1. FORGET ABOUT THAT LAST REORGANIZATION
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.
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.)
2. A FOX MAY BE IN THE CHICKEN COOP
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.
Then again, shares of Tide-and-Crest owner Procter & Gamble have been stuck in neutral for two years now.
3. THE WHY NOW? AND THE SO WHAT?
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.
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.