Digital USA Today – No Way

If everyone knows that the future is digital, then why doesn’t everyone know how to create content for the digital future?

The latest casualty appears to be Gannett’s USA Today where a decision was made last week to cut the work force by 9% on news of declining ad revenues and circulation.

USA Today used to be number one in paid circulation but now News Corp’s The Wall Street Journal has surpassed it with 2.2 million daily readers.

Wait a minute.

Is that the same Wall Street Journal owned by Rupert Murdoch who loves printed newspapers and who is forcing paywalls onto his print operations?

Funny about that.

Whether you agree with Murdoch’s politics or his style, he’s shrewd.

The ultra competitive Murdoch is now trying to rub it in the face of Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the New York Times publisher who has successfully grown the local New York paper into a position of national prominence. Take note that Murdoch is doing a monthly Wall Street Journal Magazine to compete with The Sunday Times Magazine (at least their advertisers), a local city section to get in Sulzberger’s New York business as Murdoch pontificates about paywalls for the digital world.

My take is that Murdoch is using the paywall to keep subscribers paying for print publications. It’s a strategy not to give away the printed content online. That’s all well and good but Murdoch is not likely to be viable in the future with any of his brands if he cannot sell them to young consumers who don’t even use newspapers to wrap their fish. I don’t think they even eat fish – yet.

Along comes unpopular USA Today Publisher David Hunke who in July ticked his real journalists off when he wrapped the front section covering up the biggest stories in an ad purchased by Jeep.

I love what Neuharth said in The New York Times:

“If such a stupid decision is ever made again, I hope that will be the result. That would leave those who apparently don’t understand what a newspaper is to try to put one out without a news staff.”

So, USA Today is now spinning its failure to create and deliver content to its former audience in numbers that it used to deliver as a call to the digital future.

USA Today says it will now focus on its digital operations and will feature breaking news on its website. Hunke is so clueless, in my opinion, that he actually said that the new online USA Today will aim to post articles of breaking news within 30 minutes of happening.

All together now -- because I’d like to think that my readers know better -- what is wrong with his brag?

Of course, USA Today will be about 29 minutes too late. Twitter is faster for getting the word out. Facebook can do it quickly.

This serves as a great teaching point about why traditional media – not just those klutzes we know and love in music and radio – don’t get it.

Let me spell it out:

1. USA Today was called “The USA in an entirely different way” when it was launched. In color, in sections, inclusive of news from all 50 states, short articles before anyone ever heard of ADD. How does it live up to its mission in its latest digital iteration when any competitor can do the same thing?

2. USA Today was a great paper for under the hotel room door or on the airplane before takeoff. They knew it and developed lots of stories about travel and aviation. Tell me again how covering breaking news online with everyone else in the world will make USA Today be born again? Of course if that's all there is, it will fail.

3. The iPad is the new TV, radio, newspaper, magazine, record store – you get the point. Content must be optimized for the iPad or that content is not likely to find its audience in this growth sector.

4. And, content must be unique, compelling and addictive or else why would anyone need it? I believe in free and also in paid, but if you want readers to pay for digital newspapers, they had better offer something not easily delivered by their competitors. Michael Bloomberg, in my view, gets little credit for how smart he really is. Way back in the day he sold specialized information to business clients that needed his computer terminals. To this day, Bloomberg is a leader in creating great content and delivering it in relevant ways. NPR is another.

Why does this matter?

The digital frontier is not a fallback position for failed traditional media companies.

It encompasses a new set of rules and standards that are separate and apart from traditional media.

For example, and bear with me on this fantasy here …

• Radio will one day be delivered in “shows” ranging from minutes to hours on the delivery system of the day which so far looks like the iPad. They will be heard on-demand. No more morning drive. A listeners “morning drive” will be whenever they want it to be.

• Audio, video and text will be included in every communication so there will really be no radio, TV or newspaper anymore. It will grow into a hybrid.

• Music discovery will be done by consumers who become the new age disc jockeys transferring files to friends and recommending new acts. This isn’t so bad. There will still be a demand to own the music once it has been consumer-tested. However, you can see that record labels do not believe my last sentence.

The only reason all of this hasn’t come to fruition right now is because technology has not caught up (like in seamless WiFi) and royalty rules (as in fair priced licensing to streamers and mobile content providers) so it is acting as a deterrent.

Maybe that’s good because executive management hasn’t caught up or caught on, either which is why you and I have a better chance of succeeding with a new age digital business than the traditional media companies who have access to all the money.

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