Friday, August 27, 2010

Is USA Today's staff shake up a good move towards a more modern newsroom, or simply more staff cuts?

Announced as a "radical" overhaul of its newsroom staffing, USA Today said that it would begin to focus more on mobile and tablet publishing, while de-emphasizing its print edition. Oh, and it will eliminate 130 positions effecting both its newsroom and business functions.

USA Today Publisher David Hunke, who was named to the post in April of last year, said that "This gets us ready for our next quarter century," according to the AP report.

Hunke said that the focus will be on producing content for all platforms, including mobile and tablet.

(While this has been reported widely and without comment, the statement makes no sense whatsoever. Were reporters stories previously considered print-only? Was a story developed for one product prevented from being used on another? Of course not.)

Hunke is a Gannett veteran brought to USA Today, the chain's premiere position, after serving as chief executive officer of the Detroit Media Partnership and publisher of the Detroit Free Press. The company press release announcing his promotion to USAT stated that Hunke "is a highly talented, multi-faceted leader, who drives excellence throughout his organization while making the tough business decisions. At the same time, he has the courage to be innovative and take chances," the release quotes Craig Dubow, Gannett chairman, president and chief executive officer.

The new USA Today →
Less reporters, more Glenn Beck?

"Tough decisions" is usually newspaper talk for layoffs, rarely for radical rethinking of the products. But in this case, I do not doubt Hunke's commitment to electronic formats. But it does present a chicken or egg type of questions -- were the layoffs the result of a move away from print, or was the reorganization the result of the layoffs.

Most likely cuts had to be made to control costs and simultaneously there had to be a rethinking of strategy -- continuing the paper's current direction simply was not going to be acceptable. This April, pretty much coinciding with the one year anniversary of getting a new publisher, ABC reported that USAT circ had fallen a dramatic 13.58 percent. Hunke's most famous move in Detroit was to cut back on home delivery, giving you a clue as to whether the solution here would be innovation or slashing. Today we got the slashing.

If, and it is a big if, this move leads to USAT becoming a more aggressive player in mobile and tablet then it might be a good thing. But USAT is already one of the most popular news apps in iTunes and was one of the first to release an app for the iPad -- an app I've had since day one but never reviewed, why? Because while attractive, it is still USA Today -- and that, in the end, is where the paper's problems originate.

Imagine all print publications are gone, all that remains are mobile and online versions of the newspaper. What app do I open up to read the day's news? The New York Times, The Guardian, the Financial Times? or USA Today?

Back in the mid-nineties when publishing a monthly trade magazine for a Chicago area media firm I seemed to be on the road all the time, going to trade shows and seeing customers with my reps and editors. Every morning USA Today would be at my hotel room door, the only paper available most of the time. It was, for all intents and purposes, a monopoly -- much the way Gannett papers are in many towns. To read a Gannett newspaper is to read the Cliffs Notes version of the news.

But in a time when many people can get their news online or through their devices, every paper competes with every other -- location becomes less important for much of the news.

Mobile media and tablet publishing make it possible for almost anyone to publish, but it makes it nearly impossible for a company to sustain a dominate positions. The WSJ continues to show good numbers but it would be a mistake to automatically assume that it is doing everything right. Its unique position as the leader in financial information makes it an automatic read for many.

But if I want to know what is going on in Congress, or in Pakistan, I have a number of good choices -- and I will pick the publication that I think will do the best job. I suppose there will always be a place for someone who can give me a quick read, but is anything quicker that Google News? And that is who USA Today finds itself up against now, in addition to its traditional print competitors. On top of that every RSS reader out there has duplicated the USAT look and feel -- small boxes containing small snippets of news brought in by the wire services, or other newspapers. An RSS reader can look and feel like USA Today and contain some content from the New York Times -- even USAT can't do that.

Gannett owns more than old newspaper titles, so this company is not going away. But look at the corporate website -- it had to be designed in the nineties.  But let's try and not be too cynical, maybe Hunke and crew are serious about their move to mobile and tablet publishing, but not too good at articulating it in a way that doesn't scream reengineering. Right now all the mobile apps inside iTunes are from individual properties, typing "Gannett" into iTunes doesn't bring up an impressive array of apps. When the day comes when it does, then we will know they were serious about their commitment to modernizing.