John K. Hartman
Author of The USA Today Way books
 
 
 
USA Today Setting Itself Up For Failure
It is odd that the best-read print newspaper in the country would walk away from that pre-eminence and embrace technologies in which it lags the field, says John K. Hartman, the journalism professor who authored two books about USA Today.

 
By: John K. Hartman

 
POWELL, Ohio (August 31, 2010) --

Two months ago I suggested that USA Today embark on a flight to quality by hiring five of the top news columnists in the country as a way of regaining traction as a major news source in this country.

I further suggested that hard times would cause it to reduce significantly the size of its staff and rely more on the Associated Press and the journalists at other Gannett Co. newspapers and television stations.

A few days ago publisher David Hunke announced that 9% of the paper's employees would be let go, including an undetermined number of journalists.

He outlined a news staff reorganization in some indecipherable marketing mumbo-jumbo. He announced a de-emphasis of the print newspaper and the embrace of online and mobile technologies to deliver news.

It is odd that the best-read print newspaper in the country would walk away from that pre-eminence and embrace technologies in which it lags the field.

Currently, according to eBizMBA, USA  Today ranked No. 13 among the most popular new websites with 19 million unique visitors in July 2010. It was fourth among newspaper websites, trailing New York Times, No. 6 with 38 million; Washington Post, No. 9 with 22 million; and Los Angeles Times, No. 10 with 21.9 million.

The leading news website was Yahoo! With 70 million unique visitors, followed by CNN with 48 million, msnbc with 47 million and Google with 46 million.

With a smaller news staff and a shrinking distribution of its print newspaper, it stretches the imagination to conceive how USA Today's new digital strategy is going to overcome competitors already tripling and doubling its unique visitors.
   
Some of us remember when USA Today was THE national daily newspaper for sports fans. In the early years up to half of the news content of the newspaper was sports.
   
Then along came ESPN and its companion site espn.com.

USA Today's print product lost its sports magic and began to cut its sports content to 50% of what it used to be. Sports readers did not migrate to usatoday.com.

According to topsitesblog.com, the 11 most popular web sites online do not include usatoday.com or any other newspaper's web site. No. 1 is guess who? Espn.com. The only print publication's website to make the list is si.com, offspring of the once mighty magazine, Sports Illustrated.

Hunke's plans for a website called USA Today Sports that might recapture sports prominence seem unrealistic, too.
   
The publisher's best move so far, in my opinion, was to sell a four-page ad section that wrapped around the news section of USA Today in July.
   
his offended journalistic purists inside and outside the paper and was condemned by USA Today founder Al Neuharth, according to the New York Times.
   
Neuharth, now 86 and a weekly columnist for the paper, reportedly said he would have led a walkout if he had been a journalist working for the paper.
   
When Neuharth was CEO of Gannett he regularly fired and exiled those who dissented over his "journalism of hope," his raiding other Gannett newspapers to staff the mothership, and his looting other Gannett properties treasuries to keep it afloat.
   
The only dignified thing to do would be to quit your column, eh, Al?
   
As in fire yourself.
   
USA Today and other newspapers are going to have to sell wrap-arounds, and front page ads, and sponsored articles and lots of other marketing ploys that offend purists in order to maintain a going business and provide the news and public service that people need and on which our free society depends.
   
Hunke's digital strategy appears flawed.

Ironically, his print ad strategy appears smart.


 

 

John K. Hartman is a professor of journalism at Central Michigan University and the Al-Jazirah chair of international journalism at King Saud University. He is the author of two books about USA Today. Send comments to John.Hartman@dacor.net. (Copyright, 2010. John K. Hartman. All Rights Reserved.)
 
 

John K. Hartman is a professor of journalism at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.  He is the author of two books, "The USA Today Way 2: The Future" (2000) and "The USA Today Way" (1992).  He has examined much of the research done on young adult newspaper readership and is a widely quoted source on the topic.  Jacqueline Hartman provided editing assistance to the author.

In August 2008 Dr. Hartman covered and blogged the Democratic National Convention for the Mount Pleasant, Mich., Morning Sun. In 2008 Dr. Hartman was named the Al-Jazirah Newspaper Chair for International Journalism at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and visited the kingdom to lecture, teach and give seminars. He is scheduled to return in 2009. To learn more about King Saud University, visit jrc.ksu.edu.sa/en

Copyright 2009, John K. Hartman.  All Rights Reserved.
John.Hartman@dacor.net