Monday, May 02, 2011

USAT | What I found online at 12:29 a.m. ET

I've circled USA Today's last update -- 11:44 p.m. ET -- on its Oval Blog. This is the paper's main story on a mammoth news event:

[Updated at 12:34 a.m. ET: The paper has now filed 13 paragraphs under the byline of three staffers.]

[Updated at 4:28 a.m. ET: By approximately 3 a.m., according to the time stamp, USAT had filed this strong tick-tock, explaining how U.S. officials tracked Bin Laden to the end.]


  1. Time for a progress report.

    In August, USA Today disclosed details of a reorganization to make the paper more nimble and more focused on digital delivery. It would do so, improbably, while simultaneously shedding dozens of jobs, according to Publisher Dave Hunke.

    Over the next two months, the paper issued a dozen press releases seeking attention for what Hunke said would be a "radical" realignment of the paper's resources.

    On Aug. 26, senior managers made a presentation to staff about the new organization. They said they had conducted a survey of other media outlets that found:

    * "The first 30 minutes of covering a news story is critical (think Web-first)."

    * "The best are organized around coverage teams or pods -- empowered to move quickly."

    This is what the new organization would mean for the newsroom, according to the presentation:

    * "We'll focus on the 'first half hour' of a breaking story, especially if it's on our core beats. So, if Tiger Woods crashes his car, we throw everybody we need at the story immediately and we beat ESPN and CNN."

    I have absolutely no doubt that the staff wants to beat the competition. But how is that possible under the current leadership?

  2. While your bashing of USA TODAY's involvement in D.C. press dinner was off the mark, you make an excellent point. Did you also notice that the paper relied on an AP account of the dinner until well into Sunday?

    Basically, there is just not enough staffing to handle breaking news on several fronts, especially when much of it unfolds over a weekend. Last week's storms, the royal wedding, Obama's remarks at the dinner and then Bin Laden severely tested the endurance of a much-depleted work force.

    The trouble is not when Tiger crashes his car. It is when multiple big stories hit at once. Exhaustion will deplete anyone's reserves and this weekend was a good test case of how you can spread even the best reporters and editors only so thin. Especially to fill numerous platforms. Add to that a new production system, Newsgate, that is being steadily introduced and confounding many a staffer, and chaos reigns more than a well oiled machine.

  3. Hunke was absolutely right about the importance of the first half hour. When news hits, people scramble for anything that might elaborate on what they heard, which is why the Drudgereport made Matt Drudge a millionaire. If readers find no information, they are less likely to come back the next time.

  4. I noticed the same thing last night. didn't even have the announcement of there being a unspecified speech, let alone the fact that bin Laden was killed, until 45 minutes after most other prominent news websites, including and I went back and forth several times and saw nothing. Can you imagine how many people went to and did NOT come back when they saw zippo up on the site? I mean nothing -- not even a banner alert. And this isn't the first time this has happened.

    Isn't it interesting that dozens of people were let go because of an alleged lack of web experience. They called it "job eliminations," but what they really were were ways of settling personal scores based on age, perceived bloated salaries, personality differences, etc. In that group were some people with great news instincts and a sense of urgency. And, by the way, a few were even pretty good with the web and other technologies -- forward thinkers who got frustrated with the lies and other garbage that USAT heads were spewing at the time. Many other fine journalists jumped ship on their own -- not because they weren't up to the digital task -- but because the leadership and game of musical chairs was a joke. People were getting promoted who shouldn't have been. And the new hires, well, I won't even go there...'s sluggishness in responding to the death of bin Laden points to a huge problem of short staffing but also wrong staffing. If you're going to have a lean newsroom, you better have people are capable of moving fast and accurately on both platforms. I know good people still exist at USAT, but under this current regime of some high and mid-level editors, they are trapped in no-win situations.

    On a Sunday night in McLean, Va., when one of the biggest news stories of the last decade was unfolding, failed miserably. Everything the people at the top said would happen as a result of firing tons of people and putting digital first didn't happen. The new hires, the old bosses in new positions, the new catch phrases -- none of it worked on one of the biggest news nights where being nimble, properly staffed and experienced in situations like this would have saved from some major embarrassment.

    Question is, will USAT heads honestly evaluate the mega-screw up from last night and begin to fix what they've broken over the last three years, or will they sweep another ugly failure under the carpet? When will the B.S. end at this once-capable news company?

  5. For too long, USA TODAY has rewarded and punished people for all the wrong reasons. That is at the root of many problems in the newsroom that even pre-date the buyouts/layoffs. These "wrong reasons" include a variety of things that I won't even get into. Some aren't unique to USA TODAY but some are. Over time, the foundation has rotted and the leadership has become more blind and/or naive. If can't even get a quick alert onto its home page about the president about to make a major announcement on a Sunday night when nothing else was going on, then how will it compete with other digital journalism sites? I have a feeling the same old (and new) tired con artists will wiggle out of this one and maybe offer up a sacrificial lamb or two. But that will not solve the growing problem. There needs to be a study of how USA Today got to this point. Time for a little historical perspective and closer examination of the many moves that led to last night's disaster.

  6. I didn't see a post on USAT's site until 10:59 p.m. and that was a smallish headline saying "Bin Laden reportedly dead," citing CNN as its source.
    I checked several other major Gannett papers and found that they didn't post anything you'd define as quickly, either.
    There was a time when an event of this magnitude would give birth to all kinds of early, special and updated print publications. I'm curious to know who did what on this one, or if Gannett's papers yielded to online. An overview of how this was handled would give valuable insight into the new media age.

  7. It's funny, I never went to ANY Gannett site for any of the news of Bin Ladens capture and kill. I just realized it.

  8. I'd hope most of the biggest and best papers had special reports prepped and ready for Osama's ultimate demise. I saw some great page ones on the Poynter site but USAT was not one of them.
    It'd be interesting to know what Hunke, Hillkirk, et al decided to do with this huge, huge story. How far did these two luminaries go to serve their readers on this historic event? What special steps did they take to chronicle what happend and to put it into perspective? Did they act as newspeople or simply yield to financial concerns?
    As cited above, USAT's online performance is best described as late and thin. Did they redeem themselves with a boffo print edition?

  9. Just a symptom of a larger cancer at USA that decision-makers continue to deal with by placing their heads in the sand and by holding feel-good meetings amongst themselves. This crap has been going on for years. Some of the names change, but the overall atmosphere that leads to miscues continues. The problem has gotten steadily worse for many reasons.

  10. It looks like Fox's Geraldo Rivera was the first to break this story at 10:43. So why did it take almost an hour for USA Today to put it out? Some reporters got a "get to work" email message Sunday night that was a heads-up something big was about to happen. Did USA Today get the message?

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  12. Hillkirk spent three hours Saturday night buttering up Obama, but it looks like it meant nothing when it came to giving USA Today a break on the Osama news 24 hours later. So what worth was this money spent on this dinner?

  13. 10:23 a.m. I just realized the same thing after I read your post! I looked at my hometown newspaper website today like I usually do, but I didn't read any of the many stories they posted on bin Laden since I'd already read the big news on several real news sites.

    USA Today? Can't remember the last time I looked at that site, quite frankly.

  14. Sucking up to Obama at a Washington dinner when things that really matter like getting White House messages when news is breaking show what is going wrong at USA Today: it is all style over substance

  15. I didn't receive a breaking news email from USA TODAY on bin Laden's death until 11:15 last night. I thought that was very late to get the news out and a seemed to suggest that USAT was caught short staffed.

  16. Short staffed and lacking a desire to play like the big timers even though USAT's top bosses are paid like big timers.
    One of the biggest stories of the century hits and "the nation's newspaper" doesn't have enough resources and/or energy to give it first-rate coverage.
    If it gets any worse, Gannett ought to be charged for fraud for masquarading as a breaker of news.
    It is a shame and sad to watch even though GCI's lack of high news standards has been apparent for some time now.
    What next, a badly out-of-date Tuesday edition filled with a page of news and 50 pages of ads? Screw the Pulitzers right? USAT wants more profits!!!

  17. Obviously, a phone wasn't within the reach of USAT brass for a long, long time after the Osama story broke on television and CNN online.
    Gannett: Everything within reach except the biggest news story of the century.
    What an embarrassment.

  18. Here's some of the best front pages this morning:

    I like the reference to "bastard" in the NY Post, even though that term more accurately describes the person who ordered the mission, not the target.
    (I suspect they're using the word because the best 9/12/01 front page, from one of the San Francisco papers, used it.)

    How does your local Gannett paper compare?
    Here's a couple, which were the subject of a lot of a lot of discussion recently when they each laid off at least 9 employees:

    NOT A WORD ON PAGE 1 - HOW DO YOU MAKE A MISTAKE THAT HUGE? Talk about asleep at the wheel!
    (Gee whiz, glad they were able to squeeze it in!)

  19. 1:25 The Wall Street Journal sent me a news alert at 10:56 p.m. ET that said, "Osama bin Laden is dead, and President Obama will make a statement tonight."

  20. Yes, 1:25 here. My USAT alert actually came in at 11:16 pm and said basically the same thing as your WSJ alert - just 20 mins later. That's a big time difference, especially when used to pride itself on scooping the competition by even just one minute for big breaking news stories.

  21. apparently there was an issue with the amount of internet traffic to the mobile USAT site last night. there were intermittent outages until around 3am

  22. The problem is with management, but mostly on the online side. A kiddie corps led by non journos. Painful for everyone who looks on in disgust. When will Hunke step up and put a stop to the incompetence instead of just talking a good game?

  23. Hunks is way too busy hiring overpaid veeps for posts they aren't qualified for. Make that useless/posts they arent qualified for. Why focus on the actual product? He doesn't care.

  24. Jim, were you on a mobile device or on a laptop? If you were on a mobile device, that would explain why the website wasn't updating for you.

    If you were on a laptop, then yes, the problems at USA TODAY are even more serious than a horrific technological glitch just as big news broke.

    But if you were on a mobile device, you should revise your assessment. It's still bad, just a different bad.


  25. 8:29 I was on a laptop. (I use a MacBook.)


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