COMMENTARY: If I Ran USA Today
By: John K. Hartman
Published: June 25, 2010
Changes are coming to the "other" national newspaper, USA Today.
I say "other" because most of the attention is focused on the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal as they slog it out in the New York City market, where the Journal, having downplayed business journalism and gone over to the general-interest side, has started a New York edition to do violence to the Gray Lady.
The Times and the Journal are slogging it out at the national level, too, though their readership is concentrated in the Northeast and the urban financial centers of the United States, while USA Today's is more evenly dispersed across the land.
In print readership USAT is No. 1, WSJ a close second and NYT distant third. Online is a different story among the Big Three. NYT is No. 1 by a landslide, USAT No. 2 and WSJ No. 3.
In revenue, NYT is No. 1, WSJ No. 2 and USAT and poor third.
In profitability, who knows? Based on the thickness of print products, NYT and WSJ are holding their own. USAT is wafer-thin more often than not.
USAT publisher David Hunke told the staff a few days ago that changes are coming to the daily and suggested they would include more layoffs.
Hunke's plans need careful scrutiny based on the debacle he created a year ago at the Detroit Free Press, the second-largest circulation daily owned by Gannett, Inc., behind USAT.
Hunke mistakenly cut home delivery of the Freep to three days a week (Thursday, Friday and Sunday), but kept publishing a thinner version the other four days, available in stores and from vending machines. The plan was to move readers to the web.
It failed. Not nearly enough readers moved to the Freep on the web (where there are a few million competitors for people's time as compared to being the only newspaper on someone's doorstep) and the print readership dropped precipitously.
The Freep's suburban daily competitors gained substantially.
Best evidence of failure is that the Freep is now restoring seven-day home delivery in selected areas.
I fear that Hunke is dreaming of cutting the USAT print product to three days a week (Monday, Wednesday and Friday) a la the Freep. In my opinion, that would be a disaster. That would leave two national dailies to talk about. USAT would no longer be even the "other."
Layoffs are inevitable, I believe, sad to say, as I hate to see dedicated and talented journalists lose their jobs. Maybe they could be shifted to other Gannett papers to boost their local and regional coverage.
More importantly, USAT needs to be repurposed to add value to its pages.
There is very little unique about the content of USAT. It could save a ton of money by eliminating most of its reporters and using the potent and comprehensive Associated Press content and content generated by other Gannett newspapers, molded skillfully by a skeleton team of editors, writers and designers.
There are very few USAT columnists and writers who have a national following and who have any national distinction. I would let most of them go, or shift them to other Gannett papers, and replace them by a small number of highly paid, nationally known newspaper and magazine columnists, bloggers, TV personalities, and celebrity columnists. (Larry King used to have a column.)
I would put these star columnists on page one above the fold on the front page every day as well as on the first page of the other three sections. Put them on the left side replacing the once valuable, but now outmoded news summaries.
All of a sudden, USAT would be driving the national dialogue instead of following it, as is too often the case.
For a revenue boost, I would put display ads above the fold on page one and on the section fronts, taking up to one-third of the available space. Some advertisers might be column sponsors.
Would readers be offended?
No. In fact, readers are attracted to ads from premier companies and the ads boost the prestige of the newspaper that carries them.
One way or the "other," USA Today needs big changes to prosper again.