Who Will Head ‘USA Today’ Tomorrow?

By: Lucia Moses

As Gannett Co. Inc. recovers from the surprise departure of its USA Today publisher, several insiders are emerging as potential successors to Tom Curley, who accepted the top job at The Associated Press two weeks ago.

Observers don’t see an obvious favorite among the paper’s top executives. But if Gannett Chairman, CEO, and President Douglas H. McCorkindale picks someone from the company fold for the plum job, as many expect, he could look to Gary Watson, 57, newspaper division president the last 12 years. He earlier served as publisher of the Rockford (Ill.) Register Star.

McCorkindale may want an executive with big-city-paper experience, however, in which case Frank J. Vega, 54, CEO and president of Detroit Newspapers, has a shot. As a bonus, he knows USA Today, having been on the team that created it in 1982.

Also in the running are two rising publisher stars who were tapped a couple of years ago to run Gannett’s newest metros and, through those papers, also have multimedia convergence experience. They are Susan Clark-Johnson, 56, of The Arizona Republic, Gannett’s biggest daily outside USA Today, and three-time Gannett Publisher of the Year winner Barbara A. Henry, 50, of The Indianapolis Star, who in November added responsibilities for Gannett’s four other Indiana dailies.

Alternatively, Gannett could look outside the company. “The job is so high-profile, such a unique opportunity, there’s lots of people who’d want to get in there,” said Joe Urschel, a 14-year USA Today news veteran who is now senior vice president of the Freedom Forum.

Under Curley, who held the president and publisher titles since 1991, USA Today improved its circulation, national-advertising share, and journalistic profile. But whoever takes over the nation’s largest-circulation daily faces a fight for national-ad dollars with The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times in a still-tight-fisted economy.

Gannett last week lowered its first-quarter earnings forecast, citing softening of ad buying on TV and at its papers, particularly USA Today. Ad revenue and paid pages declined 6% and 11% last year, respectively. Morgan Stanley estimated ad pages were down between 15% and 20% for the two middle weeks of last month. But Curley said that, after a falloff leading up to and after the start of the war, “the bookings are coming back,” though the travel category continues to be a concern.

News of a replacement could bring clarity to the Gannett CEO successorship issue, as the USA Today appointment could be seen as a steppingstone. McCorkindale, 63, is expected to retire in two years, although a provision in his contract allows him to serve longer. Some thought Curley might one day follow in the footsteps of his older brother, former CEO John Curley, but company watchers said that differences between former newsman Tom Curley and the more money-minded McCorkindale had made that increasingly unlikely.

Asked about speculation that financial pressure from above contributed to his decision to leave, Curley told E&P: “There’s no bed of roses anywhere. Every leadership job is difficult.”

Observers see no obvious successor to McCorkindale, although both Watson and Senior Vice President Gracia Martore, 51, recently promoted to chief financial officer, are viewed as potential candidates. Next year, said analyst Kevin Gruneich, who follows Gannett for Bear, Stearns & Co., the lack of a clear successor as CEO “could become an issue.”

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