Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Beusse, and pay to play -- at a ‘friendly’ USA Today

Now that he’s consolidated control over sports content at USA Today, the president of the USA Today Sports Media Group faces a daunting task: How to gin up the more than $300 million in new annual revenue Corporate all but promised Wall Street within three years.

Tom Beusse must do it while finessing ethical issues posed by recent sponsorship deals he negotiated with NASCAR and the PGA Tour. Those deals have already raised eyebrows in the industry, and could threaten the newspaper’s credibility if they’re mishandled.

In both cases, Beusse promised to bump up coverage in return for guaranteed advertising. The NASCAR deal is for one year. The PGA’s is for five.

Some of the most important terms haven’t been made public, including what influence the advertisers may have on editorial content. For example, PGA officials will get to “develop several Tour-themed special sections over the course of each year of the agreement,’’ according to a news release about the deal with the professional golfers association.

For NASCAR, USAT will run “two to three special sections on the sport around key events such as the Daytona 500 or Sprint All-Star Race,’’ Sports Business Journal Daily said in January. “The parties are still in talks about when such issues will run.”

It’s unclear how much of the editorial content will be produced by USAT’s sports department or any of the other 650 sports journalists that Beusse says work at Gannett’s community newspapers, TV stations and specialty sports sites.

In an interview with one of his newly-acquired properties, Beusse insisted USAT wouldn’t pull any punches in its coverage.

“The audience would smell us out,” he told the Big Lead Sports on Jan. 31, soon after his Sports Media Group bought the blog. “It would be a bad decision. Every conversation we have with the leagues is the same. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to say a team owner was a numb skull, that the end of a [Nascar] race should have been done differently or that Tiger Woods didn’t do what he did because we have a PGA Tour relationship.”

More ads = more coverage
But Beusse also made clear that increased news coverage will only come if advertisers first pay up. “Somebody has to sponsor it,” he said. “The advertising side to this game is very real. So if you are telling us you can direct advertising to us, we can cover you more.”

To be sure, newspapers have long created subject-specific sections to attract advertisers: Home & Garden, Fashion, Food, Technology, and so on. And they often did so with verbal commitments or written contracts from potential advertisers.

But those sections seldom relied on a single advertising source, as may be the case under the NASCAR and PGA deals. What’s more, Beusse sounds less worried about drawing the bright line that’s traditionally separated editorial and advertising. He told Big Lead’s Barry Janoff that readers are sophisticated enough to suss out the difference.

“For a long time, media companies have walked around with the attitude that we are protecting the consumers,” he said. “That’s being a little full of yourself to think so. The consumer knows what they’re reading, knows when [an advertisement] pops up where it shouldn’t be.”

An imaginary phone call
Industry watchers have doubts. When Golf Digest contributing writer Geoff Shackelford wrote about the PGA deal on his blog Jan. 17, a reader posted a comment that imagined a phone conversation between USAT’s golf writer and a golf industry official:

"Steve DiMeglio, call on Line 1. It's Ty Votaw, calling with your next story assignment."

More sniping came on the widely-read Sports Journalists forum after Beusse and Sports Media Group’s editor in chief, Dave Morgan, recently announced a big reorganization of the print paper’s sports department.

“I find the whole ‘pay to play’ arrangements -- particularly with NASCAR -- disgusting,” wrote reader BMuddMan. “This is journalism?”

The stakes go far beyond ethics, of course. Gannett’s recent forecast for turning around company-wide revenue declines doesn’t show annual growth until 2015 -- and then only at 2% to 4%.

The situation appears even more dire at USAT. Last year, print ad revenues plunged 14%, according to a regulatory filing, to what I estimate totaled about $155 million. And that followed a 13% slide in print ads in 2010. Meanwhile, digital ad revenue last year rose in the low single-digit percentages, nowhere near enough to make up for the print losses.

USAT has no 'enemies'
Beusse has led Sports Media since he was hired in January 2011 to consolidate all of Gannett's sports content. Whatever ethical boundaries get tested, he says he'll move carefully, reflecting the longstanding culture at USAT itself.

“If you look at Gannett’s USA Today over the years, it has never, ever really upset anyone,’’ he told Janoff. “USA Today doesn’t have any enemies. It’s a friendly publication.”

Earlier: Outsiders try wresting control from USAT founders.


  1. QUOTE Beusse must do it while finessing ethical issues posed by recent sponsorship deals he negotiated with NASCAR and the PGA Tour. Those deals have already raised eyebrows in the industry, and could threaten the newspaper’s credibility if they’re mishandled. UNQUOTE

    Jim, that's bull, a nut graf without anything to back it up except a reader "comment."

    USA Today has been running special sections for decades sponsored by the NHL and other leagues, and similar things. There's never been a hint of editorial tilt, and it is ridiculous to think anything like that would happen now.

    There's plenty to question about a lot of things at USA Today, but inventing phony controversies is, sadly, too common at the blog.

    Don't make up things just because it reads "important." OK?

  2. “Somebody has to sponsor it,” he said. “The advertising side to this game is very real. So if you are telling us you can direct advertising to us, we can cover you more.” Is this a direct quote from Beusse? That's what I thought.

  3. 12:42 writes: "USA Today has been running special sections for decades sponsored by the NHL and other leagues, and similar things. There's never been a hint of editorial tilt, and it is ridiculous to think anything like that would happen now."

    Times have changed: Ad revenue is in the toilet. It's clear USAT wants a different relationship with advertisers than it's had in the past.

  4. Beusse is no journslist. like others now here, hell sell his soul and editotial integrity for ads.

  5. That's if anyone could actually sell any ads.

  6. People Magazine shills for the entertainment industry, and gets tons of ads in return. They get access.

    ESPN shills for sports, and gets tons of ads in return. They get access. When they pissed off the NFL with a TV show, they backed off. Sometimes y0u get real journalism.

    The Weather Channel (and countless others) shill "Green" technology and get tons of advertising from perveyors of "Green" technology. Can't say I've seen much criticism of "Green" technology.

    The point is, ads are where the money is. Most publishers are happy if the subscription costs pay for printing and delivery. If USA Today can make a few million and get better access to NASCAR or the PGA, who's to say the consumer doesn't benefit from more information?

    If YOUR point is: This compromises objectivity . . . sorry. There ain't no such animal. Information has always been a puzzle, and to expect all the pieces in one story from one (supposedly) unbiased source is to ignore reality.

    This blog is a perfect example. Do we get a complete story on ANYTHING at once, or do we get it piece by piece? Are the posters - many journalists, I'm sure - objective in their reporting, or are their biases evident?

  7. You're right Jim; Tom should stick to the same business principles you used to build your travel website. Which worked out so well.

  8. Jim, looks like you have ruffled the feathers of the ad guys in Sports.

    If they could actually sell ads without gimmicks, we wouldn't have to stoop so low.

  9. Personally, I don't think anyone trusts Buesse. Hell step over anyone he has to. That's about the right MO for Gannett. Unfortunately, very few have the talent to back up all the havoc they create.

    You build loyalty and trust with your team, then build the mission. Beusse has done none of that, and in the process, will fuck up the Sports franchise.

    Feel free to tee off. But why don't you just save this comment for a year and see how things shake out first.

  10. While USAT may have no enemies(in their own minds anyway...), they would do well to read "Those Guys Have All the Fun...", the ESPN expose.

    Attempting to muscle in on expanded sports coverage won't make too many friends at the Worldwide Leader. They will crush you if you're seen as a threat.

    Case in point: seen any good shows on CNN-SI lately?

  11. FYI, the NFL's photo contract with AP will be up for renewal shortly. Let's see who will get it for the next year.
    Will it go back to Getty?
    Or will US Presswire make a move?

  12. T0: 8:57 am, you make valid points, the most balanced ones on this thread.
    Jim, it really isn't a different time. Money is money is money and it always has been a goal to get more of. The difference is the topic is more upfront and in the open.

    Beusse isn't doing anything earth shattering or new to the game. Special sections, specialized content, theme-specific content ---it's all the same.
    Sometimes, reporters get worked up over stuff that doesn't or rarely happens. What's the issue with someone (anyone) calling with a story idea or suggestion. If YOU take that as undue influence that's an issue you must work out. It's a ethical question once you follow through on inappropriate pressure. And let's face it, journos get "pressure" and requests to cover things from EVERYONE --soccer moms, coaches, fans, Lions Club to the banker.

    Journos don't control the market on good ideas. That thinking is one reason why people stopped reading newspapers.

    There is no reason why Beusse can't and won't say you don't assign stories to any reporters.

    Beusse can and advertisers often do ask for theme or specific event coverage. You can assign a team, freelancers or strong interns to do the work.
    Folks, it's not that hard to do or that big of a deal.

  13. You don't get it, 2:23. There's an old saying: We comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.

    Suppose those advertisers try to influence coverage of an issue that, let's say, involves taxpayer dollars, like a sports stadium? The advertisers get upset because whereas before, they were allowed to influence coverage, and now they're not. Or, editorial caves in and doesn't cover the issue fairly for fear of upsetting the advertiser.

    Gannett used to be concerned over the perception of its coverage in addition to its pursuit of the almighty dollar. Now, they don't give a damn.

  14. And to think they called Karl Rove turd blossom.

  15. Mr. Beusse needs to bone up on his USAT Sports history. Perhaps a call to former USAT Sports Editor Gene Policinski might help jog Beusse's memory about the newspaper's story on the outing of the late Arthur Ashe in 1993. Never upset anyone? That's the kind of generalization USAT sports would never make. So it's a shame that the new boss would.

  16. "sports" is not first amendment journalism.

  17. wow! 5:31 great post!

    These new managers have so little respect for the history and legacy that is USAToday.

    We get it, you are here to "shake things up" but that doesn't mean throw out all the good and ignore what's been built.

  18. Out of respect for the late Arthur Ashe and USAT's reporting, I should clarify my use of the word"outing." Ashe had AIDS as the result of a blood transfusion during his heart bypass surgery. He did not choose the timing of USAT's story, so he made his announcement based on the newspaper's impending story. The timing of the story, given the great respect people held for Ashe, created some anger with the newspaper. But Gene Policinski, now director of the First Amendment Center in Nashville, always maintained that the newspaper proceeded responsibly. Frank Deford of Sports Illustrated countered, saying that a number of reporters close to Ashe, including Deford, knew about Ashe's condition and chose not to make the revelation out of respect for him.

  19. Beusse has a legacy of being inept. From Rodale to Westwood One he has been shown the door many times. Only a matter of time before they figure out he can't deliver around here.

  20. Having 'special sections' for Nascar or PGA is nothing new for USAT...that's been happening in direct partnership with those leagues, and others, for over ten years. No direct concern on league/advertiser influence there. What bothers me more:
    - so, what new is Beusse et all bringing if the sections are the same as before?
    - Beusse has a sales staff that is bringing in, what exactly, that is different than before? I see the paper daily and don't see anything new - yet? - that Sports is bringing that the regular staff couldn't have brought in.
    - PGA and Nascar deals are more about guaranteeing frequency of coverage rather than specific stories. Ever notice the consistency of how Friday Nascar weekend race coverage looks and the space it takes up? ......and how many ads, exactly are next to that? (see the comment just above)
    - at the end of the day, what revenue is coming in? Whether it's a sports sales guy or just an old print ad sales guy, it's still a conversation about selling an ad in a paper....with declining circulation and readership. All the buzz and acquisitions are about increasing audience size, but where's the revenue? Haven't seen a $$ result of all that yet...that will be the litmus test for Beusse. How long a grace period will Gracia give these guys?
    - a friendly publication.....yes, it's really a backhanded compliment. USAT's a respected player of coverage in the sports world as a national newspaper mainly cause of that fact alone (national) - not really considered as a digital news leader, btw - but, agreed on the 'friendly'. That's damning cause it ignores the hard-hitting consistency of some stories (the annual college football salary reports probably don't make friends), but also recognizes that the overall USAT outside legacy impression is soft. No one in mainstream audience thinks of USAT over NYT as critical journalism. That may not be fair, but it's an impression out there. To hear Beusse repeat that is probably unfortunate at worst, cause maybe he just meant that the sports (business) world does recognize and follow USAT and certainly doesn't avoid us.

  21. No one is shown the door among gannett managers for doing lousy jobs. if that were even remotely true, corporate would be a ghost town. beusse is as good as tenured.

  22. Is it my imagination or is USAT adding executive after executive while furloughing the employees tasked with publishing the newspaper, website et al? Shouldn't somebody take an inventory and perhaps make a few smart decisions about who is working and who is not ... thin the executive herd -- Darwin had a point.


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