Typically when a newspaper announces it will be cutting about nine percent of its staff and around 130 jobs in total, it would be another sad day for what some see as a dying industry.
But this is different.
By morphing from a print-centric newspaper company to a multi-platform media company, the USA Today may just be revealing a blueprint for the rest of the media world to follow to economic viability in this changing world of news consumption, with unfortunately some loyal employees shed along the way.
The old way wasn’t working. Ad revenue for the USA Today declined by 29 percent in 2009, according to The Wall Street Journal, and then by another 11 percent in the first quarter this year. The number of ad pages in the paper declined by 3.7 percent in the second quarter.
The paper’s circulation has been dropping as well, declining by about 500,000 subscribers in the past three years, according to NPR.
However, according to an internal slide show presented to USA Today employees, USAToday.com is seeing continued growth with a 15 percent increase in unique visitors since the start of 2010; mobile downloads, meanwhile, are up by 2.2 million and 71 percent in 2010.
So instead of mourning the loss of subscribers and print advertising revenue, USA Today has decided to make a full throttle push at beefing up its online and mobile editions, a path that many media companies may follow if it proves successful.
“This is pretty radical,” USA Today publisher Dave Hunke told The Associated Press. “This gets us ready for our next quarter century.”
The aforementioned slide show beings with the old W. Edwards Deming quote, “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” And so it is in the newspaper industry today.
According to the slide show, the paper also aims to go from being protective of its turf to readily sharing resources, from a limited view of metrics to a keen awareness of metrics and from innovative on occasion to organized for innovation. In each way, the paper is transforming from the old-school newspaper view to the new-school digital-based view.
Along the way, the paper has adjusted its hierarchy from a traditional newspaper setting with separate desk editors to a unit divided into 13 content rings.
The irony of the newspaper crisis of the past few years has always been that although fewer and fewer people are reading newspapers, more and more people are consuming media; they’re just doing it in a different format. Whereas the local paper as well as national papers such as the USA Today used to be a staple for many families, people are now consuming their media online and on the go via mobile apps.
If USA Today and other media organizations are going to survive, they need to be efficient with their resources and focus them in the areas that will attract the most eyeballs and, ultimately, the most revenue. It does not take the sophisticated analysis that the USA Today did of the market to determine that those resources should be shifted from the print side to mobile and web content development while putting more of a focus on packages that play well in those mediums.
Gannett has been known to be very formulaic across the many news organizations it owns, so I have to think that this is only the beginning. Here locally in Arizona we have seen The Arizona Republic, another Gannett paper, place an increased emphasis on optimizing its articles for the search engines, and I would not be surprised to see the newsrooms of papers like The Republic re-organized in what Gannett sees as being a more profitable way.
The past few years the big question in the journalism industry has been, “How can we survive?” On that count, it remains to be seen if the digital and mobile markets can replace the revenue that has been lost and will continue to be lost in print.
But USA Today understood it was fighting a battle it could not win by attacking the daily news cycle in a traditional print-centric way, so adapting to the times by focusing on online and mobile could be the only way for it to survive.