USA Today to Remake Itself to Stress Digital Operations
By Jeremy W Peters/NYT
The history of USA Today is full of firsts for the newspaper business: the first general-interest national paper of its kind, the first to use color widely in charts and photographs
and once first in the number of copies printed each day.
and once first in the number of copies printed each day.
But lately the paper has lost its grip on the national media market. Its advertising revenue has collapsed. Its circulation has plunged — last year it forfeited its title as the nation's most widely circulated newspaper on weekdays to The Wall Street Journal.Faced with this dour reality, USA Today has announced the most extensive reorganization in its 28-year history. The paper will eliminate about 130 jobs, or 9 percent of its work force, and shift its business model away from the print edition that has become ubiquitous in airports, hotels and newsstands across the country.
The paper's focus will now be on its digital operations. It will emphasize breaking news on its Web site, aiming to post articles within 30 minutes of a breaking news event. It will create a stand-alone sports edition called USA Today Sports. And it will shift more of its resources toward making content more available in digital form, an effort to win a larger share of the tablet and mobile phone news market.
"We aren't organized to adapt to the changing audience demands on all platforms," the paper's management told employees in a presentation on Thursday.
But much about the paper's plans for its future, including how it will manage a new alignment between the business and news operations at the paper, remained unexplained.
Staff members who sat through the presentation from USA Today executives and editors said they came away with many unanswered questions and a sense that the reorganization plan was a work in progress.
The publisher, David L. Hunke, declined to answer questions afterward about the restructuring was revealed late Thursday night in an article by The Associated Press. A spokesman for USA Today, Ed Cassidy, said that the paper's announcement and the A.P. article were all that USA Today had to say on the matter, "and that pretty much closes the book on this for us."
Neither the announcement nor the article said which departments would be affected by the 130 job cuts or how the paper would address conflict-of-interest concerns that might arise from the new editorial-business partnership, which was described in the presentation as "a new way of doing business that aligns sales efforts with the content we produce."
USA Today's newly appointed executive editor for content, Susan Weiss, will, in part, serve as a liaison between the news and business sides.
Like other print media companies that have struggled to reckon with falling circulation and declining advertising revenue, USA Today has tried to find a way to remain viable in an era when the kind of packaging of general news that made it a pioneer is available in abundance — and free — elsewhere.
Further complicating USA Today's fortunes, The Wall Street Journal has made a more aggressive push into the general-interest newspaper market. The Journal has expanded its presence on newsstands and in Starbucks, where it says it will be in more than 6,700 locations by the end of next month. The Journal has also increased its circulation in hotels — traditionally USA Today's turf — by 15 percent, to nearly 40,000 copies daily from March 2009 to March 2010. USA Today, with nearly 400,000 copies in hotels each weekday, as of March, still dominates that business but has slipped in recent years. More than 800,000 copies of the paper were distributed in hotels each weekday in 2007.
USA Today's Monday through Friday circulation is now 1.8 million, compared with The Journal's 2.1 million.
Some newspaper analysts and experts voiced doubts about whether a reorganization would really position USA Today to be stronger against other media outlets that had been quicker and more successful with their innovations.
"I don't blame them for tinkering with the model, but everybody has been trying to do that," said Craig A. Huber, an analyst with Access 342, a research firm that follows USA Today and its parent company, Gannett. "They have to restructure. They don't have a choice in this quickly evolving media landscape."
Other analysts pointed out that the type of sweeping overhaul that USA Today was trying was much easier said than done.
"The concept of evolving into a multimedia operation appears simple in concept but is very complicated in terms of execution," said James C. Goss, an analyst at Barrington Research. "There's no guarantee of success, but standing still would be much worse."
The paper has experimented with ways to be more innovative about generating revenue, though not always in ways that hew to long-accepted practices in the newspaper business. In July it wrapped its front section in an advertisement for Jeep that obscured the entire front page. The ad stirred outrage in the newsroom and prompted the paper's founder, Allen H. Neuharth, to complain in a letter to the publisher that if he were still there, "I would have led the entire news staff walking out in protest."
Taking a shot at Mr. Hunke, Mr. Neuharth, 86, added: "If such a stupid decision is ever made again, I hope that will be the result. That would leave those who apparently don't understand what a newspaper is to try to put one out without a news staff."
What USA Today must do to thrive in the future, experts said, is recapture its innovative spirit.
"USA Today used to be the trendsetter in the business," said Toni Locy, a former USA Today reporter who now teaches journalism at Washington & Lee University in Virginia. "Nobody had color before USA Today. Nobody had a weather map. And USA Today has lost a step in the last five or six years. So I think they're right to try to regain the ground they've lost."