USA Today gets serious about going digital
Second only to the Wall Street Journal in circulation, USA Today announced this week a major shift from print centrality towards a digital platform focus. The Journal surpassed USA Today last year in part because their figures include paid-for, online subscribers.
The Gannett paper has always has a strong web presence. USA Today Online launched way back in 1995, and put out a stand-alone Tech section in 2001. Old school, to be sure. It has not, however, truly focused its digital mission until this week. The rapid strategic shift of the 28-year old newspaper seemed to catch everyone off-balance, including USA Today's own Manager of Social Media & Digital Partnerships Brian Dresher, who responded this morning to a question about it all by tweeting: "Just getting up to speed on all the new changes myself!"
All well and good (averted gaze), but USA Today has lost nearly a half-million readers since 2007. USA Today's year-end circulation in 2007 -- its high point -- was 2,289,872 (in 2008 it was 2,255,294; in 2009, 1,902,476). In early 1987 -- back in the good old days -- USA Today had 3,484 ad pages, finishing second among newsweeklies and business magazines. Those days, at least at present, seem far behind us. In 2009 ad revenue declined 29% and ad revenue decreased 11% in the first quarter of 2010.
USA Today's app downloads, however, have been from the start impressive. USA Today's iPad app has been downloaded more than 800,000 times since April, when it made its debut. For how much longer, one cannot help but ask, will USA Today's iApp remain free? The advertising demand, thus far, has been strong (even in the adverse conditions of this recession). Mobile advertising is also growing. In his second-quarter earnings call in July, Gannett CEO Craig Dubow said that the company's iPad app for USA Today would remain free-of-charge and ad-supported at least through the beginning of July because of an exclusive sponsorship deal with their launch partner, Courtyard by Marriott. That sponsorship ended over a month ago -- and yet we still still no word on whether or not the Gannett company will turn the app into a subscription product.
Social media-wise, USA Today could stand to step up its game a touch. Their Twitter presence, at 66,670 Followers -- contrast that that with the Wall Street Journal's 403,526 -- is not particularly strong the widest circulated print newspaper in the United States. USA Today has also ventured into social media. Recently they held a contest to promote their readers' favorite charity via retweets in the USA Today Kindness Community.
Founded in 1982, the rainbow-bright national "McPaper" set the publishing world on ablaze as the first coast-to-coast newspaper that, as Time magazine said at the time, "reported widely but without much depth." Still, the paper was an immediate hit with a circulation of over a million readers within three years of publishing. The question now facing USA Today is whether it will sink or swim in this new digital landscape. The markets, apparently, liked the abrupt change in structure. At post time Gannett is trading up nearly 2 percent.