September 15, 2016

DENVER — Don’t expect the country’s biggest newspaper publisher to ignore the tectonic shift toward video.

The USA Today Network (neé Gannett) has made moves in recent months to turn its sprawling empire of more than 100 local media organizations into a single, cohesive whole — and video is a central part of that strategy.

Late last year, it hired Joanne Lipman, the founding editor in chief of Condé Nast Portfolio, to serve as chief content officer for the company’s newly-rebranded network. Chris Davis, an investigative editor formerly of the Tampa Bay Times who’s shepherded Pulitzer Prize-winning projects to completion, joined this summer to coordinate deep dives across the country.

And on Wednesday, the network tapped Russ Torres, the former head of Yahoo Studios, to lead its video efforts. His hire is part of a plan to encourage the company’s corps of nearly 4,000 journalists to meet the ever-increasing industry-wide demand for video. (Disclosure: Poynter has a training partnership with Gannett)

In doing so, USA Today Network will grapple with the same challenge that every news organization with legacy roots has to reckon with: Transforming what have long been text-first newsrooms into dynamos for online video that can be sold to advertisers at higher rates. Many newspaper companies, including Tronc (formerly Tribune Publishing) McClatchy and Digital First Media have also sought to instill a video-first culture across their properties, but they face stiff competition from video-savvy outlets including BuzzFeed, Vox Media and CNN.

Torres, 47, will begin his tenure with a 90-day analysis of USA Today Network’s video capabilities. But he and Lipman already have a few ideas about how the company can double down on its commitment to video.

Don’t let up

USA Today Network isn’t new to the video game. On average, the company produces 4,000 videos across its owned and operated channels each month. Last year, it garnered 866 million video views across the network, and it’s projecting a 38 percent increase this year.

A fair amount of the video production happens in an Atlanta-based video production center staffed by about 15 employees. But there’s also collaboration across the company’s various properties — a recent video from Mississippi’s Clarion-Ledger that unspooled an investigation into an accused murderer was published on USA Today’s main site. That kind of sharing across multiple properties will be increasingly central to USA Today Network’s strategy going forward, Lipman said.

“Since the dawn of the network last September, USA Today has a pretty substantial video presence already,” she said.

Change the culture

One key to increasing video throughout USA Today properties will be making traditional print reporters more comfortable with the medium, Torres said. He called the cultural clashes between text-minded journalists and their video-focused colleagues “the elephant in the room,” an obstacle that has to be surmounted for the company to be successful.

“There is always tension in the newsroom between different content types no matter what newsroom you’re in,” Torres said. “But I do think reporters see and have a healthy respect for video as a medium. They see it as a compliment for much of what they’re doing in their newsrooms and how people are consuming media.”

Figure out a social strategy

By now, many publishers are grappling with a huge dilemma: Whether to publish content on their own websites (which have traditionally been easier to make money from) or post their content directly to social media networks like Facebook, where much of their audiences are. Torres has yet to formulate a video strategy, but he cautioned against publishing on social media to the exclusion of the company’s own properties.

“You have to be directing them back to your network for a fuller, more enriched experience, a more in-depth experience, satisfying their appetite for curiosity and serendipity,” he said.

At the same time, he said, journalists have to be on platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat to find new viewers.

“I have a lot of mixed feelings,” he said. “I believe that you have to be able to walk, chew gum and sing at the same time. You have to have your finger in every pot, your toe in every pond. But at the same time, you are a business. You have to understand that most of the revenue generation seems to be on network for publishers.”

USA Today for Netflix?

As more and more video consumption goes to on-demand platforms like Netflix, Roku, Hulu and Amazon, it’s impossible to ignore those platforms, Lipman said. Stories like “Gone,” which are deeply reported and emotionally resonant, could be fodder for these so-called “over-the-top” platforms.

“Our audience appreciates and loves our content, but we need to be in front of them in the right way,” she said. “And we have the kind of stories that make sense for that.”

Don’t rehash TV news

At the same time, the USA Today Network won’t be trying to copy television news when it tries to make stories for the web. They’re different mediums with different opportunities and different expectations from viewers, Lipman said.

“Our digital video is not television,” she said. “I think that’s the biggest mistake we’ve seen from old media. I think a lot of media properties across the industry started out by trying to make television-style video for a different audience. And it’s a totally separate product and you have to approach it in its own way.”

Get in lock-step

One of the first steps Torres will take is making sure video content from across the USA Today Network feels of a piece, with uniform branding and comparable quality, he said.

“I think it’s important to make sure that when people see it, they know it’s from USA Today,” he said. “So consistency of offer, consistency of look and feel and best in breed across all of our platforms.”

Go live for the right reasons

Live video is all the rage right now, in part because monolithic social networks like Facebook emphasize it in their News Feeds. But USA Today — and publishers in general — shouldn’t invest in frivolous live content just to meet the growing demand, Torres said. Instead, they’ll use live where it makes sense, for topics like breaking news and sports.

“We have to have deeper, more strategic conversations about our level of investment, specifically in live,” Torres said. “Do you build up a live infrastructure when live only satisfies a few things, like sporting events or breaking news? Those things have a shelf life. Outside of that, most people will consume live content on what you call (video on demand).”

Correction: A previous version of this story provided an incorrect tally of the brands in the USA Today Network.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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