Thursday, May 05, 2011

USAT | Needing juice, Your Life gets new editor

USA Today's Your Life vertical, a specialty website launched in November to focus on health, relationships and beauty, hasn't become the must-read needed to make it a success. With too little exclusive content, it's barely distinguishable from other, more established sites in the hyper-competitive market for female consumers. That's worrisome, as Corporate makes a high-profile bet on verticals.

Now, a new hire from The Washington Post suggests the site is in for a makeover of its own. She is Nancy Kerr, the Post's features digital editor, "once practically second-in-command of the website," according to a memo made public today. Kerr is to be Your Life's editor, the memo says.

Your Life is one of several verticals planned for the paper, where the newsroom was reorganized six months ago to more closely align advertising and editorial copy -- a move to gin up additional revenue. That's raised ethical red flags about mixing commercial and news interests, the sort illustrated by a big early stumble at Your Life itself.

Verticals in Martore's sight
In addition to Your Life, there's a vertical for travel, a key category that's suffered hugely as companies cut back on business travel, and hotels reduced the number of USAT's they buy in bulk for guests.

COO Gracia Martore cited the travel vertical when analysts asked about the paper's prospects during the first-quarter earnings conference call April 18. "USA Today is doing a very good job of improving its vertical on the travel side,'' she said, "and looking at other opportunities to garner additional dollars there."

Three more verticals are in the works: diversions, personal finance and personal technologies. (I can't find any of them on USAT's site, although Gannett's annual 10-K report in February said the first two had already been launched.)

Your Life generated 2.5 million pageviews during its first three weeks, the 10-K report said. That's not especially strong, given the big base of USAT's readers, plus the heavy promotion it got on the homepage. (Gannett Blog often averages more than 300,000 views a month.) Hopefully, traffic's improved since November's launch. We don't know, however, because GCI hasn't publicly disclosed any new figures. Of critical importance: What's the net number of new unique visitors Your Life is drawing?

Me-too news
As with all things news, content is king -- especially when it's exclusive. And in that regard, Your Life has suffered. I'm confident the current staff is doing all it can with the little time they're given. Still, many of their stories are of the health-study-of-the-day variety available everywhere.

The site relies on plenty of Associated Press stories, too, which also are widely available across the Web. (A casual reader might not notice all that wire service content, however, because -- unlike other sections of the paper -- Your Life doesn't often byline its AP stories at the top; instead, it only hints, with a copyright notice at the bottom. Here's a recent example.)

The Post's Kerr starts after May 13; she's one of five leaving the paper, according to the memo. It's unclear whether she's taking a new position as Your Life editor, or replacing an existing staffer. When launched, Your Life was introduced by Denise Brodey, the site's general manager, rather than an editor. Reflecting their more commercial ambitions, verticals are getting GMs, akin to mini-publishers.

Kerr might consider bringing more focus to Your Life's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink feel. Its major subject areas are health; fitness and food; family and parenting; sex and relationships; mind and soul; your look, and a collection of blogs. The 40 subcategories range from recipes to pets. Editors gamely try to make it topical: A story yesterday was headlined, "Bin Laden's death a turning point for Millennials."

With hope, Kerr has been promised more resources, whether newly hired or poached from other parts of the newsroom. After all, Your Life can use all the firepower possible, given the Gannett Tower's high expectations for this and other verticals of its kind.

Related: USAT's at-a-glance plans for verticals.

[Image: this morning's USAT, Newseum]


  1. The verticals are a/disaster. No ads, ethically challenged/ leadership (Heather Frank) and a slew of pricey hires from her failed days at AOL. They know nothing about newsgathering or our brand. And Frank only reports to Hunke. An unmitigated, costly disaster in the works.

  2. They need someone to revitalize this staff. I have sledom read more pedestrian copy. People live exciting lives, so what's the trouble?

  3. Its not the reporters fault. Vertical managers are out of touch with the marketplace. Hunks, do something. Its careening out of control.

  4. Heather must go. Now.

  5. I suppose part of the problem may be the vertical concept itself.

    I can't find a generally accepted definition online; one site says a vertical "provides a gateway or portal to information related to a particular industry such as health care, insurance, automobiles, or food manufacturing."

    USA Today didn't provide much help when it said in September that Heather Frank had been promoted to vice president of vertical development. A statement said only:

    "Frank will oversee the department dedicated to the creation and implementation of new as well as existing vertical content areas."

    How are the verticals significantly different than the topic pages USAT already builds around, for example, personal finance and technology products, using aggregated content from across the paper's entire site?

    Are the verticals simply marketed as something special?

  6. I always felt AOL was like chinese food -- looks good, tastes good, but there's never much meat. That's the problem with these verticals. The ad market is certainly there -- just look around the tables in your local coffee shop, and the magazines the younger people are reading. It's a huge sports and fitness crowd. Now if we could figure out how to plug into that market, think of all the advertisers who would crowd into the office with their checkbooks open and ready to sign.

  7. The Gannett corporate managers' way nowadays is to cut staff and to have such low regard for readers' intelligence that they think the consumers won't notice the lack of quality in the product. It must be disconcerting to see that readers are discerning enough to reject the kind of crap they're being offered in Your Life. I doubt that Nancy Kerr will be given the staff and resources to improve it. But at least corporate has a new scapegoat on staff. Wouldn't want Craig or Gracia to be blamed for their own shortsightedness.

  8. David L. Hunke has said to several department groups that the USA Today verticals are not performing, behind schedule and he is disappointed with Heather Frank. How much longer will she last?

  9. Mindy Fetterman was announced to launch the personal finance vertical. Where is it? Christina Allegra was announced to launch the personal tech vertical. Where is it? Scott Stein was announced to launch the diversions vertical. Where is it?

  10. Heather Frank was announced to launch all the verticals. Where is she? NO WHERE TO BE FOUND.

  11. Hunke may well have told groups of employees that he is disappointed in the verticals.

    But I doubt he publicly expressed unhappiness with Frank -- or any other current employee.

  12. Heather Frank is in trouble. She is flapping her wings instead of working with people.

    Six weeks.

  13. Jim, I also doubt very much Hunke expressed public disappointment with Heather by name.

    But he and others on the management committee have expressed impatience with the lack of revenue (and it is a SEVERE lack of revenue; not simply falling short of the goal), and that's why Wilkes is gone (too much infighting, too little impact).

    The word from high is make this work.

    But there's only more confusion: USA Today now runs Content One and Gannett now runs USA Today's IT departmenr!

    Whoever said six weeks might be wishful thinking. But I wouldn't want to be a vertical head in autumn.

  14. If ever I would leave you
    It wouldn't be in summer.
    Seeing you in summer I never would go.
    Your hair streaked with sun-light,
    Your lips red as flame,
    Your face witha lustre
    that puts gold to shame!

    But if I'd ever leave you,
    It couldn't be in autumn.
    How I'd leave in autumn I never will know.
    I've seen how you sparkle
    When fall nips the air.
    I know you in autumn
    And I must be there.

    And could I leave you
    running merrily through the snow?
    Or on a wintry evening
    when you catch the fire's glow?

    If ever I would leave you,
    How could it be in spring-time?
    Knowing how in spring I'm bewitched by you so?
    Oh, no! not in spring-time!
    Summer, winter or fall!
    No, never could I leave you at all!

  15. Jim seems a little shocked that Wilkes is gone. Even CALLED him.

    Wilkes = My Boss Said.

    Or at least a good Blog source.

  16. Heather Frank is one coocoo bird. No concept of anything innovative. No people skills. No capable ad/rev. Skills. No judicious manager of corporate funds. Not even pleasant to be around.

  17. Sounds like perfect upper management material. Oh wait. She already is. And going for even greater power as she poaches more reporters from the print product. Watch out, Hillkirk!

  18. An awful hire from the get go, who has made a series of bad hires. Things will only get worse.

  19. I really don't understand all the
    Complaints against heather. Building a new enterprise takes time and money. Give her a chance. She may actually know what she is doing. You should be supporting her instead of spreading vicious lies about her.

  20. Let's hope Ms. Kerr knows how to roll up her sleeves and do some real work. That Your Life vertical front is a hot mess.

  21. It would be very, very interesting to see monthly traffic figures for USA Today's Your Life vertical.

    For example, has the site's traffic climbed higher from the 2.5 million in November? Stayed the same? Fallen?

  22. Verticals were misnamed, which is why the concept is so difficult to grasp. They should have been called horizontals. Think editorial in bed with advertising, with marketing as the pimp.

  23. Hunke has no strategy othernthan cutting editorial and hiring morons. Verticals are his big move. They are flailing because the concept is ill conceived and Heather Frank doesn't know what to do. Meanwhile, she keeps making six figure hires. What up with that? What do christine allegro and matt Greenberg do all day? q

  24. The plug will eventually be pulled on the verticals. Then Heather & Company will unleash their incompetence on the newsrooms and grab power from hillkirk, Weiss and czarniak. It ain't gonna be pretty keeping all the high paid types from knifing each other in the back. But Frank already has everyone bamboozled.

  25. The apparently exceptional policy on downplaying Associated Press bylines is very interesting. A cynic would wonder if this is so readers including Publisher Dave Hunke and Editor John Hillkirk don't notice all the wire service copy.

  26. 12:50 illustrates the greatest challenge with the news media today. Every company is about making money. The days if trying to be Walter Conkrite are over. I am not being flip, it's simPly the reality. News is about profit. No profit nO news. If you don't hold the advertisers hand you are out of business. You may not like Gannett leadership but every media company is about profit. You can always go to PBS but that's it.

  27. The downplaying of the AP bylines (stripping out the name of the writer and putting AP where the dateline is) is intentional, but not for the reason you are implying. The policy was changed because the byline field is now clickable: It takes you to a USAT staff writer's body of work.

  28. 7:57 Thank you. Where do you land when you click on an AP byline that does include a real name (i.e., By David Epso, Associated Press)?

  29. This thread comes closest to what is really going on at USA Today, the good AND the bad, than anything else posted recently.

    Jim's analysis is accurate and the anger in comments about the vertical chaos is well founded.

    This needs to be fixed. When no one is in charge everyone is in charge (as in Wilks vs. Rudd).

    Leave "the brand" in the hands of those who know it best and let the new VPs figure out how to maximize the impact and profits.

    Seems simple enough.

  30. 7:57 I still don't see why Associated Press stories on Your Life can't get an AP credit at the top. Here are two examples, both from stories appearing now on the homepage.

    A bin Laden story says: "WASHINGTON (AP) — Newly released videos show Osama bin Laden watching himself on television and rehearsing for terrorist videos, revealing that even from the walled confines of his Pakistani hide-out, he remained a media maestro who was eager to craft his own image for the cameras."

    And a story about a Ringling circus family dispute is "By Nedra Pickler, Associated Press." That byline is not clickable, and that doesn't appear to be a problem.

  31. We've identified several problems with the verticals. Unclear game plan. Poor quality content. Inept management. Too many chiefs. No success selling ads. Is anyone accountable? Hunke, DO something.

  32. Hunke isn't going to do anything because Hunke isn't reading Your Life or anything on the website. Seriously, this is the guy who had to ask our TV critic to identify himself at a staff meeting. He has no interest in the editorial product or the people who put it out, and he's made that abundantly clear.

    The Your Life vertical is riddled with careless mistakes, whereas the print product is not. No one is checking the Your Life vertical or holding it to the higher standards of the rest of the website.

    What's the point of pouring all that money into a container that leaks from the bottom?

  33. Higher standards on the rest of the website? That's a laugh. The website is a bigger joke. No news judgement. Delayed reax to breaking news. Poor display. No real integration with print side reporters and editors. This is the gang that can't shoot straight. Of course, hunks wont do anything about that either.

  34. How arrogant of anyone who thinks the pub knows any staffers below VP or senior ed. This guy couldn't id any reporters on staff w/o id cards.

  35. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  36. The verticals are shaping up as one of the biggest fiasco's in the history of usa today.


Jim says: "Proceed with caution; this is a free-for-all comment zone. I try to correct or clarify incorrect information. But I can't catch everything. Please keep your posts focused on Gannett and media-related subjects. Note that I occasionally review comments in advance, to reject inappropriate ones. And I ignore hostile posters, and recommend you do, too."

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.