Friday, November 04, 2011

USAT | GM Ellwood shakes up vertical strategy

USA Today's No. 2 executive, General Manager Susie Ellwood, disclosed in a memo today that she's handing over more power to the newsroom for development of verticals. Those are websites in areas such as travel, health and personal finance that were to be a cornerstone of Publisher Dave Hunke's year-old turnaround effort for the struggling newspaper.

Given Ellwood's reported pledge for more transparency since she was named GM in June, this memo is pretty opaque in its message, leaving key questions unanswered.

But reading between the lines, the memo makes clear that management isn't giving an inch on its commitment to verticals at Gannett's best-known business. "It is simply what we must do,'' Ellwood says.

USAT now has two of them -- Travel and Your Life. Three more are to be started by the end of this year, the paper is still promising, in personal finance, personal technologies and entertainment. The last to launch, Your Life -- focused on health, relationships and beauty -- arrived nearly a year ago: Nov. 9.

Ellwood doesn't give a timetable for adding any new sites. She says little concrete about how the strategy is faring so far ("We have had a lot of success"). And she doesn't say what will happen to the expensive management structure created to develop the verticals in the first place: the verticals chief, Vice President Heather Frank, and the mini-GMs assigned to each one.

Hunke's reorganization re-emphasized digital over print in order to boost advertising revenue. More than a year later, however, there's little public evidence the strategy is working.

In GCI's most recent financial report, for the third quarter, the company said: "At USA Today, a substantial increase in technology advertising spending, the largest category in the quarter, was more than offset by declines in entertainment, automotive and financial categories."

Ellwood is almost certainly Hunke's heir-apparent -- but only if she can succeed where it appears Hunke has failed.

Here's the text of her memo:

From: USA TODAY Executive VP and GM
Sent: Friday, November 04, 2011 1:03 PM
Subject: Announcement

Our vertical initiative is an important part of our strategy to strengthen USA TODAY and position us for growth. As we look forward to 2012, I thought this would be a good time to verify and clarify several key points.
  • Our vertical strategy – which is a focused effort to align our editorial content, audience and advertising – is the right approach. To be clear, it is a strategy not just a group of products or a set of businesses. It is the approach for all of USA TODAY.
  • While we initially identified several vertical content areas to focus on, it’s important to recognize that this strategy and philosophy now is a part of our daily business operation. That means producing content that is driven by the interests of our audience and that provides solutions for our advertisers. Today, it is simply what we must do.
  • But this strategy is going to be more closely aligned with the strengths of our core USA TODAY brand than it has been, both now and in the future as we identify new vertical areas to focus on. 
With that as a backdrop I’d like to share with you several key decisions:
  • Effective immediately, all content for verticals and related editorial staff will be the responsibility of the newsroom under USA TODAY Executive Editor Susan Weiss. This formalizes the excellent collaboration that the newsroom and the vertical teams have worked hard to establish this year.
  • Existing verticals and general managers will be realigned with USA TODAY’s traditional sections and key sub-brands. The vertical general managers and Matthew Greenberg, directed by VP/Consumer Media Heather Frank, will facilitate the integration of content, audience and advertising.      
  • News/Money – Mindy Fetterman
  • Travel – Vic Borton
  • Life – Scott Stein
  • Your Life – Chris Allegro
  • Tech – Jeremy Teres 
We will implement a “life cycle” approach – a process that will move content areas that we identify as potential verticals from incubation through maturity.
  • We will establish clear criteria to identify vertical content areas to explore.
  • Through early to mid-life stage, the vertical will require a high degree of collaboration across content, sales, client solutions, marketing, etc.
  • As the vertical matures, the structure will become more formal, with staff assigned to it.
  • In a few cases (i.e. Sports and Travel) the business outcomes and projections may result in establishing a separate business. 
We have had a lot of success with the vertical strategy this year and know the potential exists to significantly improve our business. To do that we’ll constantly be looking for ways to improve how we go about executing the strategy. Thank you for the work you do every day to ensure that USA TODAY is the most innovative and preferred news and information source in the nation.



  1. If the timing this memo doesn't meet the definition of a classic "document dump", I don't know what does.

  2. 10:29 Exactly.

    1. Hit send button.
    2. Flee office before anyone can ask questions.

    The memo's tone is especially striking. Rather than using inspiring language, it comes across as defiant -- almost threatening.

    What's clear is this: Going forward, advertising and editorial are going to be even more intertwined than ever. She writes: "This strategy is going to be more closely aligned with the strengths of our core USA TODAY brand than it has been, both now and in the future as we identify new vertical areas to focus on."

  3. To help translate:

    1) The vertical strategy has been a huge disappointment, especially Your Life.

    2) The reporters involved will be assigned again to the newsroom, though in most cases still looking to create "vertical" content.

    3) The General Managers will try to sell or package that content to advertisers.

    4) The vertical strategy has been a huge disappointment (worth saying twice).

    The memo itself is mystifying and opaque, but the reporters go back to the newsroom and the GMs go back into the field trying to sell ads or partnerships. Or at least that is what we are being told.

    This is a big win for editor John Hillkirk and executive editor Susan Weiss, who now must show that they can keep the vertical "concept" afloat while trying to restore journalistic integrity to what the verticals almost ruined.

    Travel has been a relative success even before all the vertical bureaucracy; Your Life has been a total flop with a ton of bureaucracy.

    The good thing about this announcement is reporters can get back to reporting and sales people can get back to selling.

    While there is confusion, there is mostly applause among us worker bees, who think Susie seems to understand the reality of it all and how best to accomplish this strategy without twisting the organization into contortions.

  4. Applause?

    Its a madhouse! A madhouse!!!

  5. No comments about what this means for Hunke? His vertical leadership has been a failure and now, like GM, must let the girls come in to clean up the mess.

    This memo coming from Susie spells the beginning of the end for Dave, and he knows it.

  6. Another failed attempt to define an undefined and hugely unsuccessful strategy. One of the weirdest memos to the troops yet. One thing is for sure. Susan Weiss will quickly realize the team heather frank put together is lazy, incompetent and clueless. Get rid of them all and hire some more reporters. STAT!

  7. Frank wasted huge amounts of resources hiring her out of work friends, demanding the construction of private offices and unnecessary travel. There is very little to show for it. I'm glad Ellwood is trying to create lemons out of lemonade. But Frank and her peeps have go back to their "consulting" gigs.

  8. WTF???

    Seriously, so the last year of total turmoil goes unpunished?

  9. Sanity has prevailed. Thank you Ms.Ellwood.

  10. Thank you, Jim, for keeping the comments on heather available. I just went through the posts made just six months ago. What is startling is how negative people were universally against heather frank. This latest reorganization, however ambiguous, is hopefully the first in a series of steps to repair and revive a shaky concept. I do not know if it will succeed. But it doesn't work now. It needs to be guided by smart, savvy journalists willing to put in the sweat and hours required of a start up. Not clock watchers and pretenders. Hunke has wasted considerable time and precious resources on Heather. Let's hope Susie knows better.

  11. No one is ever punished in the management ranks of USA Today or Gannett. In fact, I bet heather, matthew, Nancy and the rest of the team will all get promotions really soon.

  12. Susan already knows about the lunatics running the asylum. Until now, she had no power to do anything about it. Time to clean up Heather's mess. Go Susan, go girl!

  13. Why cant Ellwood, Hunke or Martore write a simple, understandable memo?

  14. Mindy Fetterman?

  15. Golly, this thing sounded like a disaster from the get go. Hunke just thinks by naming someone to a high faluting title, presto! It's a success. That may have worked in Detroit, but on a national level, he is completely out of his league. One bad appointment and business decision after another. Letting good people walk. Pissing away good will on the staff. Over 500,000 readers lost on his watch.

  16. 5:09, not surprising, the title being associated with presto-change-o. It's systemic. We got that all the time way down in the mucky trenches at my site. Suddenly we were "this" with no forwarning, no training on how to be or do "this."

    One especially power-tripped guy even kept the new software manuals locked in his office. His rationale: "A monkey could do your job." That is a quote. See the quotes?

    Me, I still often asked for an extra sprinkle of pixie-dust, and ignored the glare when I did so. Those folks could never take a joke.

  17. Lets hope heather is out by year end, because she isnt doing jack now except brown nosing hunke and picking out furniture for her new office.

  18. I hope Weiss finds something for Matt Greenberg to do. Surfing the net and serving as Heather's muse isnt a full time job.

  19. So they are doubling down on an already failed strategy with MORE verticals? You got to know when to hold em, kow when to fold them...

  20. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  21. I'm not a USA Today reader - I'm on the wrong shores for that - but I've never quite been able to grasp one thing. What makes these verticals any different from the kind of separate sections that many a newspaper does? From the outside, it seems like an idea that's not much different from any of the big newspapers with multiple sections, but I'd be intrigued to know what is supposed to be marking this out as so new.

  22. 11:50 PM, "Travel has been a relative success" - how so? Can't wait to hear this.

  23. 8:33am - Travel has been a "relative success" must mean that someone's relatives have benefited from the Travel vertical... cousin Heather, or uncle Matt, perhaps aunt Susie. (And really, who over the age of 16 keeps the name "Susie"?)

  24. Travels website is popular, it has advertising and the cruise category especially is tops in the field. All this was happening before being renamed a "vertical," but Travel nonetheless is doing OK.

  25. 9:14 is right. travel has done well and was the model for verticals. while heather tries to take credit, she and her team have little to do with its success.

  26. What an amazing waste of money, effort, talent.

    The "vertical" hires did the best with what they had, but the idea itself just never took hold. Maybe giving more responsibility to the newsroom will help, but endless months of floundering by all concerned.

    What an incredible waste of time, and everyone (including Susie presumably), finally knows it.

  27. 4:27 Here's how USA Today defines verticals. They are "experiences that expand our relationship with consumers and provide new integration opportunities for advertisers."

    This is a fancy way of saying USAT will give advertisers far more say over editorial content than the paper has in the past.

  28. 4:27 here. Thanks for the answer, Jim. So it's a lot more advertorial than editorial. I can see where that would bring in more money in ratio to the space being filled, but I'm surprised if that flies well with the readers. It'd be kind of like reading a restaurant review written by the restaurant - most readers can see when something isn't being written from an objective basis.

  29. 1:05 the only folks who fall on their swords over advertorial are journalists. As a reader I don't care! Sorry but I've never been at a party and heard someone complain about the issue. NEVER

  30. >>>This is a fancy way of saying USAT will give advertisers far more say over editorial content than the paper has in the past.<<<

    Sorry Jim. While that is a legitimate fear, that line won't be crossed. In fact, that's one of the reasons the reporters are going back to editorial control.

  31. Yeah, it just means travel advertisers get to be next to travel content. Alignment, vertically. Thing is, its no different than how print sections have worked. These schmucks just over complicated it and made people miserable in the process.

  32. I'm hearing Heather Is now in line for Vice President of Diagonals.

  33. 12:02 makes me wonder if Linda Kauss will return to Life section now that she is no longer the AOL mafia's punching bag. Shameful that they made this calm, competent manager their fall guy. What about the Life reporters who quit in disgust?

  34. After what USAT did to some very good people over the last few years, I have no faith in anyone with a title in this place anymore. I suspect I am not alone in my feelings about most managers in and outside of the newsroom. What happened here was mostly unnecessary and done in such a ruthless and careless manner that I can't imagine the bad karma will leave this place anytime soon, regardless of whatever flavor-of-the-day policy is enacted to boost business.

    It does not really matter who comes in, who rises to power or what recycled idea they take ownership of. USAT is a ghost ship, and until someone with courage comes in an acknowledges that some pretty darn loyal and competent employees were sent packing, with no safety net, the memories of those who were lost and those who are now grossly overworked as a result, will weigh heavy on the this half of the towers.

    We'll do our jobs, but USAT folks will never forget what was done our colleagues and to this product.

  35. Ok 11:15 let's get real. Let's say you were in charge four years ago. Your flagship is so far in the red you can't justify it's existence. These folks you opine for have been producing a product that can no longer attracts advertisers and readers are indifferent. You are running a fir profit organization and have stockholders who have grown impatient. Please tell us your plan to make USAT profitable.

  36. In Heather's first months everyone thought very highly of her and thought she had such promise. She did many good things upfront but this was shadowed by Hunke's desire to move too fast in his idiotic transformation idea that completely messed up USA TODAY. He promoted her telling her she'd have resources to build out all these verticals, none of which was true. Hunke is too blame for all that has gone wrong at USA TODAY.

  37. Dave, time to go...please

  38. Hunke should be blamed over much wrong with usat starting with heathers hiring and her carte blanch spending spree hiring incompetent pals. but heather had the title and the supposed expertise. she was the one responsible for silly content and ruining the life sections reputation. they both need to go. as do many many others.

  39. The only place at Gannett where Heather Frank and her minions are highly regarded are at their internal meetings. Among the many ways they are viewed:

    Insular, out-of-touch, arrogant, dismissive, lazy, uninspired, disruptive, overpaid and underworked.

  40. Hunke made promises he did not keep? You expect something more from this guy?

  41. Good thing they all got new offices, where they can line up their post verticals career in complete privacy. Buy bye Heather!

  42. With the money the HF team cost, USA Today could have hired several reporters and provided raises to those who deserve them.

  43. Hunke. Worst. Publisher. Ever.

  44. "Insular, out-of-touch, arrogant, dismissive, lazy, uninspired, disruptive, overpaid and underworked."

    These words can describe about three-quarters of the new management team.

  45. True. Very true.


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