Tuesday, September 11, 2012

USAT | Three things you won't hear Marketing talk about in this week's heavily promoted re-relaunch

Corporate's marketing machine is gearing up for the new USA Today, as Gannett's leading brand reportedly relaunches its print edition on Friday and website on Saturday (fingers crossed!) and then its print edition on Monday. Here are some things Corporate and top executives probably won't include in media kits and interviews in the days ahead.

A Politico report said this would be the first substantial reinvention of USAT since it was originally launched Sept. 15, 1982 -- 30 years ago this Saturday. We can only hope this is true, given the grave state of the paper's financial health.

But whoa! Let's remember that USAT already underwent a big reorganization -- just two years ago, one that also was billed as a USAT 2.0. The history of that effort is a cautionary tale about what happens when management over promises and under delivers.

Engineered by then-Publisher Dave Hunke, the reorg included a greater emphasis on mobile platforms, more real-time news publishing, the addition of subject-specific "vertical" websites, a standalone business for sports, and a controversial business development vice president whose presence raised ethical questions.

The August 2010 reorg also was to create a radical newsroom of tomorrow that replaced traditional news assignment and editing desks with content and distribution "rings." And it would include about 130 layoffs to reduce overhead.

"This gets us ready for our next quarter century," Hunke said.

How'd it all work out?

Indeed, the paper launched a Sports Media Group under a newly created president, Tom Beusse, who's been hiring, firing and buying up other sports businesses ever since.

Hunke also hired or promoted more than two dozen other executives into similarly new, well-paid positions at the level of general manager, vice president or above. Many newsroom managers also got new titles, but few actually left the payroll.

Meanwhile, only two of the planned five verticals saw the light of day. And one of those -- YourLife, a site about health, beauty, and relationships -- gained little traction before management basically shut it down in April.

Finally, the business development manager, Rudd Davis, was later promoted to run a new Travel Media Group -- and then left the paper without explanation just two months later. He's now running an online coupon site that may compete with one of Gannett's newest acquisitions.

The bottom line: Despite all of the above, crucial advertising sales continued heading south -- a lot, then a little, and then a whole lot more. (Keep reading for details.)

USAT's relaunch may, indeed, rival its game-changing start back in 1982. As everyone knows, Founder Al Neuharth's new baby was widely mocked in the early years for its short stories, full-color pages, splashy graphics and pop-culture appeal -- before competitors copied many of its original features.

Now, USAT is employing a similarly unorthodox approach in its latest redesign.

Relatively few people know that USAT's digital and print redesign has been marshaled by someone with little experience in journalism -- an executive whose career has been spent mostly in advertising, marketing and brand development. What's more, she says her authority extends to the redesign of all Gannett's other U.S. community news sites.

Her name is Augusta Duffey, and her title is executive creative director for Gannett. On her LinkedIn profile, Duffey says she is "driving redesign of all of Gannett's digital and print platforms, including USA Today as well as 81 local newspapers and 23 broadcast channels." In that role, Duffey says she manages more than 40 designers and developers.

Her background includes freelance art direction for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, according to LinkedIn. Otherwise, her experience is mostly with large advertising agencies including Digitas and Ogilvy plus technology companies like IBM.

Old school journalists will be alarmed that an advertising professional alone claims to be charged with redesigning the nation's leading print newspaper. That could threaten any number of ethical boundaries meant to protect editorial from meddling advertisers.

Certainly, the original USAT wasn't hatched solely in the newsroom. Neuharth's start-up team included plenty of reps from advertising, circulation and other business departments.

Neuharth at least started his career in news, however, as a reporter at The Miami Herald and eventually rising to assistant managing editor. That gave him front-line exposure to the value of a newsroom independent of a paper's commercial interests.

To be sure, the industry is now a vastly changed place. The Internet has sapped advertising and readers.

Re-imagining USAT as a news brand, then managing it like a packaged consumer product such as Tide or Crest, may be today's version of creating a newspaper in 1982 for the TV generation -- right down to the television-shaped vending machines.

Then again, shares of Tide-and-Crest owner Procter & Gamble have been stuck in neutral for two years now.

Those were questions Karen Jurgensen wanted answered in every story before the Jack Kelley scandal cost her the paper's top editing job in 2004.

In other words, why is USAT relaunching this week, and why should the average American care?

In fact, the timing has little to do with the paper's 30th milestone -- and nearly everything to do with crushing declines in ad sales.

Work on the website and smartphone and tablet apps has been underway at least since August 2011, after Gannett hired a new chief digital officer, David Payne. At some point, a revamp of the print product was ordered up, too. Saturday's anniversary simply became the obvious deadline for getting something done -- even if it's not 100% complete.

But ad sales -- or the lack thereof -- are the real driver. To be sure, print circulation fell to 1.8 million from 2.3 million amid the Great Recession, handing The Wall Street Journal bragging rights to the industry's leader when its digital subscribers are counted. (And ABC does, indeed, count them in its official tally.)

Ad revenue trends were even worse. In 2009, the year Hunke was made publisher, Gannett's national advertising revenue -- the bulk of which is from USAT -- was already in free fall: It plunged 22%, or $147 million, from the year before.

A year later, the situation improved dramatically, when the economy started growing again. National fell just 4%, according to regulatory filings. Nonetheless, Hunke reorganized staffing that August 2010, including laying off 130 folks.

And no wonder: Last year, national resumed its double-digit declines, falling another 11%, or $54 million, from 2010.

The trend only grew worse this year. National plummeted 14% in the first quarter from a year before; Gannett's overall ad revenue fell a much smaller 8%. Then, in the second quarter, national fell an even steeper and more alarming 17%. Something had to be done.

By spring, Hunke, 60, had been unexpectedly nudged toward the exit. Then, making good on her promise to find a "top-notch" replacement, Gannett CEO Gracia Martore reached outside the company in May, hiring Larry Kramer, the founder of financial news site MarketWatch. Kramer, 62, has spent most of his career where USAT needs to be most: squarely in digital publishing.

Even if you don't care about USAT, the paper's new website and digital offerings are likely to serve as a template and proving ground for those 100 other community newspaper and TV sites that Gannett operates from coast to coast. Combined, they serve millions of readers in communities from Elmira, N.Y., to Phoenix and from Salem, Ore., to Fort Myers, Fla.

Corporate has invested enormous resources in USAT's technology in hopes that it can leverage that across the company. Its success or failure could push all those community sites ahead, or leave them further behind.

What's more, USAT is Gannett's public face when newspaper publishers aren't particularly valued by the general public or Wall Street. Although GCI's stock recently hit a 52-week high, it has not broken back above $20 for more than four years now.

What marketing will say
In the run-up to USAT's relaunch, Chief Marketing Officer Maryam Banikarim will reprise much of what Kramer has already shopped around in interviews and Wall Street presentations since he took over -- that USAT aims to be a "leading, multi-platform media brand."

Of course, as takeaways go, that's not new. Every news company has staked its future there -- including USAT itself during the last reorg, two years ago, when Hunke said: "This significant restructuring reflects USA Today's evolution from a newspaper company to a multi-platform media company."

So far, Kramer has mostly talked about content, offering far fewer details about changes to digital functions that are to be unveiled Friday.

Unsurprisingly, he's endorsed the Sports Media Group plan, which combines all of USAT's content with that of the community papers and Gannett's 23 TV stations to form a national network that would challenge heavyweights ESPN, Sports Illustrated and Yahoo Sports.

Kramer's also promised to speed up news gathering and delivery, making clear he thinks the paper is too sluggish. "You expect to get news on your phone right when it happens, and we're going to give it to you faster than anyone else," he assured a group of media stock analysts in in June.

But there's really nothing new in that, either. Every news company is racing to be ever faster; that was a key goal of USAT's newsroom of tomorrow two years ago.

Here's what Kramer has really been thumping, and I imagine it'll be a theme of his media tours this week and next: more pronounced voices. He wants USAT to stand out in a field crowded with commodity news -- the political poll numbers, sports game highlights and murders du jour that practically everyone already has within milliseconds of each other.

We'll need to see some of that by Friday's website relaunch and then in print papers over the next two weeks. That's because the spotlight powered by the paper's next milestone comes just once every 30 years.

A party Thursday night in Washington celebrating the paper's new look is titled, "My USA 30 Years From Today."

You can practically hear the stopwatch already ticking.



    Use local sports in DET & Cinci, etc.?

    Not bad idea. Not NYT -- but will pay bills.

    Bread & circuses, hope & no hope .. this is bringing new meaning to the concept "Hunger Games."

  2. Wow Jim you truly have outdone yourself. You know absolutely NOTHING about how the redesigns and yet you literally make stuff up from whole cloth and previous statements. Ladies and gentlemen the Blog truly has jumped the shark. Jim you now are officially a snarky “used to be” who is totally out of touch. Let the uninformed piling on begin!!!

  3. 11:23 says I "literally make stuff up from whole cloth."

    Please list examples.

  4. Everyone who misuses 'literally' can figuratively kiss my butt.

  5. Jim, I read your preview/overview of what's coming and how USAT got to this point with great interest. You did a good job and I am very curious to see the new USAT. Those who criticize you and this blog are clueless and/or have their own agenda. This blog does a great service for all who have any interest or stake in Gannett. Thanks for all you do to keep us informed and allow us to share our trials and tribulations.

  6. Jim, I am echoing 12:16's sentiment. This is a fine piece, well-researched and written. Most of us appreciate what you do on this blog, each and every day. Those who attempt to discredit you personally or your work without reasonably refuting your points must have agendas that do not include uncovering the truth.

  7. Jim,
    11:23 is clearly a corporate hack who spends his/her day watching this blog waiting for a moment to strike. Fact is your report was outstanding...factual and revealing. Hunke has failed us on a MASSIVE scale and Banikarim and her crew will be exposed over the next few days. Kramer gives me hope, but who knows how much he'll actually be able to do before he's Gannettized!

  8. First whole cloth

    "Relatively few people know that USAT's digital and print redesign has been marshaled by someone with little experience in journalism -- an executive whose career has been spent mostly in advertising, marketing and brand development. What's more, she says her authority extends to the redesign of all Gannett's other U.S. community news websites.


    With all due repect to her, she works on the project and has done a great job but to suggest she "marshaled" the effort is rediculous. Really, this is your idea of journalism? You take a partial bit of truth and then spin it into this tripe? More examples of misleading, tripe to come.

  9. 1:09 so anyone who disagrees with your "Master" is a corporate hack. Shoddy journalism is shoddy journalism and this post is Jim at his best. I call em like I see em and this boy has passed his expiration date. If he is going to publish this crap I am going to call him on it. No Mirror awards coming for this.

  10. Nicely done, Jim. The nattering nabobs of negativity believe that vague attacks will discredit this work. Wrong.

  11. I can't wait to see how they rearranged the deck chairs on the Titanic!

  12. There will be a few days of press interest in the redesign, a few clients probably got free or deeply discounted ads to run in the issue, but then it will all quiet down.

    Print revenues will never return to where they were, even if the redesign is fantastic....which I don't expect given Gannett's bureacratic culture and inability to innovate.

    Digital dimes will dribble in and there will be more layoffs because dimes to dollars don't equate.

    Our management will continue to focus on cost cutting and dividend rewards to boost up stock price.

    Enjoy a few days of something new and best of luck to all who worked hard to make it happen.

  13. re: Whole Cloth.

    You keep using those words. I do not think they mean what you think they mean.

    Have fun storming the castle!

  14. 1:47 No newspaper publisher expects print ad revenue to return to pre-recession levels.

    But it's not unreasonable to slow the rate of further print declines, while simultaneously increasing growth rates in digital ad revenue.

    Again, digital revenue won't replace dollar-for-dollar the lost print ad revenue.

    But it could rise with a more heavily trafficked website. Better content could produce more clicks, and that's part of Kramer's aim.

    It's also possible that USAT could erect a paywall, as virtually every other Gannett paper is now doing. But that, too, will require substantially better content.

  15. 1:17,
    First rule in the Corporate Hack Handbook:

    1) Discredit the source

    That will not work here, so back to the cubicle with you.

  16. Jim,

    USAToday can't get the revenue without extremely aggressive revenue sharing deals with ad networks, which they keep trying but not solving the problem (yet).

    As far as paywalls, they will have to try it at some point.
    Scary to see who will actually pay for USAT since there are few subscribers (unlike WSJ and NYT) and mostly newsstand and travel distribution.

  17. Augusta Duffy's self-written self-important over-stated LINKEDIN profile is embarrassing.

    These brand people take themselves way too seriously.

    She's nothing more than an art director.

  18. I like how 3:04 tries to discredit a source while simultaneously criticizing the tactic.

    From what I have heard, this redesign process is going to either unmask redesigns at other papers as the emperor's new clothes, or it will be one giant train wreck. Because if Jim's take is even close to accurate, this place has someone outside the traditional background calling the shots. That should make a lot of Garciabots very nervous.

  19. Jim, you really need to do more reporting before you weigh in so heavily.

    1) Augusta is a major player in the digital redesign, but has played only a minor role in the print redesign. That was headed up by high-priced consultants from Manhattan and Britain, along with a few longtime USA Today printheads.

    2) The print relaunch is Friday, not Monday.

    One big mistake (Augusta's role), one just plain factual error. Both woul,d warrant corrections if this was a newspaper and not just another just-say-it-who-cares blog.

  20. Im as cynical as the rest of you and think 90% of what goes on at USAT is shit.

    But I like the paper's redesign. It looks freshened up and the approach seems sound. Should be a bit easier sell to advertisers. Get some news judgement in leadership positions and make a couple dozen decent reporter hires and you've quite possibly got a compelling product for the first time in years.

  21. 10:17 I've corrected the timing on the relaunch.

    As to the size of Duffey's role in the print redesign, I relied on her own description -- i.e., she's "driving" it. Sounds fairly big to me.

  22. 11:20 sounds like one of the empty heads who think people will be fooled by this approach. This is the very definition of moving the deck chairs on the Titanic. The change needs to be larger and focused in a totally different area.

  23. Augusta was not the main player in the print redesign. Far from it, no matter what her updated resume says.

    And that Tide box is pretty prescient, as you will see on Friday.

  24. 3:14 I gather the new flag (logo) will be round -- rather than square? That's what I heard from a reader months ago, who had seen an early version.


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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