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RIP, USA Today

One of the great media innovations of our lifetime is dying.

USA Today launched in 1982 as the first truly national newspaper. With its colorful design and a heavy emphasis on light news, it was often mocked as a shallow “McPaper,” but I’ve never been among the mockers. USA Today really was a remarkable creation that had wide influence across the news business.

Using a new technology — satellite transmission — Gannett Co. was able to print the newspaper at dozens of sites across the country, allowing it to be distributed fresh every day to just about everywhere. I was living in Anchorage, Alaska, when the paper debuted, and I could always buy one by 10 a.m.

In an era when there was no Internet and no other nationally distributed daily publications, USA Today provided a great, lively roundup of information. It was a fun read. And as it matured, it regularly ran ambitious, in-depth stories on national issues, often using computer-assisted reporting when that was a new technique.

But now, according to the Gannett Blog — a site run by former USA Today reporter Jim Hopkins — Gannett may be considering either selling USA Today or spinning it off as an independent company.

Gannett is better at making money than any other newspaper company. So even discussion of such a move tells you all you need to know about the health of its flagship property. USA Today’s circulation, which consistently averaged about 2.3 million daily during the past decade, is down more than 20 percent, to about 1.8 million. The Wall Street Journal has overtaken it as America’s largest paper.

Ad pages are down even more sharply, from 1,045 in the fourth quarter of 2007 to 680 in the fourth quarter of 2010 — a drop of 35 percent. And, according to Hopkins, USA Today’s newsroom staff has been cut by about 25 percent during that same period.

With roughly 375 newsroom staffers — about as many as the Star Tribune had a few years ago — USA Today can’t possibly hope to compete on in-depth national news with the Journal and the New York Times, both of which field newsroom teams numbering more than 1,000.

Meanwhile, its sweet spots of entertainment and sports have been superseded by dozens of specialized blogs and websites, along with the continuing growth of national competitors like ESPN and TMZ.

Think of it: When was the last time you actually saw someone reading USA Today outside of a hotel lobby? When was the last time USA Today broke a story that other media had to play catch-up on? I’m not sure the paper can still deliver a meaningful audience to advertisers — which is, after all, its primary reason for existence.

USA Today is following in the footsteps of another great print giant, LIFE magazine. LIFE was once the unquestioned leader among national print publications, but television killed it.

The Internet threatens to do the same to USA Today.

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Comments (12)

When I traveled, USA Today was the last paper I would take of the the variety of papers on offer at the front desk or ticket counter. Almost any other paper, local or national, "felt" like a more substantial read. The paragraph or so from every state in the USA Today was a massive waste of space, and really, does anyone need a page of weather (that holds for local papers also)? Perhaps the mistake was aiming the paper at apparently lobotomized travelers, with both local and national news covered better by other local newspapers.

A better example of a "travelers" paper? The IHT.

I'm sorry to burst your bubble, but the Internet most certainly existed in 1982; I was using it even before that.

I've looked at USA today maybe twice since it came out, and I was always disappointed. There's nothing more boring than so-called news organized around business traveler audiences. This is one huge problem with local news stations, no matter where you go in the country you see the same formats, even the same commercials.

I cannot believe how Gannett has allowed this property to deteriorate. They had a virtual monopoly on hotel deliveries of newspapers which, if you traveled a lot, was often the only paper available to you in the morning in hotel lobbies. No longer. I recently went on a trip to the south and found the New York Times offered available at La Quinta. Given the choice, guess which I took.
So if the rumor is true and Gannett now proposed to sell or spin off USA Today, this causes several problems:
1. Who will buy it? In case we all have not noticed, the Internet is the future for news and print is yesterday's news. USA Today has not got a major foothold on the Web and its Web page is tired and not up to the competition that now includes Murdoch's Daily.
2. Can Gannett break it off? The paper was launched with support from the chain's community papers and some of those papers today support USA Today by publishing the editions around the country. A new owner would have to contract for these services, which would add to USA Today's publication costs. I have long contended USA Today is more of a vanity publication and the true costs of running it are hidden in community paper budgets.
3. Major advertisers are now shunning USA Today. Will they come back under a new owner, and what sort of resources would that require to rebuild reporting and ad sales staffs.
4. What about the huge overhead of all the managers and submanagers the paper is carrying?

Amen to Neal's comments. during my expensive travel days, it was the last thing I looked, except perhaps t check my home town weather.

Edward, you are spot on in all your comments. I didn't go into those details because not a lot of people might be interested in the mechanics of the business. But you're right, printing arrangements would be a huge issue for any new owner.

Although in the past few years, Gannett has actually shifted some printing of USA Today from its own newspapers to competitors -- because Gannett is consolidating its own printing and has closed some of its owned sites. This has been the case in Mississippi, I believe, and in some other places.

You're also correct that many millions of dollars of USA Today costs over the years have been borne by Gannett's historically profitable community papers.

Mark, you're really taking refuge in a technicality to say there was an Internet in 1982. The Internet as we know it today -- a mass communication medium widely used by all -- certainly did not exist in 1982. There may have been a relative handful of early adopters like yourself exchanging text messages over computer connections, but that's not what I'm talking about.

I can now get the New York Times at home. Why bother with USA Today, which is one step above the front page of a news channel web site? Except for the local sports and the "crime page" and a little other local news, the Times makes the Star Trib look like USA Today, a pathetic shadow of its former self.

Used to be a home subscriber to USA Today, if you can believe that.

Two reasons: First, I was doing a morning radio spot and it was a handy place to get buncha headlines in one place. Second, we thought we could instill the newspaper-reading habit in our daughter because she liked the "Purple" section. That one didn't work so well -- she doesn't read newspapers now and we've gone from getting three on the doorstep each morning to just one (WSJ).

There are lots of other newspapers I'd be more concerned about... this one not so much.

I don't have an iPad but I would buy one if someone other than Rupert Murdoch created an online news source like his The Daily. http://www.thedaily.com/

Here's the model to make it work: Offer the best stories from AP, NYT, WSJ, WaPo, Strib NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox, etc and combine it with Digg, YouTube, reddit and blogs. Put it into The Daily format. News sources will pay to be on the site by releasing a few teaser paragraphs with a "Read More" link that brings you to their site and shows you their advertising.

Newspapers need to realize that they are no longer in the printing business or even the web site business, they are in the content business. Create great content and people will come to you.

That's why I read Minnpost.

I am with Rich Crose. Content is king in this new digital age. But I disagree with him on Murdoch's Daily. It is revolutionary in its graphics in the same way USA Today was a quarter century ago with its weather page and use of color. USA Today just didn't keep up with innovations, or it would not be in trouble today.

I suspect Mark "internet 1982 ftw" is actually Richard Halloran.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5WCTn4FljUQ

but i have to agree that the yahoo home page has displaced all possible desire i ever had for fluffy front page hard copy articles.

and great analogy to LIFE. the newspaper medium has never been a static thing. it grew when literacy, technology, and average citizen buying power could support it. but the number of papers began to decline as radio and TV began to compete, so we're on a long long downswing here. the internet has greatly accelerated it. it doesn't mean newspapers will cease to exist completely, but any hard copy ones that do will always be adapting. USAToday doesn't have the framework to do that, as you've pointed out.