By Paul Gillin | September 26, 2012 - 10:07 am - Posted in Newspapers
USA Today First Edition, 1982

USA Today First Edition, 1982 via Fast Horse blog

As USA Today celebrates its 30th birthday, columnists are wondering it it’ll see 40. Or even 35.

Writing in Editor & Publisher, John K. Hartman breaks down McPaper’s run into three stages.

The first decade was growth and massive disruption, as USA Today challenged many of the industry’s assumptions about how and what people wanted to read.

The second decade was prosperity, when USA Today became the most widely circulated newspaper in America and Gannett reaped the spoils of more than $1 billion in investment.

The third decade was decline, marked by competitive surges by The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, changing reader habits and all the economic pressures that have hit the industry. Hartman offers 30 ideas to rejuvenate the national daily, but his list looks a bit forced. The situation “has all the makings of a death spiral,” he admits.

We liked Alan Mutter’s analysis better. The Newsosaur recalls some of the innovations USA Today brought to the market beyond jump-less stories and “We’re Eating More Broccoli” infographics. Founder Al Neuharth astutely scoped out changes in the audience for newspapers before anyone else. He targeted the paper toward business travelers who were time-pressed, mostly male and equipped with expense accounts. Neuharth bet that airline deregulation, which had happened just four years earlier, would spur an explosion of air travel and a boom in the hospitality industry. Hotels are still the single largest distribution channel for USA Today.

Gannett was successful in attracting upscale ads from airlines that were competing on amenities at the time, Mutter notes. Not so much today. Travel has become a cutthroat business, and business travelers now make decisions based more upon TripAdvisor reviews and price-comparison engines than on which airline has the best food. Sports coverage, which was long a USA Today strong point, has been co-opted by ESPN.com and other online channels for the rabid fan. Even USA Today‘s once-prominent full-page weather map is now an  artifact, thanks to smart phone apps.

Mutter points to a more fundamental weakness in the business model: “Nearly two-thirds of its coast-to-coast circulation is built on free copies distributed by hotels and other businesses, meaning that barely more than a third of its readers actually think enough of the paper to pay for it.” Those who do pay have to fork over one dollar, which is far less than they pay for the Times or Journal. The fact that both those dailies are eating USA Today‘s lunch would indicate that price isn’t much of a factor for the dwindling ranks of newspaper buyers.

Neither columnist holds out much hope for USA Today‘s long-term survival, and we have to admit the situation doesn’t look good. This is ironic in light of the fact that Gannett anticipated many of the changes in reading habits that other newspapers grudgingly adopted. While newspaper publishers may have hated USA Today, their reluctant move toward shorter stories, more graphics and full-color production probably staved off the industry’s decline by a few years.

USA Today continues to resist the paywall trend, and its free website may be one of its few distinguishing features. However, the price of advertising is in long-term decline, and it’s hard to believe that free will be a virtue in a crowded market. Unfortunately, USA Today may have little choice. If more people are willing to pay $2.50 for a  copy of the Times or $2 for the Journal, then it’s hard to imagine that a paid website strategy will get much traction. USA Today arguably had more impact on American newspapers than any publication of the last 30 years. Sadly, it may be one of the earliest casualties.


Ebyline Challenge Seeks a “100% Solution”

A service that pairs freelancers with editors has teamed with Editor & Publisher to launch a $35,000 journalism contest called the Ebyline Challenge. The contest picks up on a post by Jay Rosen two years ago that asked readers to envision how they could cover 100% of a large topic using a combination of sources. This is basically an innovation contest. “First, come up with an idea for reporting on 100% of something….Fill out an entry form and tell us how you’d use freelancers to make your idea happen,” the contest page says. The 35 grand isn’t cash, but a one-year credit toward use of the Ebyline service.

We like the idea in principle, but the focus on freelancers is too narrow. If you’re going to cover something 100% these days, your available resources should include blogs, tweets, people on the spot with phone cameras and community publishers, among others. That isn’t in Ebyline’s best interests, of course, but the option would open up opportunities for innovation. Not all journalism carries a price tag anymore.

Comments

comments

This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 26th, 2012 at 10:07 am and is filed under Newspapers. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments Off

Comments are closed.