Thinking About Tomorrow At ‘USA Today’

By: Todd Shields

Is this any way to run a newspaper? From long before dawn until late morning, TV director Brian Franco labors on a dimly lit studio set deep inside Gannett Co. Inc.’s gleaming headquarters in northern Virginia. Within his redoubt in the suburbs near Washington, Franco shoots take after take with anchor Lauren Ashburn. By morning’s end, the telegenic blonde will have told viewers in such distant TV markets as Grand Rapids, Mich., Macon, Ga., and Buffalo, N.Y., about the top stories in that day’s issue of Gannett’s flagship newspaper, USA Today.

This is exactly the way to run a newspaper, according to USA Today President and Publisher Tom Curley. To put it more precisely: Curley believes it represents the coming way to run a news brand — in this case, the USA Today brand that, 20 years after its founding, has long passed the stage of mere journalistic curiosity.

The paper once derided as processing McNews bites has become a national heavyweight that fields 400 reporters and editors in 20 domestic offices and four foreign bureaus. It’s accorded respect in the stuffy prestige derby perpetually run in Washington journalism circles. And, oh, yeah: It’s profitable, too. Has been, yearly, since 1993.

That’s not enough, according to Curley, in an interview with E&P. He says that to ensure it survives in an era of unforeseeable media mergers, USA Today needs to be a strong national brand — and not only in print. According to Curley, USA Today needs to be strong on the Web, and, perhaps most innovatively, it needs to be strong on TV.

So, each morning, director Franco oversees and then sends Ashburn’s polished presentations, live, to 21 of Gannett’s 22 TV stations in 15 states and the District of Columbia. The previous evening, the stations received network-quality video feeds that reprised the significant enterprise stories appearing in that day’s print editions.

At the same time, reporters who work in USA Today‘s sprawling newsrooms in the McLean, Va., headquarters may be taking lessons in on-camera deportment or perhaps are getting help in crafting their stories to fit a Web audience. USA Today managers tie reporters’ prospects for better pay and promotions to their willingness to train and work for the TV camera and the computer screen.

It’s all an ongoing adjustment to the brave new world that Curley sees coming. “Our core belief,” Curley tells E&P, “is there are going to be fewer brands on the news side, but news is a major play … and content that is unique and can’t be found anywhere else is the key to being able to extend the brand. Once you have that content, it’s pretty easy to extend it, and that’s what we’re about.”

Curley lays out the broad strategy: “The networks don’t have any print. So if you can compete as a Web site, which I think we are, and then you have the massive print operation, and then you have the developing TV presence that’s hitting a good part of the United States with one brand, this really puts you ahead of what everybody else is doing.

“It’s not just, ‘Here’s a TV camera and let’s put it on the Web site,'” Curley says. “We’re really trying to make sure we’re making this change for all time, and it’s a deep and serious commitment.”

Enterprise – the next generation

Not too long ago, the notion of national multimedia reach and a prestige brand may have seemed farcical when talking about USA Today. It made its debut in September 1982 with staff borrowed from other Gannett publications. Keepers of journalism’s traditions were not amused. Their criticism routinely held USA Today to be little more than a headline service, a compilation of briefs and jazzy (or silly) graphics. It was, in short, TV on paper.

But the newspaper steadily evolved. By the mid-1990s, its editor, David Mazzarella, presided over an enlarged paper, opened its first foreign bureaus, and expanded to 15 from three the number of domestic bureaus. In his four-year tenure, Mazzarella encouraged staff to write longer, more nuanced pieces. And he began the practice of benchmarking: comparing USA Today‘s daily report to those produced by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other national media.

Mazzarella’s successor, Karen Jurgensen, editor since early 1999, sees her role as leading USA Today into a third generation. She says USA Today‘s first era was marked by making news accessible — think of the snappy layout, the continual and colloquial use of “we” to personalize national trends, and the splashes of color meant to draw in readers. The second era was marked by the realization USA Today was not a second read, but a primary news source for its readers. The paper moved toward in-depth reportage. But, says Jurgensen, “We forgot about presentation. And we started running long, gray stories.”

Thus, Jurgensen’s mission for Generation III: to combine the best of both earlier eras. Revive the paper’s visual vitality. Renew its accessibility. And, also, “break a lot of stories.”

“We have to have all the news. It’s the price of admission,” Jurgensen says. “But we have to do more.” To do so, she can draw upon a staff that grew through the late 1990s. The paper’s staffing level dropped about 5% last year, with some cuts affecting the newsroom. (Other unhappy personnel news emanated from the paper last year, with reports of a fistfight between two sports staffers, and the dismissal of three women journalists who reportedly defaced a prized sculpture.)

But, despite the cuts, the paper can still claim added depth. Before entering the hiring doldrums afflicting the rest of the industry, USA Today lured over several writers from The Washington Post, including U.S. Supreme Court correspondent Joan Biskupic.

“They’ve attracted a strong staff,” says Silver Spring, Md.-based newspaper analyst John Morton. “People return their calls. They have as much access to the White House and Capitol Hill as The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. … That didn’t used to be that way.”

According to Curley, the cross-platform distribution that feeds off the depth of USA Today also helps to strengthen the newspaper’s reporting: “It’s been very helpful in getting story breaks.” Curley says reporters “can go to a newsmaker and say, ‘I can get you in the largest newspaper, one of the largest Web sites, and the largest [local TV network] affiliate.’ It’s a pretty powerful argument to let us have the story before everybody else.”

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