USA Today has a lot of balls

USA Today's ballsIt’s hard to overstate the impact of USA Today.

Ridiculed as “McPaper” at its launch 30 years ago, the upstart paper had the last laugh. Its innovations — widespread color, short news items, “charticles” and other graphic elements — soon were widely adopted by newspapers, magazines and even TV. Aided by an innovative business model that featured satellite printing and free hotel distribution, USA Today became the largest-circulation paper in the country.

But “the nation’s newspaper” has lost its mojo of late.

Along with the rest of the industry, USA Today has struggled in the digital age. With the Internet providing an endless source of news, sports and celebrity infotainment, USA Today has lost its relevance — and its spot atop the circulation rankings. Revenue has plummeted, too, as advertisers find new digital channels more effective at engaging consumers.

Last week, USA Today unveiled a new look in print and online. The signature of the redesign is a colored-ball motif. An internal company memo from the designer leaked onto the Internet and immediately began drawing the kind of ridicule the original concept did in 1982.

“I have a dream . . . that one day all Americans will join hands and declare their undying love for our balls,” the note began. “I believe our balls are symbols of who we are and where we’re headed. They are not stories, graphics, or illustrations. They are signposts, perhaps; reminders that offer inroads into America’s stream of consciousness.”

Replied a commenter on a popular journalism website: “It’s a testes of their sphere of influence.”

Ball jokes aside, USA Today’s business position isn’t funny, and the redesign isn’t likely to save the day. I wrote about the paper’s plight for MinnPost last year in a post titled, “R.I.P. USA Today.” Now, in the wake of the redesign, a journalism professor who has made a specialty of studying USA Today predicts that the paper will close within three years.

John K. Hartman of Central Michigan University offered 30 points to ponder as the paper marked its 30th anniversary. Among them:

  • USA Today’s original core readers were baby boomers, sports fans, singles, and travelers. All four groups largely have gone elsewhere for their news.  
  • Fewer and fewer people can be seen reading USA Today in hotel lobbies, in restaurants, on planes, and in public transit, as smartphones and tablets are the reading platform of choice.
  • There is no model available to get digital newspapers in front of people’s eyeballs comparable to the former USA Today strategy of giving away copies of the print edition to folks at hotels and in transit.  

I give the print edition of USA Today longer than Hartman’s three years. But as the paper turns 30, I don’t see it making 40.

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