USA Today: The End of Journalism?

The USA Today, once America’s most widely distributed newspaper, just threw in the towel on its business strategy. Bowing to the realities of our 24 / 7 internet fueled news culture, its corporate parent Gannett recently announced a comprehensive and fundamental repositioning of the iconic news daily.

That’s not to say that this announcement was particularly startling; many of the USA Today’s new plans have, in fact, already been implemented at other news organizations. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, has long been posting breaking news stories on its web site around the clock. The New York Times has already consolidated all of its sections under the watchful oversight of a single Executive Editor. And numerous daily papers have greatly expanded the number of features that are dedicated to sports coverage. To no one’s surprise, the USA Today announced that it would launch similar initiatives.

But one of its plans did raise a significant amount of concern for practitioners of the profession of journalism; namely, the USA Today will reportedly require its news reporting and administrative business departments to work together to ensure that the organization “align(s) sales efforts with the content we produce.” It was this brief bullet point that led industry experts to express concern for the future of journalism.

Once a Trendsetter

Although all traditional newspapers have been struggling in the current era of freely available online content aggregation, no publisher seemed better positioned to adjust to these new competitive realities than Gannett. After all, the USA Today pioneered the use of short, breezy articles and colorful graphics, features that display well on the laptop, electronic tablet, and mobile handset screens that are now favored by consumers of electronic media content.

Furthermore, the USA Today pioneered a circulation strategy that relied heavily on the free distribution of newspaper copies to the general public. Since its inception during the early 1980s, Gannett has contracted with hotel chains around the nation to hand out complimentary copies to its overnight guests, restaurant patrons, and trade show attendees.

Neither the Wall Street Journal nor the New York Times, the two other newspapers with dominant national distribution networks, were as adept as Gannet in developing a newsprint strategy that was based on permitting readers to freely access the content of each issue. Gannett’s trendsetting free distribution strategy should have prepared it to succeed in the online milieu as well, where readers expect to access information at little or no out-of-pocket cost.

The Fourth Estate

Although organizations and personalities from Time Magazine to Stephen Colbert have accused the USA Today of printing extremely brief and superficial articles and factoids, the product once ridiculed as a McPaper has indeed broken newsworthy stories throughout its history. For instance, in 2006, the USA Today took the lead in reporting on the development of a National Security Agency (NSA) data base that codified and analyzed the telephone calling activities of private American citizens.

Such investigative reporting activities do more than simply establish a newspaper’s credibility in the minds of its readers; they also fulfill the historical role of journalism as the proverbial fourth estate or branch of government. The Founding Fathers of the United States firmly believed that a free and unfettered press serves as a necessary protection against the possibility of government corruption; they thus enshrined freedom of the press in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution to ensure this condition.

That’s why Gannett’s intention to “align sales efforts with content” caused so much concern among advocates of a free press.  In the future, will the American public be able to rely upon the USA Today to publish stories that are critical of organizations that purchase advertising space or other services from Gannett? And conversely, will the public be able to trust organizations to refrain from applying pressure on Gannett to suppress such stories before they are published?

Death of a Business Model

During the second half of the twentieth century, the business model of the newspaper industry allowed journalists to avoid such concerns. With only one or two daily newspapers operating in most major news markets, and with newspaper publishers holding effective monopolies on many classified and other advertising categories, private individuals and organizations often had no choice but to continue doing business with publishers who criticized them in news articles.

Critical and objective investigatory coverage, of course, continues to represent the hallmark of unbiased professional journalism. But with revenue streams from advertising campaigns having shifted to the internet during the first decade of the twenty first century, traditional newsprint products have become unprofitable propositions. Thus, after analyzing its growth options, Gannett has reasonably decided to refocus the USA Today on internet distribution strategies and their concomitant revenue opportunities.

Nevertheless, proponents of quality journalism cannot help but worry that the type of investigative journalism practiced by Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men is unsupportable in web-based newsrooms producing sales-focused content. If their concerns prove to be justified, the end of the traditional newspaper may indeed presage the end of objective journalism as well.