At 30, USA Today gives itself first significant makeover

Thu Sep 13, 2012 3:01pm EDT

(Reuters) - When Gannett Co Inc introduced USA Today on September 15, 1982, it was ridiculed in newspaper circles, earning the derisive nickname "McPaper" for its short articles, big photos and devotion to graphics.

Now, USA Today's once-radical imprimatur can be seen in almost every newspaper in the United States. What was once unique has become ubiquitous.

That is why, in an effort to re-establish itself with readers and advertisers, USA Today will unveil on Friday its first major redesign since its launch 30 years ago.

"The only real criticism we got was that it was tired, stale, and hasn't changed," said USA Today's newly appointed president and publisher, Larry Kramer. He noted that the paper's brand is still strong among consumers. "People who might not even use it, they had a positive feeling about."

Among the changes to be unveiled on Friday: a new logo that morphs based on the day's most important news, and sharper color that will saturate more of its pages. The paper's website and digital products are also getting a makeover. It will be cleaner and sleeker, with a nod to tablet editions - a stark contrast to the current practice of many news websites, which is to cram stories and advertising onto a single page.

The changes will be more than cosmetic. Kramer, whom Gannett tapped in May, is known for his digital media chops, which include starting the online financial news site MarketWatch. Shortly after his appointment, Kramer named David Callaway, who headed up MarketWatch's newsroom, as USA Today's editor-in-chief.

In an interview with Reuters, Kramer said the big initiative will be to push for more original reporting, as opposed to relying on wire services to cover breaking news. He plans to use the budget and staff that he now has. Eventually the strategy to improve news production and distribution will be rolled out across the company's U.S. newsrooms of 5,000 employees.

"We are going to take the Gannett news operation ... and bring them under an umbrella that makes us share that content," Kramer said. "USA Today is the best of the news brands in the national scope of things."

Gannett has tried several times for a cohesive editorial strategy across its 23 broadcast TV stations and 82 newspapers in the United States, but those efforts never fully jelled. Among Gannett's other newspapers are the Arizona Republic and the Des Moines Register.

STIFF COMPETITION

Known as "The Nation's Newspaper," USA Today targets the average consumer with a populist bent and catches people mainly when they travel, owing to its widespread distribution in hotels and airports. But over the years it has faced stiff competition from the Wall Street Journal, which is delving into more mainstream news, the New York Times, and the many daily newspapers that are now easily available on smartphones and tablets.

"The Wall Street Journal is the nation's business newspaper and the New York Times is the nation's newspaper of record. USA Today doesn't have a clear identity," said Ken Doctor, an analyst with Outsell Research. "It's practically a spiritual crisis."

USA Today has a daily circulation of 1.8 million copies but three years ago lost its long-held perch as the largest daily newspaper in the United States to the Wall Street Journal, which includes paid digital subscriptions in its circulation count, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Gannett does not break out financial results for individual newspapers in its earnings, but national advertising makes up the bulk of USA Today's revenue, and that has been in a double-digit decline for several quarters. In the second quarter, for instance, Gannett reported that national advertising fell 17 percent.

"It's been under unmitigated revenue pressure for three years, to the point of which I asked the company three months ago, 'Why don't you go all-digital?'" said Doug Arthur, a long-time newspaper analyst with Evercore Partners, referring to USA Today.

Arthur thinks USA Today has a strong brand and foundation to relaunch, though it will be a "big challenge."

If going all-digital is really to happen - USA Today is printed at 37 plants - it will not be anytime soon, as Kramer said that paper is still very much a part of the current plan.

"The redesign of the paper is critical to everything that is going on," Kramer said. "It's the transition from a newspaper brand to a news brand."

(Reporting by Jennifer Saba in New York; editing by Peter Lauria and Matthew Lewis)

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