USA TODAY Considering a Digital Future After 30 Years of Print Success

Article ImageWith its generous use of color and graphics-and its emphasis on shorter news stories-USA TODAY, the self-described "nation's newspaper," made a big splash when it stepped onto the national news scene 30 years ago in September 1982.

"USA TODAY sort of imagined what web publishing, web content would look like before we knew there was going to be a web," says Alan D. Mutter, a consultant specializing in corporate initiatives and new media ventures involving journalism and technology.

"The articles were much shorter; it was much more graphic [oriented] and they used pictures or graphics wherever they could to tell a story," adds Mutter, a former columnist and editor at The Chicago Daily News who later worked as city editor of the Chicago Sun-Times and was an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. "They weren't the first to write things short and breezy; they weren't the first paper to use graphics, but the overall look and feel of the newspaper was distinctly different than what you'd get in a typical market."

According to Mutter, USA TODAY was designed for a reader who wanted to know what was going on in the world but who didn't want to go into great depth. "This was highly unusual. When you think about modern publishing and web publishing most of the articles tend to be short and to the point and not a lot of yada, yada," he says.

John K. Hartman, professor of journalism at Central Michigan University, observes, "USA TODAY showed the newspaper industry how to appeal to more television-oriented younger adults by having less of a hard-news edge and covering subjects people were interested in like sports and entertainment rather than what editors thought folks should be interested in: hard news. It forced other newspapers to be more interesting and more attractive to the eye and thus saved many of them from extinction."

Yet, these days, the McLean, Va.-based USA TODAY, published by Gannett Co., could be on the verge of extinction, according to Hartman, who is the author of The USA TODAY Way, The USA TODAY Way 2: The Future, and the recent Editor & Publisher piece, "USA Today Is Turning 30, in Danger of ‘Marking 30.'"
"More likely, USA Today will be shuttered in the next three years, a product of the collective turning away from print and from the concept of being fully informed about national issues (even sports and entertainment) that has swept the country," writes Hartman in his Editor & Publisher story, which was published online in September.

Hartman says that USA Today "has lost both advertising and paying readership in recent years, similar to what has happened to most large newspapers." Its news content is offered online for free.

Though he believes the physical paper could be heading toward extinction, does Hartman think it's still possible for USA TODAY to thrive digitally?

"Online is still a loser for most newspapers with [the] exception of The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, who have online content that is essential for decision-makers and influential people and hence they will pay," Hartman explains. "USA TODAY's new leaders are web-centric and experienced [in] attracting the business audience, but have no track record attracting a general audience. To make money online they must develop ‘must read' content for decision-makers and influentials. I see that happening only if they hire big-name journalists and writers and some celebrity writers, which they do not seem committed to doing."

According to Hartman, for the last 2 decades, USA TODAY has put out "quality journalism, but not compelling, indispensable journalism like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal."

Hartman is blunter in his Editor & Publisher piece when he says, "USA Today cannot charge for its website, because it offers little unique content for which people are willing to pay."

Hartman also believes that USA TODAY should go out of its way to let readers know that its website is free. "Promote the fact that your website is free, in contrast to your competitors' sites. Be different, like you were 30 years ago," he writes.

Historically, the printed USA TODAY has been geared toward business travelers; however, that audience seems to be vanishing since many of those individuals have no use for a physical newspaper.

"I think the print product itself is something of an anachronism especially given that its market is the sophisticated, wired, reasonably high compensated business traveler-those are the last people that are going to sit around [these days] reading a newspaper," adds Mutter. "I think that the long-term cultural trends suggest that the print edition is highly unlikely to make another 30 years." Hartman feels the business traveler market for USA TODAY is "declining but not drying up."

According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, USA TODAY is the No. 2 paper in the nation in terms of total average circulation (1,817,446), trailing only The Wall Street Journal (2,118,315).

Yet, despite its heavy presence in print, USA TODAY's website was just 15th among top news sites in terms of average monthly unique visitors in 2011 with 9,239, according to Nielsen; Yahoo! News took the top spot with 39,042.

In terms of its future, Mutter thinks the publication needs to decide what digital platforms it's going to concentrate on in order to succeed. "Are they going to work on being really smart in the mobile area? Are they going to create specialized iPad apps?" he wonders.

This past September, USA TODAY celebrated its big birthday by rolling out a new look for its newspaper, website, and mobile apps. Since that unveiling, "USA TODAY has stepped up the enterprise and investigative reporting and that creates value and becomes ‘must read,'" says Hartman. But with competitors such as Newsweek announcing their all-digital plans for 2013, it remains to be seen whether or not USA TODAY's digital strategy is too little too late.