Thursday, September 20, 2012

USAT | In battle for readers, will a national news audience buy Gannett's 'hometown advantage'?

Let me first quote two key paragraphs from Alan Mutter's excellent new analysis of the challenges USA Today still confronts after redesigning its website and print edition:

"As USA Today commences its fourth decade, there is reason to wonder if its business model will be viable for another 30 years, given that it has lost its utility to its primary targets: business travelers and the advertisers seeking to reach them. Further, nearly two-thirds of its coast-to-coast circulation is built on free copies distributed by hotels and other businesses, meaning that barely more than a third of its readers actually think enough of the paper to pay for it."


"Coinciding with its birthday, USAT put its web and mobile offerings in new and appealing Zite-lite packages. The actual content contained in those new packages, however, consists of a thin mix of aggregated and featherweight articles that seem to have been chosen more for their pageview-generating potential than for their journalistic significance. The result is that the aggregation is less complete than you get at The Huffington Post, less illuminating than you get at Real Clear Politics, less stimulating than you get at Drudge Report and less newzy, breezy and sleazy than you can get at TMZ."

Getting what they pay for
Piggybacking on Mutter's argument, I've tried to focus more discussion on the paper's competitively weak editorial content over its shiny new look. One measure of that weakness: USAT is (I believe) the only Gannett daily (other than Detroit) that's not erecting a paywall. Why?

The answer appears to be management doesn't think readers are willing to pay for the content USAT so far is delivering. Publisher Larry Kramer has promised some editorial improvements, but none of them sound like the sort of sweeping changes that will make USAT really stand out in a very crowded market.

Its exclusive niche is of dubious value: news and video from Gannett's 81 U.S. community dailies, 23 TV stations, and specialty publications like Army Times. In his column introducing USAT's redesign, new top editor David Callaway wrote about the value of Gannett's companywide "5,000" journalists -- a figure I still find of curious origin.

"That's a reporting army, Callaway says, "almost twice the size of what is now Thomson Reuters, which has traditionally billed itself as the world's largest news organization."

The national news desk
Then Callaway inserts an important caveat: "Numbers aren't enough: The trick is to make them work together."

This is where the still developing national news desk comes into play. Callaway calls it "a hub-and-spoke news desk where the senior editors from news departments such as video, graphics, breaking news, and enterprise will work together and across platforms to deliver national news, charts and visuals to every local Gannett paper and TV station across the country."

In other words, it's back to the future: Gannett News Service, which became ContentOne, which then became Gannett News Network after founder Tara Connell's retirement in May 2011.

The national desk may benefit the community dailies and TV stations, but how will it strengthen USAT's hand? Callaway writes: "We'll use the best of what is coming from Gannett papers such as the Detroit Free Press, the Louisville Courier-Journal, and KUSA-TV in Denver, the top-rated TV station in the country, to leverage their scoops and unique reporting across all of our media."

Look: I love the dailies and stations. And the larger ones, including my alma mater in Kentucky's Louisville, do incredible good work -- with community news. Collectively, they are Gannett's "hometown advantage," as CEO Gracia Martore reminded Wall Street media stock analysts at a conference in June.

Dateline: Lafayette, La.
But do USAT's readers really want local-local news from Fort Myers, Fla.; Portland, Maine; Great Falls, Mont., or Lafayette, La.? Is that really the sort of aggregation that will power USAT's much-needed competitive edge for its next 30 years?

We're now going to find out. I'll close with Mutter: "Even though there’s still a bit of time for Kramer to determine how to leverage the waning power of the print brand in the digital world, there can be no doubt that my esteemed friend knows there is little time to waste."

Related: Newspaper design blogger Charles Apple's super-detailed critique of a super-big Page One graphic.


  1. If Gannett's more than 100 U.S. newsrooms are to be an orchestra, as Kramer says, who will be the conductor?

    * Kramer?
    * Callaway?
    * Dave Lougee, head of the broadcasting division?
    * Bob Dickey, president of the community newspaper division?
    * or Kate Marymont, head of all U.S. community newsrooms?

    Many, many editors and news directors out in the field would like to know.

  2. Some of this tension played out in the July clarification note Marymont sent to the dailies about a directive from USA Today Sports Media Group.


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."

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.