Monday, September 17, 2012

USAT | In redesign, the question Peller would ask: you got new blue plates, but where's the special?

Reviewing USA Today's redesign in print and online is like appraising a restaurant's top-to-bottom remodel before the new menu is in place: The cool new layout makes it easier to move about, lighting changes create a brighter atmosphere, and the china (all those pretty blue plates!) adds a much more modern look.

But what's coming out of the kitchen is the same-old, same-old. Once diners have grown accustomed to the physical changes, they'll return to Clara Peller's famous question: Where's the beef?

In their defense, Publisher Larry Kramer and his top editor David Callaway are both on the job less than four months. Work on the print and website design were well underway when they arrived. Looking for a quick jolt to falling advertising revenue, they launched the new design before adding all the promised news content changes. Today brings the second edition of the new print edition, and the beta version of the site began rolling out over the weekend.

Unsurprisingly, the initial reviews are focusing on looks and, online and in digital editions, function. Those reviews are mixed, as is often the case when a newspaper makes big changes.

Industry consultant Ken Doctor's reaction comes closest to mine. "In a rush to do something to reverse USAT’s flagging fortunes," he wrote last week, Gannett and/or Kramer "decided to take one big public step. Change the look first — and then get to the deeper, underlying questions of identity, purpose, storytelling and content, all of  which are core issues with the aging product."

He continues: "Looked at this way, the redesign is a platform. It’s a platform to do better content, to do state-of-the-art customization and to catch up with the video wave sweeping its peers."

Blue plate special: the new logo
What Callaway said
And no less than Callaway is preaching something similar. Introducing the new design, he wrote: "The biggest brands are beginning to look at news not from the point of how it's collected and delivered, but for what it has always been in its most basic form -- telling you something new."

I think the online redesign is a big improvement over the one USAT has offered for many years. It feels more like a tablet application, the platform that's quickly being adopted by news consumers, especially young ones.

Of course, that was the paper's intent, notes Poynter Online's Julie Moos. In a very positive assessment, she described five key reasons why the digital redesign works for her. For an even more detailed discussion about the new technology, read the many postings in this Reddit thread.

Yet even with all these improvements, I don't hear anyone saying this effort -- underway at least since August 2011 -- is the game-changing leap in newspaper publishing from Sept. 15, 1982, when USAT fundamentally changed industry thinking with its full color, short stories and strong visuals. Here's why.

Exclusive network is gone 
More than 30 years ago, USAT had access to something few other publishers had in order to create the first national daily: A network of owned and operated print sites and distribution operations, courtesy of Gannett's coast-to-coast chain of community newspapers. That presented a significant barrier to entering the market for any rivals.

But today, everyone can tap the network USAT is employing for this digital redesign: the Web. The industry will closely watch the paper's app-like design, and especially its integration of full-screen, interactive ads. If it works to boost the paper's advertising, down as much as 17% in the second quarter vs. a year ago, rivals will quickly adopt USAT's design.

And what about the beef?

Virtually from his first work day in May, Kramer has promised more "pronounced voices," although it's not entirely clear what that means. In an interview with Chris Matthews last week, he said editors will give reporters "more running room" to "tell the story their way."

As well, Kramer has promised what every publisher does: News will hit the web and mobile much more quickly. There will be a huge emphasis on sports as the paper takes aim at ESPN, Sports Illustrated and Yahoo Sports via the growing Sports Media Network. And coverage such as Washington politics will take an outside-the-beltway view, hewing to USAT's longstanding more populist approach.

The timetable for these news content changes: Kramer hasn't said publicly.

Usual suspects: Wolff, Brown
'Cheap, young workforce'
One of those more pronounced voices debuted today: Michael Wolff, the Vanity Fair media columnist who will also now write a media column every Monday. His first effort out the gate is, unfortunately, disappointing.

He takes on an extremely inside-the-beltway subject: Tina Brown, the co-founder of The Daily Beast and now editor of dying Newsweek magazine. Trust me: Other than perhaps a certain resident of New York's Chelsea neighborhood, I can't imagine anyone needs more ink on Brown -- in Real America, anyway. (Plus: ouch!)

And yet: One of Wolff's paragraphs jumped out at me, and I imagine it might make Kramer, Callaway and Gannett CEO Gracia Martore a bit uncomfortable. Describing the industry that USAT now inhabits, Wolff writes:

"It's a world focused on the voodoo arts of traffic acquisition, cost control that depends on a cheap, young workforce that repurposes other people's content, and a boundaryless relationship with advertisers that blurs the editorial and commercial."

In the months ahead, we'll see whether more voices like that will appear on the paper's revitalized menu.


  1. Wow, an honest unbiased opinion from someone who doesn't work at corporate yet writes a column in USAT. That coupled with Maryam's bad judgment, USAT missed the opportunity to wow readers for what it should do best....reporting. This whole redesign was overshadowed by the incompetent management at the top, which is becoming an expected tradition by now. WAKE UP BOARD OF DIRECTORS!!!! I do feel sorry for the employees who have put their blood, sweat and tears into this thing. If I were them I would be more than pissed off as your work is now being mocked for something completely out of your control.

  2. "Looking for a quick jolt to flagging advertising revenue, they choose to launch the new design before introducing all the promised content changes."

    Says who? Did Kramer or Callaway tell you that? Are they quoted elsewhere as having said that? This is one of those things that just seems OK to some bloggers and it drives journalists crazy: You guess. They were there, it happened, they're the nominal bosses, revenue is a problem, so Callaway and Kramer (who) decided not to wait for content changes before making design changes (what) because of flagging revenue (why).

    But maybe they had no role in the timing. Maybe it was made months earlier. Maybe they begged to delay it. Maybe they approved it for other reasons, like the challenge of changing content/staffing at the same time as design.

    Three of the five W's -- no support.

  3. You reacted to an earlier version of this post -- one that I've since tweaked.

    Still, to address your point: Kramer is the paper's publisher. If he didn't determine the timetable on one of the biggest changes in the paper's history, what sort of chief executive will he be?

  4. I was online over the weekend. There was much, much more live updating on Sports. Not just scores, but stories. There are content changes taking place.

    Confirmation bias can run amok in a forum like this one.

  5. Digital content still makes no sense for readers. Why are they still carrying a what the fed may do story three days AFTER the fed moved?

    Use some common sense, people, better yet, get some people that have news judgement running the operation. ullman, horvich, henderson, brooks, Hillkirk, weiss, colton, czarniak and teeuwen all need to be replaced.

    Kramer and Callaway are still plugged into orgs with decent editors. Cant they start tapping them?

  6. michael wolff should be writing about something broader and more pertinent to readers. Media and politics would be more timely and interesting than hasbeens like Tina Brown. Who is next, Ms. huffington?

  7. what does Susie Ellwood actually do to justify her fat salary? hunke is no longer around. Why is she?

  8. A Gawker reader notes that Wolff has written about Brown on at least two other occasions, here and here.

    And Ouch II: FishbowlNY says today: Brown is "a tired subject, and it would’ve been nice to see something more interesting from Wolff. Oh, and let’s go ahead and take a moment to note the irony of Wolff attacking Brown and the quality of her publication in a USA Today column."

  9. And here's yet more of Wolff's past columns on Brown, from November 2002 in New York magazine:

    "You were feeling sorry for Tina Brown because Talk died? Don't. As a columnist, she's found the best way yet to reward friends, punish enemies, and, yes, keep her buzzy brand alive."

  10. Thomson Reuters tech and media editor Peter Lauria on Wolff's Brown piece: "It's called USA Today, but no one outside 14th-59th St from 10th Ave to Lex in Manhattan will care about this column."

  11. Prolific newspaper design blogger Charles Apple has written an exhaustive (!) and amazingly detailed review of the first print issue.

    His bottom line: "I’d give USA Today a letter grade of “C” for this redesign."

  12. The date for relaunch was set long before Mr. Kramer arrived. The redesign was launched before as well. What he did, however, was make key decisions along the way when he did arrive, and say yes/no to some critical issues.

  13. Is MB a poor-man's version of TB?

  14. Four months is a single, continuous duration. A shorter duration is less time, not "fewer".

  15. 6:49 Thank you. I've now fixed that.

  16. Thanks for this post, Jim, and for your ongoing work here. ...
    (One typo: It's Sports Illustrated, not Sports Illustration. )

  17. Right you are, Alan. I've now fixed that.


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