USA Today Online's Transitional Web/MSN Strategy

By: Steve Outing

Last week I mentioned briefly the news that USA Today Online is now available for free to anyone using the World Wide Web. (The full online edition had been restricted to customers of USA Today's Internet access service on the CompuServe network using a proprietary Web browser. Other Internet users could only see a promotional USA Today Web site.)

What I didn't mention then is the interesting relationship between USA Today content on the (now) free Web service and on the new Microsoft Network: They are the same! If you are one of the few people using MSN to access USA Today's online content, when you go to USA Today on MSN, you are actually making an Internet connection to USA Today Online on the Web.

USA Today's strategy may be a bit confusing -- it was to me -- so this week I caught up with Lorraine Cichowski, vice president and general manager of USA Today Information Network and the person in charge of USA Today Online, and asked her to explain the newspaper's recent online moves.

Web = Microsoft Network

The Web service made the transition to free access on August 21. It will remain free probably through October, after which the strategy will be re-evaluated. (This may sound familiar. I reported last week that CNN also is offering its Web service for free for a short period while it evaluates various revenue models. To my eye, CNN's and USA Today's Web services are so similar as to be direct competitors. Cichowski differed with that interpretation and said she expects that "news junkies," who make up a large portion of her online audience, will use both.)

Today and in the short-term future, users of Microsoft Network will see USA Today Online from the Web. The newspaper is not creating 2 sets of content for the Web and MSN, but merely pointing from within MSN to the Web.

Cichowski said this odd turn of events was brought about by Microsoft, which does not yet have its Blackbird content creation tools ready for prime time. The Blackbird tools for online design available at this time did not meet USA Today's requirements to produce graphically rich pages. Microsoft did have its Internet connections in place, however, so USA Today made the temporary decision to open up its Web service to all -- and thus facilitate access by MSN users. (Previously, only users of the CompuServe network with a proprietary browser could view the full USA Today Web site; MSN users accessing the Web would have been shut out, too.)

The Blackbird tools, which Cickowski says are "very, very elegant," probably will be used to create special content for USA Today on MSN, when they are ready. This brings up the less-than-ideal situation of USA Today having to create content for 2 platforms; as it stands now, USA Today Online's staff of 70 only has to support HTML documents for the Web.

Cichowski says Blackbird will allow her designers to do stuff not possible on the Web or on any of the major online services. The double-platform issue is one being grappled with, but there are no clear answers yet. A likely approach for USA Today on MSN is using a combination of Web pages (already in place) and special Blackbird-produced pages (for when HTML won't do).

Internet access package is not dead

USA Today is not, by the way, giving up its CompuServe network service. While Cichowski would not give me numbers of subscribers to the branded Internet access service, she did say that it is a "small part of our service." The service costs $12.95 for 3 hours a month, with additional hours at $2.50. Obviously, this is not a competitive rate, and Cichowski hopes to be able to offer lower charges.

The $12.95 per month plan has mostly attracted sports fans, Cichowski says. The service includes a fantasy baseball program that only works with the proprietary software included with the service (though that too will be opened up to all Internet users at some point). Indeed, if you check the USA Today Online site, you'll notice that about two-thirds of the content -- 8,000 of 12,000 current pages -- are sports-related.

3 levels of service

USA Today Online has made some good moves in recent weeks to open up the service to more users. For new online users, there is the CompuServe network package described above, which includes Internet access, USA Today on the Web, and the baseball fantasy program. For existing Internet users, USA Today on the Web is available for free, though expect to see some sort of charging mechanism in the future in addition to advertising. And finally, USA Today Online is available on Microsoft Network.

That's a far better strategy than only 1 month ago, when the only way to read USA Today Online was by subscribing to the overpriced Internet access service on the CompuServe network. Even Cichowski admitted that it has been difficult for people to try out the service.

The free Web site, as you might guess, has been drawing a lot of traffic. Cichowski says her servers are getting about 3 million hits per week, which she estimates translates into 25,000-30,000 individuals visiting the site each day. A good chunk of the traffic is coming from America Online and Prodigy users, she says. USA Today is in the process of signing contracts with an online audience measurement service to nail down those numbers.

Contact: Lorraine Cichowski,

News Corp./MCI announce online newsroom

News Corp./MCI Online Ventures has announced a new 24-hour/7-day "digital newsroom" on the Web to be called "News Center" and staffed it with some serious journalism talent. According to the companies, the service is "designed to permit the daily production of thousands of Internet Web pages incorporating visual, audio and textual information. ... Our News Center is like a newspaper city desk, a television news room and a high tech computer center -- all rolled into one."

This sounds a lot like CNN's Web site, which was launched just a few days ago. The competition is heating up, folks.

News Corp./MCI Online has named Jonathan Miller of the London Sunday Times and Lew Silverman of the MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour to head the production team for "News Center." Miller will be editor of the new service; Silverman will be managing editor. Miller is a former assistant editor, columnist and media editor of the Sunday Times, and was the editor in charge of the Times' online service on Delphi UK and creator of the "Camden Lock" Web site for Delphi UK. Silverman previously has worked for Reuters, the Wall Street Journal and Knight-Ridder Newspapers.

Also appointed to "News Center" positions are: Catherine Woodard, former news editor of Newsday Direct, as senior editor/news; Vivienne Walt, most recently a foreign correspondent for Newsday, as team leader for producing reviews and cultural coverage; Marc Appleman, a former sports journalist for Sports Illustrated and the Los Angeles Times, as senior sports editor; June Herold, a feature and business writer from the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News, as business editor; Don Winslow, formerly online manager at Reuters New Media and a photographer for Reuters, as picture editor; Betsy Freeman, a former producer for NBC News and WNET News in New York, as political editor; and Sean Elder, a magazine writer and editor, as senior editor for reviews.


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This column is written by Steve Outing and underwritten by Editor & Publisher magazine. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at


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