March 15, 2016

“We’ve come a long way fast.” Joanne Lipman said of the USA TODAY Network she has been directing for the last three months.

As if to prove her a woman of her word, three upcoming developments Lipman told me about in a phone interview last Wednesday have since been announced — a virtual reality news show, a branded content studio, and a collaborative report with the Knight Foundation on VR storytelling.

Also last week, USA TODAY Network won the Scripps Howard Award for Public Service Reporting for coverage of 200 minimally regulated, hazardous bio-laboratories and the potential danger they pose to public health.

There have been several other high-impact national investigations in the months since, and Lipman said more are in the pipeline.

I also attach significance to Lipman’s hire — a break with the old Gannett practice of mostly promoting from within to top editorial and business jobs. (Former Time executive Daniel Bernard was named chief product officer at the same time).

Lipman joined The Wall Street Journal as a reporter right out of college in 1983 and rose quickly through the ranks to Page One editor then deputy managing editor. She was the founding editor of Weekend Journal and later founding editor-in-chief of Conde Nast’s Portfolio magazine, an ambitious business publication that folded after two years in 2009, a victim of the financial collapse.

Since then Lipman has been consulting and has written two books — one on an inspiring music teacher and another, to be published next year, on what men need to know about women in the workplace.

What did it take, I asked, to lure a New York publishing lifer to Gannett’s McLean, Virginia, headquarters?

“The draw was the USA TODAY Network,” Lipman replied, which she said she could see was “greater than the sum of its parts…I’ve always liked working with a fire hose of content and trying to give it structure. As far as I’m concerned, I have the best job in journalism.”

Putting USA TODAY and Gannett’s 92 regional papers (soon to be 105) together, Lipman said, creates the largest local-to-national news organization in the country with 3,100 reporters, editors and other news professionals.

When Gannett spun off from the broadcast company that became TEGNA last June, the push for pooled effort on national investigations was ready to roll out. Besides the biolabs story, the network did nationwide investigations of the number of untested rape kits and small aircraft dangers last year.

The most recent high-profile project, which looked at teachers dismissed for sexual misconduct who then turn up reemployed in other states, takes the process a step further.

“What’s different is that the teachers investigation involved all 93 papers. It ran in print and online in all of them. It involved a year gathering and analyzing data, and then we went out and did shoe-leather reporting too. Each paper did an additional story localizing what we found.”

That will be the prototype for such projects going forward, she said.

Building out the network also has involved finding opportunities for regular daily coverage. For instance, two reporters at Gannett’s Tennessean provided the network’s coverage of the Erin Andrews trial in Nashville. And Gannett’s cluster of Wisconsin properties has been producing a daily newsletter related to the “Making a Murderer” Netflix documentary series.

The network is covering the latest round of primaries with a USA TODAY reporter in Illinois and political at various regional papers in the other four states.

As I wrote in December, a rebranding effort is at play too. Gannett will remain the name of the parent company. But the regional paper — and the 12 soon to be added with the acquisition of Journal Media — are now described as USA TODAY network properties with no reference to a Gannett affiliation.

The Gannett name is a positive with investors, Lipman said, “but we found it did not mean as much to consumers or advertisers.”

This current generation of changes was made possible by earlier ones. Gannett CEO Bob Dickey and the USA TODAY publisher-editor team of Larry Kramer and Dave Callaway hatched a plan four years ago to put re-edited sections of USA TODAY into larger regional papers. Gannett also devoted years of investment into building a uniform content management system.

“I didn’t know until I got here,” Lipman added, “that Gannett is also way ahead on virtual reality.” With the Des Moines Register, the company last year won the first National Press Foundation technology award for two VR projects. Mark Zuckerberg has also several times cited another project on the Blue Angels air show as illustrating the potential of the new medium.

I don’t want to sound giddy about content at Gannett and USA TODAY, where newsrooms and story counts have been dwindling for years.

But I do think Lipman’s track record together with the run of strong investigative pieces are highly hopeful signs. And if Mark Zuckerberg thinks their VR productions are state-of-the-art, who am I to disagree?

Editor’s note: Poynter has a corporate training partnership with Gannett.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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