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So What Do You Do, Paul Slavin, ABC News Digital Senior VP?

This network TV vet reveals his strategy for keeping ABC's 'historic' brand competitive in the digital age

- February 25, 2009
When Paul Slavin took control of ABC News' digital properties in September 2007, he had little experience in the realm of online news, which was -- and continues to be -- rapidly evolving. Since then, he's had a crash course in the tools and economics of content online, which he describes as undergoing a "revolution" as a result of the 3G iPhone and the movement of television out of the home. He will appear as a panelist to speak about "The Digital Network" at the TVNewser Summit in New York on March 10. Here he talks to mediabistro.com about his chance start at ABC, how mobile content is reshaping TV news, and his company's experiments with social media.
Name: Paul Slavin
Position: Senior vice president, ABC News Digital
Resume: A chance internship with ABC's radio division after undergrad set Slavin on a career with the network that has lasted 30 years. Having started as a desk assistant, he went on to many positions throughout the company, including stints as the producer of World News Tonight and as senior vice president for Worldwide Newsgathering. He became ABC's head of digital news in 2007.
Birthdate: November 16, 1956
Hometown: Chevy Chase, Md.
Education: BA from the University of Chicago, graduate work at New York University.
Marital status: Married with three children.
Favorite TV show: The Sopranos
Last book read: Gettysburg, by Stephen Sears


How did you get started in the news business?
I had just finished my undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago and was going to finish my degree in either law or economics -- and I needed some time off. I moved to New York in pursuit of a woman, planning to hang out here for a little while and get a job. I was at the Ford Foundation interviewing for a job, where they very unceremoniously told me that I wasn't "their kind of people." I didn't have enough money for the subway back home (if that tells you what my financial situation was like), so I walked -- and on my walk back I saw WABC, walked in the door, and asked if they had any jobs. They said, "No, but the network might -- they're hiring anybody." So I walked up the street to personnel, and I interviewed for a job doing overnight radio. The guy asked me if I could start that night. I said sure, and so I ended up as an overnight desk assistant in radio. I had no experience and no inclination toward it, and I thought I'd only be there for a short time. And the rest is history. I've never left the mothership since then.

So you had no training in journalism beforehand?
Like in any business, I had a lot of on-the-job training. I got tremendous opportunities to travel and to learn from people who knew a lot more than me, and that has been the way my career has gone. I find the very best people and I latch onto them, and learn whatever it is that they can teach me -- and hope that I can return the favor to other people who are coming into the field.

"I think the whole silo-ing of digital or new media or broadcast is a thing of the past. As soon as our companies start realizing that it's all just one giant multi-platform content delivery system, the better for all of us."

What was the transition like from World News Tonight and TV news to your current position as the head of digital?
The biggest change is really just a change that the entire industry is going through. That's [knowing] how ruthlessly we must understand our audience and our consumers. Understanding them, understanding the business, and understanding the technology. It's not massively different: It's still about finding the very best people that you can, giving them clear instructions, and hopefully letting them execute against it.

I really find this whole space flat-out fascinating. I think the whole silo-ing of digital or new media or broadcast is a thing of the past. As soon as our companies start realizing that it's all just one giant multi-platform content delivery system, the better for all of us. But it's complicated and chaotic and fascinating to be involved in it.

How is "understanding your audience" different online than it is in a network newscast?
A program like World News has been around a very long time; it has a loyal audience; you know who that audience is in many respects; the lead-in is the local news, and you understand a lot about that... So it's not as mysterious as when you get into the digital space. [With digital news] you have different consumers on different platforms, and they are in the process of morphing all the time.

A recent study found that the greatest growth in Facebook is in 45-and-older; it's no longer an 18-year-old demo. So it's evolving. Whereas World News has been a very clear group of folks that you got to know pretty well -- it wasn't changing platform-to-platform, and it wasn't changing year-over-year. If you were interested in the evening news, there used to only be three places to go at 6:30; and if you're interested in that kind of news, then there are really only a few more places to go. If you're interested in new media [news], there are three million places to go. So your competition is huge.

But of course you're still bringing the ABC News brand with you.
No question. But the ABC News brand is also competing with "Joe's News." And when someone goes to search on Google [for a news item], the story from "Joe's News" may show up right next to yours -- and it may pop up there with a better headline or something else. So, yes, we have a huge advantage and a powerful, historic brand -- and we have to emphasize that brand day-in and day-out to keep that moat around what it is that we do. But we still have lots of people competing with us.

"It is not inconceivable that a reader will pay for content if it is of a high enough value and they are getting enough for their money. The question is, do we have enough of that content that we can create at any given time?"

There's been a big debate recently -- particularly as concerns newspapers -- about micropayments, and other ways of paying for news on the Internet. ABC News originally had a subscription service, which was discontinued. Is there any idea of reviving that?
First off, I cover ABCNews.com; I cover ABCNews Now, which is a 24/7 multiplatform-distributed channel; and I cover mobile and mobile WAP [Wireless Application Protocol], etc. So there's a lot of things we're discussing here. In terms of micropayments: we're again going to experiment with something -- I don't know if you'd necessarily call it "micropayments" -- like a sort of pay-by-subscription model on one platform. We do get paid for our content by places like Verizon and Yahoo and Sprint.

But it is not inconceivable that a reader will pay for content if it is of a high enough value and they are getting enough for their money. The question is, do we have enough of that content that we can create at any given time?... I don't know that much else that we do would necessarily lend itself to micropayments, but that doesn't mean you don't look into other content areas that might fit.

As old media companies go online, they have different kind of content that they are leveraging. How is television-backed Web news different than, say, a newspaper site?
Broadband penetration has increased dramatically since 2005, and that has really favored video producers. There is a lot of interest in video, and the cost of entry to video continues to be reasonably high, so it helps us moat off some of our advantages. It does reduce the number of people who can compete with us. I look at it as a distinct advantage as the technology evolves, and platforms like the iPhone come out that are really video-centric. Our skill set in video gives us a leg up. Text is still important in a lot of respects, but I think that we have to look at what we do better than most other people, and that's video -- and we need to emphasize that more as time goes on.

With this broadband and mobile penetration, do you think that there will be more of an emphasis in video over text in news?
It's hard to put a certain date on it, but -- for those people who are interested in historical movements and media -- in the last year or so, television has finally left the home. And that will have huge implications for our business. With Verizon V-Cast and its proliferation; with Sprint; with mobi.tv; with MediaFlow; and now with the iPhone application. Television is now totally out of the home, totally mobile and easy to use. And who knows what the implications of that will be.

How does social media fit into ABC's plans, and are you doing any kind of new stuff in that space?
We're looking at the Facebook Connect system -- we've been talking to them for some time. Everybody loves Twitter; I do. It's just fun, and maybe it'll turn into something more than fun.

We've not had a lot of success with social media to date. We were one of the first news organizations to partner with Facebook, and that was really successful for what it was -- but we haven't really figured out social media. I think it's important, but it takes a tremendous amount of resources for us to get involved in. We will continue to look at it, but I couldn't tell you 100 percent that social media is the way we're going to go for our news product. But I think it's incumbent on us to experiment with it, and have conversations with social media providers, and see whether or not it can be an effective driver for us. It's definitely a tool, [we just need to find out whether] it can be more than a tool.

What do you mean by "tremendous" resources? What's involved?
Just building and maintaining the social media. For instance, if you're going to have groups of people talking, you need someone to moderate that. We have comments, but I don't think that comments do much without a moderator attached. So there's a technology side, an editorial side, and from a resourcing point of view, we just haven't had enough resources to put against it to see whether it works. I'm not sure that any news or information service so far has really done anything sustainable in that area yet. But everything is evolving so rapidly, so ask me again in six months and I may have a different answer.


David Hirschman is editor of mediabistro.com's Daily Media Newsfeed.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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