Monday, September 19, 2011

Banikarim: USAT readers not focused on elitism

In a Q&A interview published today, Adweek lobs a few hardballs at Chief Marketing Officer Maryam Banikarim about USA Today. She also disputes the trade publication's suggestion that local coverage will suffer with consolidation of U.S. community newspaper design. An excerpt:

Adweek: Another way to look at USA Today is that it’s the news, dumbed down.

Banikarim: The notion of "dumbing down" is such a New York and L.A.-centric elitist idea. They were called McPapers for a long time, which is a badge we now wear with honor. USA Today at its origins was actually focused on trying to create editorial that was relevant to the consumer. What is the impact of the story to you? They were never trying to compete with The New York Times or Wall Street Journal. This is a newspaper that is almost like a morning show. The person who reads USA Today is quite successful and affluent, but they’re not focused on being elitist.

Q: But being informed and intellectually curious doesn’t necessarily make you an elitist.

A: I think what’s interesting is that there is a very wide group of people who actually want to be informed and they want to be informed in a way that’s relevant to them. So much of the media is so focused on what they think people should know rather than what consumers want to know.

What's elite -- and what ain't? 
From the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition:
  1. the choice part.
  2. the best of a class.
  3. the socially superior part of society.
  4. a group of persons who by virtue of position or education exercise much power or influence. 
  5. a member of the elite.
From the Merriam-Webster thesaurus list of antonyms . . .
proletarians, proletariat

. . . and near antonyms:
commoners, the crowd, the masses, peasantry, the people, plebeians, the public, rank and file, bourgeoisie, middle class, working class, dregs, the herd, the mob, rank and file, rabble, hoi-polloi, riffraff, scum, trash, unwashed.


  1. Long before Banikarim was named CMO, in March, one of USAT management's marketing strategies was to label, and thereby denigrate, the WSJ and NYT as "elitist." It appears Banikarim has received the official talking points.

  2. They're paying her big bucks to spew bull. Pathetic to see who is on the bridge on the sinking ship. But they will each grab a lifeboat worth millions while the rest of us drown.

  3. Your headline is incorrect. Her quote reflects the people who read USAT, not USAT itself.

  4. Didn't know you could lob a hardball. :)

  5. 10:23 I've rewritten the original headline, which said

    Banikarim: USAT 'not focused on being elitist'

    However, I believe Banikarim is saying the same thing of USAT. "They were called McPapers for a long time," she says, "which is a badge we now wear with honor."

    If USAT's readers aren't focused on being elite, why would the paper's editorial voice be any different? It would be marketing suicide.

  6. 10:37. Back to Merriam-Webster's verbs!

    1. to let hang heavily
    2. to throw, hit, or propel easily or in a high arc
    3. to direct (as a question or comment) so as to elicit a response

  7. Actually, I think USAT leadership team (all 60 of them!) is elitist. Keep all the information for yourself, make all the decisions yourself, and blame everyone else when it doesn't work out. Never used to be be this way.

  8. Jim @ 10:56: We're deep into copydesk minutiae here. But you can have hardball questions and softball questions. The reality is that both of the balls in question are hard. The imagery that makes one of them seem easier to answer, ie soft - is the slowpitch softball high-arc pitch. Which by your definition is lobbed.

  9. I truly heart copy editors!

    And I think you're right.

    I was trying to have it both ways: suggesting they were hard, but only a little.

    BTW: What *is* soft about a softball, anyway?

  10. Did I understand that right? The USA Today is like the networks morning tv shows. I like something in the morning to make my brain kick in. Good Morning, America, The Today Show, USA Today etc.doesn't do it. And I'm not elitist.

  11. In other news, the U.S. Olympic committee has done away with elite athletes in favor of a new strategy of selecting athletes who represent the "normal" American. And the United States school system decided to award flunking grades to students who have the audacity to be elite.

    I felt like I was reading The Onion when I read her quote. We don't want to be like the nation's top news sources because they are too elite. WTF? I would have LOVED to have been a fly on the wall in the corporate meeting where they came up with that marketing strategy.

    G A N N E T T: For people in search of mediocrity.

  12. I really want this woman to succeed. But increasingly i feel she is more into p.r. and in house newslettering than developing a tangible marketing plan that brings in some big dollars. Am i missing something?

    Wihat has MB accomplished since she signed on?????

  13. Jim, can you help shed some light on this woman's accomplishments at Gannett ?

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

  15. The woman is the biggest elitist in the building. Oh wait, she didn't move to McLean. She's too good for that. She's based in NYC...home of all the media elite.

  16. 8:56 don't be a jealous hater. We only happen to have about 400 folks in Manhattan. Are they all elitest as well? Sorry but that is where the action is these days.

  17. I think it's funny that she says ...

    "So much of the media is so focused on what they think people should know rather than what consumers want to know."

    This is one of Gannett's biggest problems. The local sites are constantly bombarded with new initiatives that they WILL execute, regardless of whether their readership wants or cares about them. I would argue that the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have a far better understanding of what their readers want than most Gannett publications do.

    Gannett management has always thought it "knows" what readers want and declining circulation numbers prove they've been wrong for decades.

  18. Declining circ numbers show Consumer habits have changed period. You can point fingers all you want but with few exceptions circ is down in all companies. When print was the medium of choice, circ was not an issue. You could print in 14k gold ink and circ isn't going up.

  19. Adweek had some kind of conference at CP this why we had the softball piece on Mariyim?

  20. 5:39 - You are right, of course, but Banikarim accused the New York Times of being elitist because they print real news as opposed to "what the people want." The takeaway from this message is supposed to be that Gannett is not elitist and prints what the people do want.

    My point is that Gannett, more than most companies, is guilty of force-feeding readers a pre-ordained diet of whatever "flavor of the week" initiative is currently in play. In other words, they're doing the same thing she accuses the New York Times of ... only Gannett has decided to focus on dumbed-down content as opposed to something really newsy.

    As you point out, it hasn't been wildly successful for anybody, but the last time I checked, the "elitist" paper was ahead of USAT in every major area: circulation, reputation and quality.

  21. Actually, the anti-elitist rhetoric started with Neuharth. There was plenty of it attending the original launch of USA TODAY.

  22. 11:34 is right. Banikarim is a short timer. On average a marketing officer at a Fortune 500 lasts two, maybe three years. So she'll say or do anything as she looks for her next gig. I don't see any deep brilliance in her, but she is smart enough to know that she'll be cast off soon enough and is therefor looking out for herself.

  23. The bet is on that she'll be gone within a year.

  24. 11:54 and 12:40. As always, this is conjecture and speculation; there's no publicly available evidence that any of this is true.

  25. Sweet Jesus. Is this woman trying to commit marketing suicide, and bring down all of Gannett with her? And what better place to take pride in your company's "McPapers" than on one of the most widely read advertising sites. Countless potential advertisers have just decided they'd rather not spend millions on an audience of mediocrity thanks to her blanket statements. It's another brilliant marketing moment for Gannett.

  26. So a day ago, I asked if ANYONE could list MB's accomplishments since she was hired. Are there none? You have to fucking be kidding me.

  27. Average length of tenure for CMO jobs is less than two years. Well-documented throughout the marketing industry.

  28. If USAT really wants to escape that "New York and LA-centric" elitism, then move to the Midwest. There are oodles of empty spaces in the parking lots of Indianapolis and Des Moines and Cincinnati.

  29. I had such high hopes for this woman. She continues to disappoint.

  30. This interview proves the woman knows nothing about USAToday or Gannett. USAToday is so well-positioned to take on the digital content world with its breadth of subjects and "verticals". Talk about it that way Maryam. Your comments only point to one thing: you are indeed a NY elitist who cannot grasp USAT brand attributes yourself.

    PLEASE only talk when you have something positive to say. And to national advertisers no less.

  31. A candid answer to this question would have been illuminating:

    Before you joined Gannett, which newspapers did you read -- and how frequently? (Once a week, twice a week, etc.)

    Also, in her defense, Banikarim said USAT readers weren't focused on being elitists. However, she never described herself in those terms. Indeed, the NYT itself wrote of her in 1997:

    "In Paris, she was drinking espresso and reading the existentialists at 12. Now, she is so esthetically particular that even her paper napkins come from the Museum of Modern Art."

  32. Ha! great find on the old NYT story, Jim. You should give that it's own post.

    Gannett is truly the most elitist media in the business. You know why? Their editors constantly feel the need to dumb-down everything for what is assumed to be a very shallow audience. Guess what? Intrigue wins readership. Pandering doesn't. Over-simplifying doesn't. Always trying to make a gray world into a black and white one for the poor hapless schmoe reader doesn't.

    You know what our readers' number one passion topic is? Good journalism. NYT gets that. Gannett doesn't.

  33. Oh my gosh Jim. That was a very good quote you found.

    The readers of USAToday I see are usually on airplanes and at airports. Business travellers. They are reading WSJ too. USAToday just fills a different niche. USAToday Sports is superior over both the Times and WSJ. If you want sports coverage, USAToday is pretty darn good. WSJ and Times suck at sports. Maryam's comments make her sound out of touch, frankly.
    Why the heck is she THE spokeperson now for USAT instead of Hunke?
    Just rediculous.

  34. no one on this blog can site a single accomplishment by this woman....because there have been none she's hurt us much more than helped. and those that she has hired have done even less - if that's even possible.

  35. Another brilliant gannett hire. i am surprised hunke didnt have a hand in this. it is about time he annointed another vice presidenr for yet another obtuse job that produces no results.

  36. It's not elitist to be smart, thorough and accurate. Unfortunately, USA TODAY is none of those things anymore.


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