Tomorrow is the thirtieth birthday of USA Today. The country’s second most widely read newspaper is celebrating by presenting a bold new face to the world, in print and across all digital platforms. This is the first time the paper has been significantly redesigned in its three decades of existence, and commentators are divided. Some view it as a desperate move to escape an inevitable spiral toward a Kodak-like fate, while others welcome a new shake-up by the American newspaper industry’s original change artist.
In September 1982 when, under founder Al Neuharth, USA Today first dropped into airports, hotel rooms and round-cornered newspaper boxes across the country, it took the industry by surprise with its catchy headlines, vivid images and splashy graphics. Its articles were short, written in a “folksy” voice, and did not jump from page to page, meaning that readers on the go could consume them in one bite, without fumbling through unwieldy pages. Observed from a 30-year distance, the young publication that was labeled “McPaper” by its detractors, fuzzily resembles a print precursor to the current rulers of the digital era.
Partially thanks to its strategy of targeting travelers by placing up to 1 million free copies each day in their paths, USA Today was still young when it “came of age,” as John K. Harman explains for Editor & Publisher. In its teens, it soared to the position of best-read newspaper, with a daily circulation of 5 million, irking the blue chip competitors whose readers it lured away and who were forced, eventually, to take a leaf or two from its book (sound familiar?). Under the leadership of brothers Tom and John Curley, Gannett’s expensive experiment began turning a profit.
In its twenties, however, the former groundbreaker lost its cutting edge, paying too little attention to digital opportunities, and slipping behind The Wall Street Journal in print circulation. As such, it has been hit hard by the industry’s present turmoil. Although its circulation is still the nation’s second highest, at 1.7 million, it relies heavily on its print advertising revenue, according to J.P. Morgan Chase analyst Alexia S. Quadrani, which sunk by a higher-than-anticipated 8.1 percent in the second quarter of this year. “A revamp is going to be welcome because I think you do need to do something to reinvigorate that brand,” The New York Times quoted her as saying.
Under the leadership of President and Publisher Larry Kramer, who took over in May, USA Today is now shifting its image from newspaper to multi-platform news organization. “This has to be an orchestra,” Kramer, reportedly said. “It can’t be a single instrument anymore.” To complete this transformation, USA Today is now borrowing tactics from old rivals whose world it once shook, as well new ones whose digital success its “McPaper” foreshadowed.
Perhaps taking its cue from The Wall Street Journal, the new USA Today will be:
- Giving its print journalists video equipment, and expecting them to use it
- Increasing the amount of live video coverage on all of the new digital platforms that it will be unrolling (as seen on WSJ Live)
Following in the footsteps of Digital First Media, USA Today’s parent company Gannett is consolidating the coverage produced by the 5,000 journalists at its 82 newspapers and 23 television stations across the country. “The great thing about Gannett right now is the leveraging of assets that used to be housed in silos,” said CEO Gracia C. Martore. “That’s how I think you survive and thrive in a digital era.” This will entail:
- Creating a single national news desk that will include staff from both print and television
- Consolidating investigative reporting at the national level, with regional papers printing shared investigative stories with sidebars explaining their local impact
- Encouraging journalists from across the network to collaborate on breaking news coverage, as they did during the Aurora shootings and the London Olympic Games
USA Today may also be examining the strategies of those digital success stories whose formula [irresistible headline + bold image + less text] it pioneered. It is launching a new website tomorrow, as well as new apps for tablet, mobile and Facebook. On these platforms and in print, it is:
- Increasing its emphasis on infographics and photographs
- Improving upon its famous weather map and state page, and expanding coverage of tech and travel
- Printing nearly 50 percent more colour pages than before (24 on average each day as opposed to 13), and doing so in better quality
- Engaging more directly with its readers by printing their comments from Facebook and Twitter on its overhauled “Your Say” opinion page
Finally, USA Today has launched a “bouncy” new logo, featuring a large dot that doubles as a ballot box and a golf course, and that promises to be as “dynamic as news itself." Whether the reimagined news organization will be as resilient as its logo is still up in the air.