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Meanwhile, its sweet spots of entertainment and sports have been superseded by dozens of specialized blogs and websites, along with the continuing growth of national competitors like ESPN and TMZ.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