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July 29, 2014

The USA Today Redesign: Too Little, Too Early?

It’s hard to know what to make of the USA Today re-do. It touts itself as a re-imagining, which may be a bit hyperbolic. God only knows how much time people spent on the redesigned logo (must-read Romenesko on Gannett’s “Cool Balls” and their spiritual purpose). I think they could have saved a lot of time and money and shopped at Office Max. You can buy 1/2-inch Fluorescent Inventory Circle Labels online for only $6.49.  We’ve only seen the iPad and iPhone redesign versions so far — web version comes over the weekend  – but it’s underwhelming at this point, and reminds us that USA Today’s problems are way more than skin-deep ( I outlined those issues in June: “10 Snapshots on Larry Kramer’s USA Today”).

My guess: in a rush to do something to reverse the USAT’s flagging fortunes, Gannett and/or new publisher Larry Kramer decided to take one big public step. Change the look first — and then get to the deeper, underlying questions of identity, purpose, storytelling and content, all of  which are core issues with the aging product. (Yes, in the digital age, midlife crises start soon after you hit 30.) Looked at this way, the redesign is a platform. It’s a platform to do better content, to do state-of-the-art customization and to catch up with the video wave sweeping its peers (“The Newsonomics of Leapfrog Video“). Maybe, that’s what’s intended here, but here’s the rub. Tell everyone you’ve “re-imagined” the product, and they’ll try it out — again. If they arrive and still don’t feel newly compelled to come back, you’ll have a harder time getting them to come back for the next re-launch. Or, if there’s not a next relaunch, they may never find the storytelling improvements we believe Kramer and his people have planned.

Today, though, what do we find in the digital re-do, and let’s be clear, it’s the digital re-do, in the age of fast-declining newsprint, that matters most:

  • Pictures. Lots of pictures, and given smaller-than-desktop screen, size, lots of unidentified thumbnails, too small to be intriguing. We know lots of video is planned, and again the still platform may soon get some legs.
  • Graphics: On the left rail, the kinds of data and visualization that we’ve got to expect from USA Today. An appropriate Life snapsnot on the lower left of that page. Kramer has talked about customization — an absolute essential for weather, sports scores, travel, etc., but only the stock portfolio looks customizable at this point. Without customization, these widgets don’t do any more than what I can get in a hundred places. With it, they begin to combine my data in one place.
  • Content: The lead story, as I write, is “Middle East protests spread to more countries.” Really? If USA Today zigs, less well, as everyone else in the news world zigs, what’s the point of coming here? The content looks like the same content USA Today has always done, minus the differentiating “we-ness” of its headlines, while sometimes annoying and easy to satirize, at least made it unique. In fact, these versions — I haven’t yet seen the paper today — seem more generic, rather than less, than the old USAT.
  • Advertising: I’d have expected share-of-voice, sponsorship advertising to accompany a big splash like this. Big names sponsoring sections is a leading edge of digital ad revenue for news companies — old ones like the Journal and Times and new ones like Quartz (“The Newsonomics of Quartz’s Business Launch“). Yet, we only see bottom-of-the-page footer ads, and the widgets like “Markets” and “Airport Delays” — both highly sponsorable –don’t even have paid ads, but in-house ones for USA Today apps. This is a company that needs revenue. Again, it seems like a premature launch.

Let’s give Larry Kramer the benefit of the design doubt. He and his new crew must have a number of tricks up their sleeve. Gannett has talked about marshalling the forces of 5000-strong company for stories and video. That’s a synergistic approach on which many big company failed plans have been built. Technologies will make it easier to move content around and present it quickly, though legacy cultures and resource constraints will complicate the work. Still Gannett’s 82 newspapers will be an awkward source of national content, given their smaller community markets. Gannett’s 23 TV stations, on the other hand, could provide a more useful supply of bigger city news, if the content can be efficiently grabbed and in a timely way.

Content, and video content, is one thing. Identity — why anyone should turn to USA Today in a sea of digital choices? — is another. The paper was born in Reagan’s ’80s, its sunny “We’re Going on Vacation” headlines reflecting its time. If it’s still morning in America, it’s way too cloudy to tell.

Al Neuharth built a populist paper, one matched to its time. Now in the take-no-prisoners time of polarized political debate — and the clear sense among too many that we’re not all in this together, the “we” being a talking point and not a reality — it is out of touch. It may have, as a smart analyst suggested to me today, a CNN-like problem, occupying a middle that no longer exists; yet it doesn’t even offer up enough of the deeper journalism of a CNN.

USA Today will soon be the only Gannett daily without a digital circulation plan. It will be the only national daily without  digital circulation plan. That means that unless it creates a breakout product for audiences — to bring in more premium-paying advertisers — its survival strategy is in doubt. Today’s launch may be a step in a new direction, but it’s a small one.

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