Before USA Today became the nation’s largest newspaper, it was called McPaper. The daily’s colorful design and short McNuggets of content begged the comparison to a fast food version of the news. In 2007 when the paper celebrated its 25th anniversary, circulation hit 2.3 million and USA Today had out-grown the criticism. Other papers scrambled to replicate its punchy coverage, its use of color, its circulation and advertising success.
Today, the Wall Street Journal is the nation’s largest paper (circulation 2.09 million) and USA Today’s readership has shrunk to 1.83 million and its ad pages have dwindled by 50% since 2006. Struggling like everyone else in the media industry to reinvent itself, the Gannett flagship announced this week that it was laying off 130 people and reorganizing its operations to focus more on digital delivery and mobile applications.
In our interview with Jeff Webber, senior vice president and publisher of USAToday.com, he said that the entire company was becoming more digitally focused. He also talked about the “innovation group” that spends most of its time looking at the future and positioning the company to move in the right direction.
Obviously, USA Today has suffered the same challenges as the rest of print media, especially newspapers. Layoffs are certainly epidemic in the industry. Unlike The Tribune Company, however, Gannett and USA Today are still solvent and have decided that the right direction is mobility, making content portable and therefore creating a new revenue stream.
The Tribune’s thinking on a new direction leaked this week. A glossy, over-sized newspaper called Five Star will be offered at a $5 premium to Chicago Tribune subscribers on Sunday. The antithesis of portable and mobile, Five Star will feature long-form journalism on full broadsheet-sized paper stock and in multiple sections. The dummy that leaked to the press carried no ads.
This all has echoes of the high tech-high touch conversations we used to have in the early days of e-commerce. People will still like to go shopping. People will still want handcrafted items in a machine-made era. People will still want unique rather than mass.
One thing the explosion of digital media has taught us, however, is that it’s impossible to say what people will want. The only person with a good track record on predicting that is Steve Jobs. What people will certainly want is high quality content in multiple formats. Based on that, both the USA Today idea and the Tribune idea have merit. They exist at opposite ends of the spectrum and either or both may work.
There is something counter-intuitive but appealing about Five Star. It’s a risky move to go against the grain rather than with it, to go into a high quality print product when the rest of the world is moving to digital. It will be unfortunate if the Tribune’s idea fails because of the company’s financial situation (ref our interview with Greg Burns, senior business and economics correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and a member of its editorial board) rather than the successful execution of a format that returns the paper to its roots of in-depth coverage of Chicago.
Gannett has deeper pockets than the Tribune and a better track record with digital formats that should enable it to pull off what it intends. The question for USA Today is whether the portability factor will give them enough to sell to make up for the shortfall in every other part of their business model.