?USA Today? Places Bets on a Digital Future

By: Shawn Moynihan

When USA Today Publisher David Hunke announced on Aug. 27 that his newspaper was undergoing a major reconstruction that included the repositioning of many key executives on both the news and business sides — as well as the layoffs of 130 employees —  observers either chided Gannett Co. for eliminating so many positions or praised its savvy for proclaiming a new commitment to a digital future, particularly targeting the potential of the mobile platform.

After all, there really wasn’t much room in between.

Time will tell if USA Today delivers on its promise to actively pursue online solutions that will help its advertising revenues. Like the industry that it leads in circulation, it has to, in order to remain a viable news entity. However, one thing is certain: Things will no longer work the way they once did in McClean, Va.

For starters, the newsroom is being reorganized. The 28-year-old structure of reporters and managing editors working separately in its four sections — News, Sports, Money and Life — is being replaced by “content rings” with editors led by Susan Weiss, who until recently oversaw the Life section. She’s now executive editor of content, and will report to Editor John Hillkirk.

Coverage will be themed among content rings including “Your Life,” “Travel,” “Breaking News,” “Investigative,” “National,” “Washington/Economy,” “World,” Environment/Science,” “Aviation,” “Personal Finance,” “Autos,” “Entertainment” and “Tech.”

“We will refer to them as ‘content teams,’” says Weiss. “This structure cuts down on the bureaucracy so that these reporters and editors can move a lot quicker.  The emphasis is on content creation.”

The new structure, she says, will simplify copy flow. “We are moving toward a platform-neutral organization, and this new structure will make that much easier,” says Weiss. “We will be empowering reporters and assignment editors to make decisions not only about the best stories but the best approach and presentation for each platform.”

While the announcement of the new strategy repeatedly emphasized content creation for mobile and online platforms, Weiss says the print product remains a priority: “We are building a newsroom for the future so that we can provide our readers with exclusive, entertaining content on multiple platforms, presented in an accessible style that no other news source can match. We want to take advantage of our growth on mobile and tablets, as well as maintain and grow our print product, which we still consider a critical platform.”

But what makes fall 2010 the ideal time for such a massive restructuring, including the appointments of new vice presidents in business development, product development and design, vertical development, digital development and strategic planning, along with a new senior vice president of circulation, in addition to the news-side changes?

According to Publisher David Hunke, a team was formed early in the spring to begin defining the strategy behind USA Today’s future structure. That core team worked with 10 additional teams of more than 80 employees whose task was to focus on different aspects of the strategy including customer and audience research, circulation efficiency, metrics and organizational development.

“Over four months, all the teams were held to strict deadlines and deliverables, which were necessary to shape the various components of the strategy,” he says. “Our previous structure was not set up to meet all our consumer demands as we had been primarily structured around a five-day-a-week print product. This new structure allows us to focus our resources equally on all platforms — including print — as they all play a vital role in meeting our customer demands now and in the future.”

A future, he stresses, that will still include a print edition. “I want to be clear that USA Today is still very much committed to its print product — the newspaper,” he tells E&P. “It remains a vital part of our future and is part of what makes us appealing as a distribution platform to customers. USA Today as a newspaper is also a key differentiator between us and Web-only platforms.”
While he won’t reveal which departments will be affected most by the layoffs, Hunke says building strategies that work for your advertisers, without compromising the paper’s integrity or the brand — as he outlined in the announcement of USA Today’s coming changes — is a key part of the paper’s new thinking.

“Our strategy is based on aligning the three areas of content, audience and advertisers,” he says. “We will provide unique content created, acquired, and made better by our journalists. The content, however, will be distributed based on the in-depth knowledge we have of our audience across our platforms. This knowledge will allow us to edit content specifically for the platform it will be distributed on, thus creating a better experience for the customer and increasing audience engagement.”

It doesn’t hurt that despite the challenges of the newspaper marketplace, USA Today still carries a good deal of caché.

“USA Today is one of the great American brands,” says Rudd Davis, newly appointed vice president of business development. “It isn’t a newspaper, it’s a media company — and it has many best-in-class products for delivering media.

“I would argue it’s our unique approach to packaging content, our brevity, our interactivity that has made, and will continue to make, our digital extensions so successful,” Davis adds. “Those brand characteristics synch with the way the youth demographic consumes media, so we will focus on greater distribution and new products to deepen our already-strong adoption by the younger demos.”

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