expect that how WFAA reports in Dallas is going to be dramatically different than how KING reports in Seattle and appropriately so. So what we’re doing is providing the financial backbone for that fierce local independence and reporting. It’s important that the business models of those stations stay strong, so I think scale is absolutely a benefit to those stations and, by extension, the consumers, the viewers.
You’re active in leadership roles outside of Gannett. Does all this consolidation mean fewer potential leaders to step up in industry roles?
That’s a great question. There is a bit of a challenge, and I think it needs to be talked about and thought about. There’s a lot of great talent out there, but you’re right—the traditional way that boards are populated, there may be some implications for that.
With Gannett’s stations and newspapers set to split, will they still work together on stories when appropriate?
With the exception of Phoenix, we don’t have papers and TV stations in the same market. But I think after the split we’ll have every reason to have a commercial relationship with the other company. We’ve put together with USA Today and publishing a centralized news desk that incorporates all the stories and video stories from around the company. I think we’re going to have, and they’re going to have, every incentive to maintain that, because it’s provided real value. USA Today has done some central investigations that our stations and newspapers have localized and we’ve got every reason to continue to do that. I think the public’s well served with what we do.
Ellen Crooke was recently named senior VP of news for the group. Tell us about her.
First let me talk about [former news senior VP] Rob Mennie if I could, because Rob’s going to continue to be a senior VP [of broadcast] and he’s going to run our properties [WTLV-WJXX] in Jacksonville. That’s a pretty big opportunity for us, and he’s an incredibly valued member of the team. We spoke earlier about how to take advantage of people’s talents and have them do some different things, and it’s another news director becoming a president, a general manager.
With the Belo acquisition, Michael Valentine came in from Dallas as [Belo’s] VP of news, and Ellen has been with us for several years, and helped take WGRZ in Buffalo from No. 4 to No. 1. She’s done a great job for us. Ellen is very passionate about our stated goal of reinventing local journalism in the digital age. She’s a great teacher and a born leader; you can’t teach leadership—sometimes people are just born with it. She and Michael will make a great team.
What’s a station news story this year that had you particularly proud?
I don’t know if I can [pick] one. I think from a coverage standpoint, the way KING covered the mudslides in Oso and sort of became the voice and ears of that community was really terrific. It wasn’t this year but it’s an ongoing story—KING also has been digging under rocks for problems with a nuclear plant in Hanford, Wash. WFAA and KHOU continue to do impact-changing investigations every month with their spectacular investigative units. There are so many. That’s the best part of my job—seeing and reading about the work that our stations do every day.
Give me an update on the group’s homegrown programming initiative, working with Debmar- Mercury and other partners.
We’re working with Debmar, announcing the coproducer working with both of us. [Editor’s note: Stephanie Eno was named VP of development for the partnership after this interview took place.] We’re working on a number of local shows—nothing to be announced yet, but what I hope to see is a combination of stuff that we work on with outside production companies, and also some local shows that have tremendous live, local value that then theoretically could be a show-ina- box that you could take to another market. So we’re going to have some innovation at the local level. We’re going to try some things in key markets, especially in markets where we have two stations. We’ve got a number of non-news initiatives under way.
What on the technology side has you jazzed?
Social media continues to [have] this organic and complementary relationship [with] live television programming, and I think we’ve only scratched the surface on what it can be if we proactively program to it. As I’ve said in the past, right now it’s happening organically; fantasy football happened without the NFL [being involved] and now the NFL can’t feed it fast enough. Same with what’s happening around awards shows and other events in prime. People have their devices with them in their chair when they’re experiencing live television. It becomes an engaging event for them organically and I think it’ll become even more engaging as the new generation of programmers and producers learns how to elegantly integrate that experience into programming.
I think that’s especially true of news. The networks struggle because the evening newscast isn’t in the same time zone, but local news is live. Avid news consumers, educated news consumers, are also avid users of interactive and social media, and it’s something we’re really focused on getting a lot better at. Every story that matters in the market, whether we cover it or not, there’s a conversation taking place on it, and it’s our loss as an industry if we’re not in the middle of it, or even playing the role of symphony conductor of that conversation— helping connect people on the issue, and also being curators of the noise. If you were to, God forbid, have another thing like the Boston Marathon bombing, where Twitter plays such a role for the public, we as an industry can be live curators of fact from fiction and help play a very meaningful role while engaging with that medium.
How are the Gannett stations lined up for political spending this year?
Our stations are positioned very well. It’s a combination of the strength of our news properties and where we’re located; we’ve got a lot of spending in a lot of markets. Phoenix is very active, Georgia is more active than it’s been in recent years, Colorado, North Carolina, Florida, Michigan—there’s a lot of activity in a lot of different places. I think that’ll only heat up starting this week [Sept. 1] as it typically does after Labor Day.
How are the Gannett stations covering the races?
It’s the culture of all of our stations to cover politics and the political process, not in a horse race way but from an issues standpoint. There’s more of the horse race mindset here on the I-95 corridor than in the heartland. Out in the heartland people care about the issues. Our stations are very, very long established leaders in covering the political process in their markets. KUSA, WFAA and KING all won national awards for their commitment. We’ll probably end up doing north of 60 debates; it may be 70 when it’s all said and done. But debates are only part of it; it’s culturally ingrained, it was in the Gannett stations and it was in the former Belo stations.
Is there concern that young people will just not follow their parents’ patterns and watch local TV and consume local content?
Watch local TV and consume local content are two different questions. First of all, I like our starting point as a company. We’re pretty confident that we’re by far the largest employer of broadcast journalists in the country, and we have a lot of really good ones to think about these issues. But we’re going to have to be incredibly intellectually honest with ourselves as an industry and as a company as to how different age groups are going to consume media.
Going back 150 years, I don’t think 24-year-olds were terribly interested [in news]. When I was a 24-year-old, before I had a wife, a mortgage and kids in school, my interest in local news was a lot less, so I think that remains the same. Today’s 24-year-old will be a lot more interested in local content in 10 years than they are today. The issue is about the platforms. Do I think that today’s 24-year-old is going to be consuming local news passionately in a linear format 20 years from now? No, I don’t. Do I think they will [consume] more than they do today when they become 35? Yes, because by reaching them through social with a relevant clip or a story, you can get them to tune in and watch at certain times. But you have to be honest about the platform.
That being said, there’s a huge swath of population, baby boomers and younger, who do consume linear TV and would watch more if our products as an industry were more relevant. I think we need to focus on that.
Back to the [younger] group, I think we need to be there with the information for them on the platforms that they use, and create new loyalties there. If we do that successfully, then monetization can follow. But we have to be laser-focused on that.
TVB PREPS FOR BIG BALL
The Forward conference, hosted by trade association TVB, has indeed moved forward. After several years in an events space in Manhattan’s Time & Life Building, the annual local TV event is moving on to the roomier Edison Ballroom in Times Square. The new venue, located in the Theater District, will allow for around 400 guests, instead of the previous 320 that maxed out the show’s previous home. “I guess you could say, the TVB has made it to Broadway,” says Steve Lanzano, TVB president and CEO.
For the second year in a row, TVB Forward offers a full-day program after years of wrapping up midday. Highlights include a media analysts’ panel featuring Marci Ryvicker of Wells Fargo Securities, one on digital media with digital chiefs from LIN and Gannett, and Chuck Todd, NBC News political director and the new moderator of Meet the Press, delivering a keynote and then moderating a session on political activity on TV.
Before all that, Dave Lougee, Gannett Broadcasting president, gets the B&C Broadcaster of the Year award. “Dave’s a guy who believes in local broadcast TV,” says Lanzano. He’s one of the most progressive group presidents, and he simply has a love and a passion for the business.”