Changes at USAToday Highlight Hard Questions Facing Media Industry

Sep 07, 2010 - Krux Digital - 0
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A Perspective from Tom Chavez, CEO and co-founder of Krux

It’s rare for me to be riveted by news of a corporate re-org, but the latest twists and turns at USA Today are damn intriguing. Does the rest of the media industry understand its significance? USA Today just mutated. It’s too early to say for sure, but they might represent a whole new species that could survive for many years to come.

As they announced themselves:

“This significant restructuring reflects USA TODAY’s evolution from a newspaper company to a multi-platform media company,” said David L. Hunke, President and Publisher of USA TODAY. “When USA TODAY first launched in 1982, we led the news and information industry in aligning our content with readers and advertisers. I’m confident these key executive appointments in new and current departments will continue our legacy as a vital, valuable media brand across print, digital and mobile platforms.”

Before jumping in, let me just quickly say I’m not working with USA Today right now, though I was privileged to have them as a customer in the past. I don’t have any inside scoop or connection to key decision makers there. All I know is what I’ve read on the wires and in blogs.

The primary internal reaction to news of the re-org appears to have been shock and righteous indignation. Allen Neuharth, the paper’s founder, complained that if he were still there, he “would have led the entire news staff walking out in protest.” (This, and other comments by Mr. Neuharth, can be found in this article.) While I always calibrate my reading of internal blogs to the reality that that they’re a preferred congregation spot for malcontents and doomsayers, there seems to be plenty of sturm und drang by staffers as well. Many of them describe the move as a lame gambit by management to shake things up without a clear plan as to how they’re going to transform the company.

Any company undertaking a change as huge as this is going to face considerable resistance internally. Hidebound journalists are, after all, paid to investigate and critique and poke. But I think the USA Today team has made a very intelligent decision that could well establish a pattern for the rest of the industry. They looked down the current branch of the tree, and they saw death, destruction, utter doom. They saw another branch of the tree that’s more digital, more content-focused, more real-time, and I’d imagine they said to themselves, “Well, we can’t know exactly what’s down this other branch; it looks dicey, but extinction is no fun at all. Let’s take the plunge and pursue it.”

If you’re the USA Today, it seems hard to compete with the Wall Street Journal and New York Times on investigative reporting and deep content analysis. It takes all types, and much of USA Today’s core readership doesn’t want to read a 3,000-word in-depth analysis of the Pakistan problem. You go to the New York Times (and increasingly the Journal) for that. USA Today’s breakthrough innovation, in my view, was to energize print news with snappy colors, clever charts, and to-the-point stories. Bringing that design principle to digital and accelerating it to serve the needs of an increasingly plugged-in audience consuming content across mobile and other hand held devices – this just makes sense. Its execution could falter, but its conception is totally sound.

There are obvious lessons lurking here for other media companies. At the end of the day, investment needs to follow opportunity, not problems.

  • Are other big media companies investing towards a more data-driven, digital future, or are they funneling money into an unsustainable status quo?
  • Are they aligning their infrastructure capabilities to improve revenue across devices, content, commerce, and advertising opportunities?
  • Are they willing to take a look at bloated payrolls and perks that make executives feel good, but don’t improve results, or are they willing to swallow the bitter pill now?

There are many divergent views about the changes at USA Today specifically and what they portend for media in general (two can be found here and here). I, for one, am simply excited to be part of an industry that finds itself in the midst of such dramatic transformation.

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