By: John K. Hartman
As it approaches its 30th birthday, USA Today is in danger of “marking 30,” a journalistic term for coming to an end, or dying.
The short history of USA Today, founded Sept. 15, 1982, can be divided into three decades.
The so-called Nation’s Newspaper revolutionized the newspaper industry in its first 10 years with a steady diet of short, pithy articles, catchy headlines, color pictures, and snappy graphics. It emphasized sports and entertainment coverage over traditional news and practiced founder Al Neuharth’s “journalism of hope” philosophy, turning the news industry principle of “we cover crashes, not landings” upside down.
The paper was derided by critics as “McPaper” for serving up nuggets of information rather than fully informing the public, as traditional newspapers purported to do. And it was castigated as a money-loser, as parent Gannett Co., Inc. pumped in more than $1 billion to keep it going.
Aided by as many as 1 million free copies distributed daily to hotel patrons, air passengers, and public transportation riders, USA Today became the country’s most circulated and best-read newspaper with more than 5 million daily readers. It cut into the readership of nearly every regional newspaper in the country and forced them to grudgingly change their ways and be more responsive to readers, especially younger readers who were more television oriented and were beginning to reject traditional newspapers.
In its second decade, USA Today came of age. Under the leadership of brothers John and Tom Curley, Neuharth protégés who held the positions of chief executive officer of Gannett, and president and publisher of the newspaper, respectively, the paper began turning a profit and emphasizing its front-section news coverage. Most of the bitter criticism ended, but resentment continued in some journalistic circles.
The third decade has been a disaster. With both Curley brothers having moved on to other ventures, the paper lost its print circulation leadership to The Wall Street Journal, fell way behind The New York Times in the emerging Web/digital realm, and lost its position as top sports publication to espn.com, among others. The secular slump in the newspaper industry and the bad economy pushed USA Today back into the red and led to massive staff and distribution cutbacks. It has all the makings of a death spiral.
In a desperate attempt to resuscitate the now iconic brand, Gannett earlier this year hired Larry Kramer, founder of the business website MarketWatch, as president and publisher of USA Today. Kramer hired David Callaway, then editor of MarketWatch, as the new USA Today editor-in-chief.
In the spirit of Neuharth’s “journalism of hope,” I give the Kramer/Callaway duo a chance of remaking USA Today as a digital force, but I cannot imagine it becoming a revolutionary factor online as it was in print during its first decade, and I cannot imagine Gannett devoting even a fraction of the former $1 billion subsidy to make it so.
More likely, USA Today will be shuttered in the next three years, a product of the collective turning away from print and from the concept of being fully informed about national issues (even sports and entertainment) that has swept the country.
Despite the grim symbolism of the paper verging on marking 30, I offer 30 points to ponder and some hope for its future as USA Today turns 30 years old:
1. Five years ago, I predicted in E&P that Rupert Murdoch would buy USA Today and consolidate operations with the Wall Street Journal in an attempt to put the New York Times out of business. I was wrong. Murdoch is in the process of spinning off the WSJ and his other newspaper properties as they do not make the profits that his television and movie properties do, and they leave him legally vulnerable, as in the British phone-hacking scandal.
2. I do not see another big media company buying USA Today in the near future, but there are wealthy folks out there who seek prestigious and influential properties, such as major newspapers. Billionaire Warren Buffett, once a big Gannett stockholder, is buying up small- and medium-size newspapers like they are going out of style.
3. Fewer and fewer people can be seen reading USA Today in hotel lobbies, in restaurants, on planes, and in public transit, as smartphones and tablets are the reading platform of choice, even for those who are reading and not watching videos or playing games on their devices.
4. On the plus side, USA Today’s colorful blue logo shows up very nicely on a computer screen in a public place.
5. Gannett’s reputation as cost-cutter, firer, and furlough-giver at all its newspapers continues to hurt its reputation in journalistic circles.
6. USA Today has lost its reputation as an innovator.
7. The entertainment section of USA Today has surpassed the sports section as the most impactful and influential.
8. USA Today should be lauded by Internet purists for keeping its website free while the New York Times and Wall Street Journal now charge, as do a growing number of other daily newspapers, including many Gannett papers.
9. USA Today cannot charge for its website, because it offers little unique content for which people are willing to pay.
10. The New York Times now charges $2.50 for a daily copy, and the Wall Street Journal gets $2 compared to $1 for USA Today, indicating that readers will pay more for a premium product.
11. USA Today’s previous publisher David Hunke has left, tamping down speculation that the national daily will cut frequency and distribution as Hunke did at the Detroit Free Press, which cost the Michigan newspaper hundreds of thousands of print readers.
12. Nonetheless, a digital-first strategy is likely under Kramer and Callaway, which probably means USA Today will eventually cut its print frequency to three or even two days a week. The former would mean Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The latter, probably Monday and Thursday. Print readers would be referred to usatoday.com for breaking news, sports scores, and weather updates.
13. USA Today’s original core readers were baby boomers, sports fans, singles, and travelers. All four groups largely have gone elsewhere for their news.
14. Entertainment readers, a fifth group, have grown over the years and may now be the most loyal of readers.
15. The model of four color-coded sections — news, money, life, and sports — still works and easily applies to Web and mobile.
16. Short articles, small pictures, info boxes, clever headlines, and limited continuations of articles (jumps) remain reader friendly in print after 30 years and transfer well to the computer screen, where jumps are not a problem because of the unlimited scroll or “next” button.
17. College students used to be ardent readers of USA Today, especially male sports fans. Nowadays, most college students do not read their college newspaper in print or online, and their daily newspaper consumption has fallen to single digits. Walk across a college campus and see the overflowing bins of free newspapers.
18. USA Today pioneered the “sports on TV” column in the paper’s early days. In an attempt to be cutting edge again, the paper is now running a regular item of television programs on the Web.
19. There is no model available to get digital newspapers in front of people’s eyeballs comparable to the former USA Today strategy of giving away copies of the print edition to folks at hotels and in transit.
20. Despite being free online, USA Today has 115,000 in digital sales compared to 807,000 for the New York Times and 532,000 for the Wall Street Journal, according to Audit Bureau of Circulations figures.
I wrote president and publisher Larry Kramer on May 17, 2012, with suggestions for improving USA Today. I paid the U.S. Postal Service for guaranteed delivery. I never heard back. The final 10 items on my list of 30 are refinements of the suggestions I sent him:
21. The once unique, attention-getting USA Today vending machines, shaped like television sets, have fallen into disrepair and are an embarrassment. Either remove or replace.
22. Founder Al Neuharth should be brought back into the fold as a consultant, particularly regarding promoting the 30th anniversary. His promotion for the paper’s fifth anniversary (other “celebrities” at age 5) was brilliant.
23. Brothers John and Tom Curley should be brought back into the fold. John is a journalism professor at Penn State University, and Tom recently retired as chief executive officer of The Associated Press. They are fountains of knowledge about what will work and what will not.
24. Get rid of the news summaries (Newsline, etc.) on the upper left corner of the front page and section fronts and replace them with star columnists. Hire some top newspaper and magazine columnists, and add celebrities and TV personalities; feature four of them per day. All of a sudden, you will be leading the discussion in the country instead of following it. Elevate USA Today columnists Craig Wilson and Chris Brennan, and hire outside for the rest. Move news summaries to the second page.
25. Disperse much of your reporting staff to other Gannett papers whose reporting ranks have been depleted, and rely more on the Associated Press, which does a fabulous job of supplying news coverage, background, and comment.
26. Promote the fact that your website is free, in contrast to your competitors’ sites. Be different, like you were 30 years ago.
27. Ease up on sports emphasis, because you cannot compete with espn.com and other branded team sites. Push entertainment and hard news coverage where you can still make an impact.
28. Get creative with advertising sales. Offer more wrap-around covers such as with Chrysler, and sell advertising around some non hard-news features, including columnists, as long as it does not affect coverage, and the sponsorship is clear. Broadcast television has been doing this for years, and I suspect the Web is not far behind.
29. USA Today still has a large reservoir of people who “like” it. This was the paper’s original personality — to be liked perhaps more than respected. People liked it in the early years, because it lacked the hard edge and cynicism of traditional newspapers. Try to recapture some of that through the Web product by differentiating its tone from its harder-edged competitors such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
30. Give away more copies of USA Today in print, perhaps through sponsors, to further differentiate it from its increasingly expensive competitors. I have not given up on the concept of the free newspaper that reaches a large and affluent audience attracting enough advertisers to turn a profit.
USA Today expert and Central Michigan University journalism professor John K. Hartman, author of “The USA Today Way” (c. 1992) and “The USA Today Way 2: The Future” (c. 2000), is a widely quoted authority on issues related to newspapers and online news, as well as publications aimed at young adults, news readership issues, and the intersection of journalism and politics. He is an occasional contributor to E&P. He can be reached at email@example.com.