Interviewer: Lela Cocoros
Interview Date: July 29, 2019
Interview Location: Independent Show, Chicago, Ill USA
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Program
Lela Cocoros: Hello, I’m Lela Cocoros for the Cable Center. It’s July 29, 2019, and we’re in Chicago with the Independent Show. This is the oral history of Amy Maclean, Editorial Director of Cablefax. This oral history is part of the Hauser Oral History Program. Amy, welcome.
Amy Maclean: Thanks, thanks for having me.
Cocoros: So let’s start out with your early life, where you’re from, your educational background and where you grew up.
Maclean: So I’m from Georgia and I went to the University of Georgia. I was the editor-in-chief of the Red and Black at UGA. I kind of got bitten by the newspaper bug early. Then from there I went on and worked for the AP for a while, again in Georgia and also Alabama, before I moved to the DC area.
Cocoros: So how long have you been in the cable industry?
Maclean: Let’s see. Almost twenty years. I think that’s right.
Cocoros: So you came from the AP, is that right?
Maclean: That’s right. I was with the AP for about two years, I think, and then I moved to the DC area to be closer to my boyfriend, who has now been my husband of sixteen years, so it worked out. And I was looking for a different kind of job and sort of fell into Cablefax. It had an odd name, I wasn’t sure what it was, but it stuck all this time.
Cocoros: Well, that’s great. So you’ve been with Cablefax and that’s been the cable position you’ve had in the industry. You worked your way up to Editorial Director and Editor-in-Chief.
Maclean: That’s right. I started as Associate Editor.
Cocoros: So what attracted you to the cable industry? Or what continues to keep you motivated by staying in the business?
Maclean: You know, it’s funny. At the time, it was just that it was a job. I had moved to DC. It was a competitive market and I just needed income. I remember sort of being like, what is Cablefax? I don’t understand. I’m only writing about cable. This will be a quick little leap until I find another job. Then once I got into it, I just found myself really fascinated because with Cablefax, we cover so many different facets of the industry, from regulatory to financial to technology. I was never bored. Which was similar with the AP in that you cover, at least for what I did, you had to cover a million different things. So I’m surprised I find myself here almost twenty years later. I got engaged at Cablefax, I got married at Cablefax, I’ve got two children during my time at Cablefax. It’s just stuck.
Cocoros: That’s great. How does cable differ from—you know, you were a general assignment reporter. So how does cable differ from the other industries you covered when you were at the AP?
Maclean: Granted I was young, but I’d never seen such a collegial industry as I do with the cable industry. Even today I just marvel at the fact that you have groups like the Emma Bowen Foundation, that just celebrated their 30th anniversary, or WICT, that had their 40th anniversary. When you think 30, 40 years ago that diversity was such a priority for an industry, I don’t know that people really appreciate and get that. That’s been very fascinating to see. I think because of the way that cable came to be, that there’s this sharing that you don’t get to see in a lot of industries. So that has definitely made it fun and unique as a reporter.
Cocoros: From your perspective, what is the role of a trade publication within an industry that it covers?
Maclean: It’s to highlight when things are working, but also, it’s to highlight when things aren’t. It’s a little of both. Because I feel like there is such an opportunity to learn from other players in this industry, so I feel like that’s a big part of it. I also feel like Cablefax is a little bit unique in that we are—sometimes I like to say we’re a little bit of a “refrigerator door” journalism for the cable industry. Like it’s OK to—if something personal happens, sometimes, if someone in the industry—for instance, Rocco Commisso; when his mother passed away. I mean, that’s the sort of thing other people in the industry would like to know and reach out to him. I think we can highlight that sort of personal news as well as business news.
Cocoros: I always thought of Cablefax as kind of this easy read, that you were able to get a sense of what’s going on in people’s lives as well as in the business. The implications of the business; just kind of the top line of everything.
Cocoros: So it’s a must-read every day.
Maclean: That’s good. We try to be—we know that everyone’s very busy. And we know that we’re not going to be your only read, but it’s sort of a tip sheet to get you started. You may not need to know every detail of the T-Mobile/Sprint merger, but here are some highlights for you to know when you go in and meet your boss on the elevator and you want to show him that you’re up on things, right?
Cocoros: That’s a great point, exactly. How has your role as a journalist changed over the years in covering cable?
Maclean: Oh, my goodness. So many ways. I mean, look at our name. When I started, we were literally faxed.
Cocoros: I was going to ask you about that. I’m glad you brought it up.
Maclean: A lot has changed, not just for me, but for all journalists. We aren’t faxed any more, in case anyone was curious. In fact, even when I joined, which was in late 2000, early 2001, we were emailed back then, but there was this subset of people who insisted on having it faxed and we had to wean them off of it. I can remember we had—there were administrative assistants who would call and basically they were printing it out and putting it on executives’ desks so they never even knew that it wasn’t being faxed. That kind of is a long way to get to the point that the immediacy has changed. Social media has changed everything. I think as a journalist it can be a little hard sometimes because you weigh in on social media, you have all these conversations, but you have to remember that most people really aren’t on Twitter and all these places all day, and so you have to be careful that you don’t get into this box where you think that everyone knows what you’re talking about. And that everyone has seen this story or knows this news. So it’s just so challenging. You have to be there, you have to be on the web, you have to be in a million places. Cablefax is unique in that we still have print—it’s email, but it’s one publication that comes out each day. So again, I think that gives us an advantage in some ways because we have the luxury of, dare I say, getting it right. I mean, we’re not trying to be the first one out the gate always with the news. We have a little bit of time to take a breath and reflect on what this really means beyond just the quickly popping it on Twitter.
Cocoros: That’s increasingly a challenge, I think, is to keep it where you’re conveying news that you’ve at least fact-checked and there’s so much else out there that’s just immediate. It’s nice to take a breath a little bit.
Maclean: I think I have to mention too that when I joined, like we had just started the Cablefax 100 magazine, and that was sort of it. Over the years, we’ve developed the Most Powerful Women issue, our Diversity List. We just introduced a new magazine called “The Work Culture List,” which really highlights companies that are doing all different unique things with their workforce—whether it’s on the diversity front, or on parental benefits. I even heard of a company who offers pet benefits to their employees. It was really interesting to dive into.
Cocoros: That is cool. So can you share a couple of maybe humorous stories or anecdotes from your career in the industry? Who struck you as a particularly interesting subject throughout your years in the business?
Maclean: That’s a hard one. Because there’s just so many and you have to be a little careful. I think one that I would have to say is the late Jim Robbins of Cox. There was a really big carriage fight at one point between Cox and ESPN, and I was still relatively new at that time. And I don’t remember what I wrote, but I know whatever it was, he wasn’t a big fan of it. He called me, and I hope he doesn’t mind me repeating this now since he’s not here with us to say, “Hey, that was off the record.” But it was just a conversation; he didn’t yell, he wasn’t upset. He was just like, “I want you to hear this other side” or whatever. Again, that kind of cemented why I liked this job in that you could have those kinds of conversations. Another memory I have—I don’t remember what year it was, but Brian Roberts had come to the University of Maryland for a Comcast employee day event. Everyone was decked out in their Comcast gear. It was just going to be a little color piece. And I was there, and then suddenly the news breaks that Comcast is interested in buying Disney. They’re not expecting any reporters to be there; it’s just Cablefax that’s thinking, oh, this will be a fun little item. I remember running him down and D’Arcy Rudnay was there, trying to hold me off, and I’m like, “What about this thing?” I didn’t get a comment actually, I got a “no comment.” It was kind of funny to be there during that.
Cocoros: That’s cool. There’s probably a whole lot of firsts I think that you probably were party to in kind of getting the scoop, so that’s pretty cool. I know that you’re a moderator of a lot of panels and things like that, so I’m going to ask you, what makes a good panelist when you’re talking at a trade show or whatever? Which types of people and what do you look for in a panelist?
Maclean: I can tell you what doesn’t. I can tell you that Powerpoints don’t make good panelists.
Cocoros: Sales pitches, right?
Maclean: You have to lean away from that. I think someone who really can look at the audience from a holistic point of view instead of just looking at it myopically through their own company. And can realize maybe there’s a unique situation where they can talk about some sort of technology that they do. But instead of preaching that this is something for everyone, talk about not just the good, but the challenges and what they’ve actually learned from something. I think failures are always the best way to teach and to really relate to people. So someone who’s really open to both the good and the bad, I guess, is what I would say.
Cocoros: Do you find that most panelists are doing that, or do you think that they…?
Maclean: I think it really varies. I think that some people get really just freaked out. I think that’s something we forget sometimes, that this is new territory for them and maybe they haven’t done a lot of that. And I think it comes a little bit with experience and practice. So I would say that people who want to be panelists should just get out there and do it. And the more you do it, I think, the better you get at it.
Cocoros: And who are the people in the industry who’ve influenced you the most in your cable career?
Maclean: I would say within Cablefax I would have to mention Seth Arenstein, who hired me. I’m always thankful for that. I joined my company, which is Access Intelligence, in November of 2000 and I worked for another publication for a couple months, which was biweekly. And I was miserable because I came from the AP with these quick deadlines and Seth would see me there always working. “You need to come over to the Cablefax land.” And when I got there, I was working for several years with John Ourand very closely. And I would say that John showed me—he really showed me the ropes, he taught me the ins and outs. He threw me to the fire because my very first assignment was a Liberty earnings call. Liberty Media. Talk about a complicated assignment. I remember thinking, “Oh, my God, I’m going to get fired on my first day.” But I would say internally I would have to point to them.
I guess externally within the industry—again, I feel a little reticent to say because I want to be careful with those. But I guess without naming names, I would say I’ve been so blessed by having met people who are really good to me to say, “I think you need to meet this person. I want to introduce you to this person.” Maybe they’re doing it to help out that person, they really are helping me and I’m so thankful for that.
Cocoros: That’s good. Coming from somebody who had that role in introducing people to the media. So you’re kind of in a great position to see all facets of the industry, right? Because you’re covering basically the whole industry just like you said—technology and finance and operations and programming. So what do you think are the three biggest issues facing the industry today?
Maclean: I think number one is we’re hearing all these companies right now say that they’re connectivity companies. And I think that’s a great idea, but they’ve got to actually do that. So they have to break away from this idea that they are the cable company and the Jim Carrey cable guy. And they really are a company that connects you to whatever device, whatever it is, whatever platform. It has to be more than words. They have to really deliver on that. I think obviously the other would be just this whole what’s-going-on with video, it’s so expensive, there’s Over the Top, …. Where does this all shake out? And I guess lastly, I would say—I’d have to think about that. Let’s see. I would say just this risk—I hate to mention the words “net neutrality,” but you know what? That’s still a bogeyman out there. And it hasn’t really been decided. The industry runs the risk of becoming a utility-type service depending on the way regulation and laws go on that.
Cocoros: I just heard that the state of Maine that has voted to a adopt a much more restrictive net neutrality ruling. I think they said that they’ve got more restrictions now than the state of California. It’s probably the most restrictive in the country at this point.
Maclean: You have that going on at the federal and the state level. I guess right now we’re all kind of waiting on the litigation for California. It’s still a big question mark. It’s an old story. Sometimes it feels like we’ve heard about it a million times. But it’s very much unresolved.
Cocoros: So let’s go and look at the impact, like the legacy of the cable industry. And I noticed in your editorial in the Cablefax Top Ops issue, you talked about the Comcast X1 eye-tracking remote, and how that type of technology can really do good. So can you kind of give me a little bit more about that, and just kind of talk about that a little bit? That type of innovation in the industry?
Maclean: That’s a great example of something that I think is just really amazing, and I don’t know that people think about their cable company and Comcast in that way. You tend to hear consumers talking about how high their bill is or how long they had to wait for a rep to pick up the phone. And I think there are so many amazing stories out there that the industry could tell that maybe aren’t quite being heard yet. That’s a great example. Even if you look at, when we were talking about net neutrality and there’s all this stuff about well, what about paid prioritization? I think if there’s an explanation, maybe like, having some faster connection that’s providing up to the second heart rate monitoring to your doctor. If you’re explaining that, that’s what your cable provider is doing. These type of Jetson-like technologies sometimes, I don’t think the consumer understands that that’s what broadband is doing, making it possible.
Cocoros: I hear what you’re saying. Any other examples that you think are in terms of innovation that you want to highlight?
Maclean: Cox has a great experience out there right now of a smart home, and they purposely built it around aging in place. I know also CableLabs has done a lot with that. Again, I think it’s a great example if you can get people to see it, to really understand it. In the Cox home, they actually had people who were using some of these technologies. There was this amazing woman who has a son with a disability, her husband has a disability, she had her elderly mother and elderly aunt living with her. And she was a blogger who was traveling all the time. She had all of these smart home devices. She knew when the medicine cabinet was open so that they took their pill. She knew if the back door opened so maybe the aunt with dementia had wandered outside the house. Just seeing those type of—I’m calling out Cox but I know other people are doing it. But seeing all that come together is pretty impressive.
Cocoros: So it’s on us to tell the story basically and get that story out.
Maclean: I guess it’s on me, right?
Cocoros: It’s increasingly difficult because, as you said, there are so many different outlets now and there’s so much noise it’s really hard to break through. And people have certain perceptions about their cable company or their broadband provider and it’s really hard to get them to be aware of a lot of the other things that broadband actually brings them.
Maclean: It’s always an uphill battle when you’re going to have a $100-plus bill. When you’re looking at a Netflix who’s what, $15, less than that, you’re always going to be, well, but I pay over $100…it’s a struggle and I don’t know that it will ever flip.
Cocoros: So where do you think the future is in the industry? Where is it going?
Maclean: I do think the connectivity is the future. Like I said, I think that you have to deliver and not just talk on it. And I’m seeing great examples that I’m excited by. In fact at the Independent Show today, I heard Buckeye Broadband talking about how they have developed their own geek squad. They’ve actually had this for apparently for four or five years. I’ve never even heard of it. Called “Brainiacs.” And they’re rebranding their retail stores into these Brainiac technology hubs. And the idea is, it’s not for Buckeye Broadband customers. It’s just there to help people, and hey, you come in and you are a Buckeye customer? Then you’re going to get a different price. But I think that’s exactly the kind of innovation that you’re going to see to get to that point where you’re at the customer’s fingertips. When they have a new smart home device that they’ve got to attach, that they think of you first. I think that’s really exciting.
Cocoros: I think some of the smaller broadband companies, independently run broadband companies—they have an advantage in terms of the local community, I think. Because they’re so much part of their communities. Because they live and work where they serve, basically.
Maclean: In the Top Ops magazine, that’s one of the things we really highlight are these types of community service efforts that you see. I mean, it can be things like, oh, we provided laptops or whatever to the school, but then there’s also that summer film festival or whatever. That we’re always sponsoring this big community gathering and it’s another way to get that name out there and get it associated with your local ties.
Cocoros: I love the idea of helping people out with all the crazy weather going on and all the cable companies do that. They really step up after a hurricane or a tornado or whatever natural disaster. The fires in California. You just go on and on. There’s always a story. Always.
Cocoros: About a cable—the techs and the trucks. They’re trying to help their fellow neighbors. It’s a really great story. Hopefully more of those stories will get out.
Maclean: I just learned—I would have to double-check the name. I think it’s HTC. We wrote about them and those techs that are out in trucks, they’re also providing Meals-on-Wheels kind of services to shut-ins in their community.
Cocoros: Amazing. That’s fantastic to hear. That’s great.
From your perspective as Editorial Director, Amy, talk us through the responsibility, I guess, or the role that Cablefax plays or any trade publication plays when it covers an industry and has to be part of that industry, if that makes sense?
Maclean: It is a unique role that we find ourselves in. It kind of goes back to what I was saying. We highlight the good but we also have to point out when something’s not working. I think—I hope—that over the years, I’ve built up and the rest of our team has built up these relationships where we can honestly speak to people and say—it is weird because we rub elbows at cocktail receptions and what-not. But we are journalists first and foremost and we’re not here for fake news and it can be sometimes uncomfortable questions, but it’s part of our job. Like for instance, when Altice USA left the NCTA, that was kind of a big deal. But it’s our job to report that and talk to all the different players that were involved. I think again there’s this respect in the industry that you understand what our role is, and everyone was forthright, and no one tried to hide anything and just spoke the truth. That’s what you hope and best-case scenario for any story.
Cocoros: So talk me through a typical day. Being the Editor-in-Chief and how you select what to cover and how you assign your reporters and all of that.
Maclean: When I first joined Cablefax, it was always surprising to me was how would we find enough different stories to fill an issue. Almost every single day we cut so many things that we wanted to write or had written, and we just don’t have enough room. That’s how much is going on, because we cover so many different facets. We start our day around—I’m usually in the office by around 9:30, and we have a team meeting every day at 10:30. That’s just where everyone kicks around some ideas, things that they heard about, things that they’ve already seen breaking in the news or ideas that they have. And we sort of just spin off from there. We keep those meetings pretty short, about fifteen minutes, because we all know the dangers of having meetings. But we’re in touch all day long, just saying, hey, this has happened, or I just heard this. Many times we have planned on “this is the top story” and then we have to rip it up and write something else because it’s an evolving news cycle. As a daily we don’t have a ton of pre-planned stories because we really are just following the news each day. Where it comes from—I guess it’s hard to say. I mean sometimes we look at, OK, this regulatory filing had to come into the FCC today or it’s earning season and this company’s reporting and we really care about that. I overheard this, I’m on Amtrak and it’s super-interesting, let’s try to do a story on it. Really, as most journalists can tell us, it’s just—you’re fishing every day and you get a bite and you kind of run with it. But yes, we do, we get press releases as well and we use those, but I think the thing is we’re always talking to our readers and trying to understand what they’re interested in and that sort of helps shape the lens as we figure out what stories we need to make sure we have in each day. With us being a very general trade for the industry, it’s important that we are covering everything and we’re covering it in a way that maybe a marketing person who doesn’t need to know a ton about DOCSIS 3.1 can read an article and understand enough that they can go back and feel a little more confident in that subject.
Cocoros: You can’t be too techy, but you have to really kind of balance that out.
Maclean: And I guess I didn’t finish our day—we do that all during the day and then we wrap around 4:30 Eastern Time, when everyone should have their copy in and we edit it and we try to get it out the door between 5:30 and 6:00. But we are—you were asking earlier about how things have changed and it’s definitely a 24/7 news cycle. So we send breaking news alerts, we’re still watching things on the weekends. I think back on my career, I can think of the number of times in my life—this is true—I’ll be trying to send a breaking news alert on something and I can remember my daughter was so close to walking and she’s teetering over there. And I think it was Mediacom and Sinclair were having a retrans battle and Sinclair stations had just went dark. And I was like, “Wait! Wait! Don’t walk yet! I’ve got to get this news alert out.” I can remember the same thing, saying, “Oh, we’re going to go trick or treating in just one more minute. I’ve got to get this news alert out.” You can’t plan everything in a news cycle for sure.
Cocoros: That’s definitely true. Is there anything else you want to talk about…?
Maclean: I’m good. It was fun.
Cocoros: All right. Amy, thank you for joining us.
Maclean: Thank you for having me.
END OF INTERVIEW