USAT: It's (About) Time for the Next Re-Invention
You remember USA Today’s innovation? In 1982, it zagged when others were zigging. The brilliance of Al Neuharth’s vision was several-fold:
- Most importantly, it focused on audience. An audience not attached to any particular local geography, but one found, yet on the move, across the broad USA geography. I remember hearing the number: about two million Americans traveling each day. Now, that’s an un-served audience (recall that this was not only pre-Internet, but pre-wide-scale availability of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal in print in many cities). And an under-served market for advertisers.
- It recognized that the reading needs of that audience — quick out the door, on to the next appointment — were differing ones. Born: quick-read, no-jump daily journalism.
- It announced its areas of focus — News, Sports, Money, Life — boldly and colorfully, in a sense, creating sub-brands.
- It saw that distribution was king. The ability to get your paper to travelers, at hotels, airports and the like, innovated a new approach to newspaper sales.
So, in that light, today’s announcement that the USA Today is falling on its own grenade, blowing itself up, absorbing casualties (130 layoffs) and taking an increasingly familiar digital-first, print-last path makes historic sense.
In the reinvention language used by USA Today publisher Dave Hunke, we hear echoes of that first invention. “Audience” is repeated over and over again. Taking content to readers wherever they are, on mobile platforms (ironic for the first travelin’ newspaper, right?), “content rings” that will presumably be organized around sub-brands, and, of course, a distribution strategy that is updated for 2011 — access everywhere on any device, but mobile being the most prominent.
It would be easy to cynically say that if ever there was a newspaper that should have seen how to reinvent itself, it should have been USA Today. But that’s too simplistic. USA Today, like all dailies, has been a victim of its own success. Forsaking the past — slowly over time, milking revenue from print as long as it lasts — is tough for any incumbent business, as Clayton Christensen‘s landmark writings pointed out it seems an eon ago.
Better to mark another day in which a publisher is acting on the plain truths of the marketplace and of the audiences, and trying to reinvent itself. We’ve heard the Journal Register’s new CEO John Paton and TBD’s Steve Buttry talk digital-first; now what’s been the largest print paper in the USA is taking the plunge. That’s newsy and symbolic of how fast things are now beginning to change.
In business, it’s a strong recognition — finally — that the print business will never come back and is in fact dwindling faster, and that audience and revenue growth is there to be had, but it’s almost entirely digital.
Gannett’s been testing many of the concepts in the USA re-do since 2006, when it first announced its Seven Desks initiative throughout the company (though, USA Today, as a division separate from the community dailies, always followed its own drumbeat). Crowdsourcing. Community engagement. Mobile. All catchwords used and unevenly implemented across the Gannett landscape.
For USA Today, it’s of course about execution now, but also about competition. My sense is that it will build out the topics it is most know for and best excels at: Sports, Travel, Health, Personal Finance, Personal Technology. In each of those “verticals,” though it will face fierce competition for top-of-mind recognition, and ad dollars. From ESPN to Engadget, there are many digital source that are better known to enthusiasts.
It’s uphill, but it will be a new adventure. Wonder what Al Neuharth is thinking today?