Wednesday, July 20, 2011

USAT Watch | In Your Life, hard news is good news

Since its high-profile launch in November, USA Today's Your Life vertical has too often been a mediocre source of "soft" news about health, relationships and beauty. That's a shame, given the resources Publisher Dave Hunke is devoting to the overall vertical concept.

But a story Monday about the powerful Susan G. Komen breast cancer foundation is a good example of the sort of journalism Your Life needs to win more readers -- and advertisers. It was hard-edged, newsy, and nearly certain to capture a wider audience, given the emotional topic it took on.

Those of you who don't recognize the Komen foundation likely know its ubiquitous pink ribbon campaign, which has come to symbolize the non-profit's effort to eradicate breast cancer in women. (Indeed, Corporate itself turned the towers of its McLean, Va., headquarters "pink" one evening last year.)

Yet, as Liz Szabo reports, some observers are now questioning whether the pink ribbon campaign's marketing has spread too far. Szabo's featured example is a new "Promise Me" perfume line that foundation Founder and CEO Nancy Brinker peddled recently on the Home Shopping Network.

Too much of Your Life's content has been produced by freelancers and second-tier sources like the HealthDay news service. They read generic and overly shelf-stable, giving them a stale quality. In this case, however, the Komen story was produced by a staff writer, Szabo, with plenty of experience covering cancer. That's an important lesson about the value of professional journalism.

In addition to health, the Komen story touched on another topic that's housed in Your Life: philanthropy, which is the subject of a blog called Kindness. The non-profit sector is woefully undercovered, giving USAT a wonderful opportunity for more public service journalism.

Moreover, Your Life's success is key to USAT's recovery, since it's meant to be a model for other verticals still under development.

Based on reader response to Szabo's story, Your Life could mine philanthropy for even more news.

"What percentage of the monies collected are actually used in real research?" asked reader paul2. "I want to know that before I give one red dime to that charity."

A suggested follow-up
I, too, wanted even more about the Komen foundation, and founder Brinker, who launched the non-profit in the name of her sister, who died of breast cancer.

So, I dug up the foundation's most recent public IRS tax return, for 2009, which is available online for free at GuideStar, a searchable database offering a wealth of information about non-profits. That return and earlier ones also are available on Komen's website. (I've used GuideStar for my reporting about the Gannett Foundation and Freedom Forum.)

Like many non-profits, Komen is a big business. It took in $172 million of revenue in 2009, according to its revenue statement. It spent $75 million -- 44% -- on grants to cancer research and other outfits. The other 56% went mostly to consultants, advertising, office expenses, salaries and other items. (I paused at $712,169 alone in "bank fees." Huh?)

Does this comprise excessive spending on overhead? I don't know, but a follow-up story could examine that.

I also noticed its 16 highest-paid executives all received six-figure paychecks, including three who are no longer listed as employees:
  • CEO and President Hala Moddelmog, who got paid $468,255. (She left Komen to run the Arby's restaurant company; Brinker is now CEO.)
  • Gary Dicovitsky, vice president for development, $435,000; that included an $81,250 bonus
  • Kimberly Earle, chief operating officer, $345,357
All that information is detailed on Page 59. Are those amounts too much? Too little? Why the big turnover in management? USAT could answer those questions, too. (Note: I searched the Web today for related stories, but found none. Maybe I missed them.)

Brinker, meanwhile, has been a big financial backer of Republican candidates and causes. The former U.S. ambassador to Hungary has contributed about $196,000 of her own money to the GOP since 1991, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. (Her ex-husband is Norman Brinker, the founder of a restaurant empire that includes Chili's and Macaroni Grill.)

And she also was a prodigious fundraiser for President George W. Bush's campaigns. This made me wonder about the GOP's recent record on breast cancer research, another news subject worth mining.

USAT Watch is an occasional progress report on a high-profile reorganization launched in August 2010 to boost advertising and readership at Gannett's struggling marquee daily.


  1. It's a good story.

    Another topic: "pinkwashing" -- the practice of companies trying to boost their image by festooning themselves with pink ribbons, but then limiting the actual amount of their donations or sometimes even selling products that may raise breast-cancer risks.

    Like this:

    It would be interesting to create a database of "pink" companies that let readers see who's actually faking it.

  2. I came to the conclusion some time ago that the whole "go pink for breast cancer research" thing had gone overboard and become oversaturated but it is difficult to say so if you are male because then, you know, you're a misogynist. As a branding and marketing campaign, though, you cannot argue with its success.

  3. The Big Professor7/20/2011 3:37 PM

    As usual, good reporting by Jim and an example for others to follow. Perhaps Jim could contract out as a "mentor for hire" for the younger journalists left at places like Gannett who aren't getting the same support that we older hands got, such as being sent to writers workshops (anyone remember the Wilmington Writers Workshop?.)
    While organizations like Poynter, IRE and SPJ step in to the breach with workshops on a national level, how many newsrooms (Gannett and non-Gannett) are supporting this excellent form of continuing education, especially for young journalists who aren't getting mentored in their own newsrooms due to staff reductions and increasing workloads on their immediate editors?
    Content is product. Quality content is a sales tool for ads on any platform. Anyone listening in McLean? (cue the crickets)

  4. By the way, most training organizations (except SPJ, which has a lot of money) are pretty much on the ropes. They're circling the drain. Just like the industry they used to serve.

  5. The day Jim Hopkins is a mentor will be a sad day for us all.

    But I do have to wonder how much business these training organizations get these days.

  6. Nancy Brinker forced Moldemogg out when the Bush II left the White House and she lost her job as chief of White House protocol. Thta's the job Brinker got after she stopped by Ambassador to Hungary that she paid for by being a Bush Ranger. Moldemogg was in many ways perfect for Komen, she came from the fast food business, and Komen is the fast food equivalent of the breast cancer movement. Their partnership with KFC last year was a natural. A lot of publications won't publish a critical word about the Komen Foundation, but Steven Colbert has had a field with them.

  7. 4:17 I believe Jim was a mentor at USA Today and I have not heard a bad report about his work at that newspaper. Am I incorrect?

  8. What's all this about? Are we now being regimented by colors. When I went to middle school, boys were told not to wear yellow. So today yellow is the new pink?

  9. 10:03, Jim refuses to post his evaluations, if I remember correctly. That was one of the many stand-offs that led to him shutting down the blog in disgust two years ago.

    In addition, he frequently posts incorrect information. He finally gave up on trying to figure out how many jobs were lost in Tulsa, for example, because he couldn't get the numbers right.

    So, if you want a mentor who's inaccurate, flaky, and silent about his work history, then I guess Jim's your man.

  10. Hi, I worked at USA TODAY for close to 15 years and worked directly and indirectly with Jim (he was in the San Francisco bureau and I was in McLean). In all that time, my awareness was that he was well-regarded among the staff.

    I don't agree with everything Jim does on this blog, but his work at USAT never seemed to be an issue.

  11. And why should we care what Anonymous 11:09 has to say?

    Credibility zero. Opinion flushed.

  12. What has this whole thread got to do with anything going on at Gannett? Yes, let's deflect the complaints we all have about GCI towards Jim, who frankly I have never met and don't know. He's just running a blog on what is going on in Gannett, and enough of this sophisticated disinformation. I'm wondering if this the efforts of the latest contractor troll? If so nice try, no cigar.

  13. Jim, the $712k in bank fees are payments Komen and other charities have to swallow for accepting donations on their site via credit cards. I would think that may make an interesting story topic. How much money is driven by the banks for the top ten charities in the US?

    Second, Gannett's tower was turned pink, but not for Komen. I believe it was for the National Breast Cancer foundation. Pink nonetheless, but wrong charity.

  14. William the Weasel7/21/2011 4:02 PM

    Like your creditability 11:16? People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw bowling balls. Now go collect your bonus check from corporate for trashing Jim.

  15. Troll Patrol7/21/2011 4:04 PM

    Hey 10:03, post your evaluation.

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

  17. So many of these high profile "nonprofits" have a cash-generation component out of proportion to the charitable grants they actually make. One nonprofit alleged "advocacy" organization in Connecticut that gets great press advocating "no nits" policies in school districts with head lice problems. The organization makes a tidy $2 million a year selling special combs for parents to comb nits out of kids hair.

    Understand that you only "need" the comb if the district has a "no nits" policy.

    "Nits" are really harmless empty egg cases, but this nonprofit insists on trying to block the use of highly effective pesticide shampoos that completely eradicate harmless head lice, and also eradicate the need to buy the expensive nit combs from the nonprofit.

    Get it?


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."

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