Eight weeks ago, USA Today announced some impending layoffs and promised what Publisher Dave Hunke called a “pretty radical” restructuring. Now some of the changes are rolling out, and they are indeed big ones.
In essence, USA Today is disassembling its universal desk and a five-year effort at newsroom integration. That worked well as an interim step, Hunke told me over lunch Wednesday, but needs to be replaced with “editing hubs by platform.”
Hunke said the company won’t be able to take advantage of mobile and tablet opportunities unless offerings are designed and edited to match the unique characteristics and markets in both booming new-media device categories.
In addition, USA Today has eliminated several managing editor jobs and will be organizing around “15 distinct content areas,” Hunke said, like travel, personal finance and personal technology. Each will have its own top editor and a dedicated general manager to develop so-called “vertical” advertising and other revenue opportunities.
Hunke presented the outline of the plan to 1,500 USA Today staff members Tuesday and in remarks at the opening session of the Associated Press Managing Editors association at Poynter on Wednesday afternoon.
The big advantage of the new approach, Hunke said, is that USA Today will be able to focus on growth opportunities both by platform and subject matter. Absent such basic change, USA Today would “continue to scrape and move” material from print and its website to mobile and tablet platforms, where they are a clumsy fit at best.
Hunke offered two big qualifiers: The restructuring builds on earlier USA Today new media efforts and will phase in briskly but not instantaneously. He also thinks all this can be done with minimal damage to the print newspaper, which will continue to provide the biggest share of revenues (though little of the growth) for years to come.
Some examples of the coming changes have been announced in recent weeks and months:
- USA Today sports has been reconstituted as a separate business unit with a manager promoted from the company’s successful BNQT action sports site.
- Travel coverage has been expanded to include outsourced, generic how-to-content, provided by Demand Media, with the two splitting resulting ad revenue.
- Earlier this week, the paper formed an investigative unit with four reporters and an editor. Over time, Hunke said, their projects will increasingly include a database component, which will enable readers to search to localize a report on prosecutorial misfeasance or toxic school buildings.
Part of the lengthy internal research that led to the changes, Hunke said, was a conclusion that USA Today and other newspapers may have gotten off track trying to woo young audiences or women with a something-for-everyone approach. He has concluded that the print edition should now mainly target an older, general news audience, who favor a traditional presentation.
By contrast, Hunke said, early data on digital tablet buyers indicate that they skew 10 to 15 years younger than the typical print reader. That suggests both a different style of presentation and a different content mix.
Hunke conceded (as did AP President Tom Curley in a separate interview) that a lucrative advertising model for mobile hasn’t emerged yet. Hunke added, “Apple has some stunning prototypes for what they call iAds, but few people have even seen any of them yet.”
The extreme makeover in progress at USA Today is second in a series for Hunke. He was the architect of Gannett’s plan to reduce home delivery of the two Detroit papers, which were on a course to lose money indefinitely and were being chewed up by huge, fixed manufacturing and distribution costs. The plan ramped up digital development and headed off further deep cuts in editorial.
While he moved on to USA Today before the execution phase, Hunke said that careful preparation and consultation with advertisers allowed the papers to retain 93 percent of that business for the three days on which broadsheets are still published and delivered.
USA Today’s circumstances are not as dire, he said, but again this plan involves “moving our capital around” from the traditional manufacturing model to big investments in new platforms and topic-based businesses.
Most of the industry trails USA Today and others by years in the integration of print, website and other digital ventures. If some of the pioneers are moving on to something else, their “explorations,” as Hunke put it, will be carefully watched.