Is USA Today okay?
6 min read

Is USA Today okay?

A recent advertising gimmick suggests deeper cause for concern.
Is USA Today okay?

A song to read by: "Todo Terminó," by Juan Wauters

What I'm reading: "The Wretched of the Earth," by Frantz Fanon

Aliens in the A1

Last Friday, USA Today covered the front page of its print edition with a fake photograph and a headline that read: “Hybrid babies born across the US.” It quickly came to light that the gimmick was a paid advertisement from Netflix to promote a new show, called “Sweet Tooth.”

The journalism world can rarely agree about anything, but using the front page of the most widely circulated newspaper in the country as a billboard seemed to do the trick. It hit the outrage sweet-spot, ticking off just about every faction in the media world, thanks to its questionable ethics, blatant financial thirst, and general lack of inventiveness.

When I saw it though, it spurred a different emotion.

I was instantly reminded of my time working as the editor-in-chief of Study Breaks, the Austin-based magazine I ran for three and a half years. Throughout the entirety of my tenure with the publication, Study Breaks was hounded by financial troubles.

Our inability to generate substantial revenue, despite our millions of readers and virtually non-existent overhead, essentially led me to graduate school. I was so beside myself trying to figure out how to make media make money that I went back to school to study it.

While I was editor, the founder of the publication, my boss, was constantly trying to figure out how to make the magazine profitable, though he was understandably far more interested in quick solutions than multi-year reinventions. Like clockwork, once a week he would burst into the office and regale us with his latest scheme for making money.

(I should note that I loved my boss, and if I were him I would have been doing the same thing. When your business is tanking, you want someone firing off ideas for how to fix it, rather than sitting around doing nothing.)

One of his ideas was to “sell the cover,” a dubious proposition for a number of reasons too logistical to get into. Long story short, after much back and forth, we ended up selling the cover of the magazine, in a few markets, at least twice.

We charged an arm and a leg for it, and in return the advertiser only got a small stamp of their logo on the cover of the magazine. But I still felt embarrassed that we had so obviously and visibly ceded editorial independence to the whims of our financial needs.

So, when I saw the USA Today front page, instead of lampooning the decision, I felt a pang of empathy: I know the situation they must be in.

No one makes a decision to turn their front page into an advertising spot unless they really need the money. I am sure Netflix signed an enormous check, and I am positive that it helped prop up the monthly balance sheet, but I imagine next to no one at USA Today will remember the stunt proudly. In fact, I would bet that every employee involved in producing the advertisement cursed the situation under their breath.

A look at the finances of USA Today’s parent company, Gannett, reinforces this theory.

On planet Gannett

Gannett was acquired by Gate House Media in 2019, though the new super-publisher kept the Gannett name. Between the two, Gannett now owns and operates 250 newspapers across the country, about a fifth of all newspapers, making it the largest news publisher by a healthy margin.

USA Today was and is the crown jewel of the Gannett empire, but its prominence is fading fast. More than most, USA Today represents everything that no longer works in journalism: it offers view-from-nowhere reporting, ostensibly covering national news but doing so in bite-sized pieces.

The publication grew in renown by making news a commodity — no matter where you were or who you were, a USA Today would catch you up to speed on the need-to-know news of the day — but the internet has long diminished the need for such a utility.

In its defense, if USA Today has fallen behind the times, it has only been mimicking the example of its parent company, which despite its budget and reach has been far outstripped by its peers.

Gannett made waves in April when it finally began implementing a paywall on its website, several years after most for-profit publishers of similar scale adopted the practice.

And more than most publishers, Gannett has been loath to abandon print advertising, a misguided business decision that made the pandemic doubly painful for its bottom line.

From Poynter:

“Reporting first-quarter 2021 results, the company said that audience revenues on a same property basis were down 12.9% compared to the same quarter a year ago. Print advertising was down 24.9% and digital advertising and marketing service revenues off 10.4%.”

The publisher has 1.2 digital subscribers, though that number comes as an aggregate of its hundreds of local publications. CEO Mike Reed has said the company intends to reach 10 million subscribers in the next five years. In an interview, he compared his ambitions to those of The New York Times, a comparison that is either dripping in hubris or propped up by naivety. Either way, it’s unsettling.

The New York Times has reached its nearly 8 million digital subscribers by, first, implementing a paywall nine years ago and, more importantly, investing in and producing some of the most important journalism of the decade. Reed sees similarities in readership sizes, but the two share almost nothing else in common.

Running the Gannett

There are other signs of discontent at the publisher.

A pay equity study released in April embarrassed the company, though Gannett representatives pointed out that the study analyzed only 14 of its nearly 250 newsrooms. Nonetheless, even if the numbers are imperfect, they are likely ballpark, and they are cringe-worthy.

From Poynter:

“The median salaries of women and people of color at 14 unionized Gannett newsrooms was at least $5,000 less than those of their male and white colleagues, a new study by the NewsGuild Gannett caucus found.

The median full-time salary for women in fall 2020 was $47,390, while the median for men was $57,235, representing a pay gap of $9,845. Journalists of color earned a median salary of $48,006, or $5,246 lower than the median salary for white journalists, $53,252.”

These disparities, combined with the grim media landscape more generally, have led to a wave of unionization efforts at the publisher.

Just earlier this month, digital producers from across 37 Gannett websites announced they were unionizing with the NewsGuild of New York. Despite the guild receiving support from 80% of eligible members, Gannett has refused to voluntarily recognize it.

In summation

With the Alden Global acquisition of Tribune Media just a few weeks behind us, there is reason to believe that another one of the bastions of 20th century journalism might be on unsteady footing.

It is an open secret that Gannett will need to work a miracle to turn its business around, but such miracles have been few and far between in the media world. The company is loaded with debt, years out of date, likely struggling to attract top talent, and trying to square a circle by using short-format general content to sell subscriptions.

I certainly do not envy the team responsible for trying to right the Gannett ship, but I hope they are making decisions with their employees’ welfare in mind first. I could care less if USA Today sinks, but it doing so would mean another several hundred unemployed journalists.

I hope the publication and its parent company are able to successfully transition into the next era of journalism, but such an accomplishment would be far harder to believe than hybrid alien babies.

Some good readin'

— I saw a retrospective of one of my favorite artists this weekend, and here is the review of the exhibition. (New York Times)

— Here is a review of a book I really want to read! (New York Times)

— Here is a great story about a major trend happening in the world of men's fashion. (Highsnobiety)

— Here is a sneak peek at next week's interview! (The Information)

— Here is another article from The Times (sorry!) that is a gorgeous and useful application of web design. Read on browser if possible. (New York Times)

Cover image: "Still Life with Skull," by Paul Cézanne