Hyperlocal; USA Today’s stealth tilt toward free content

Posted on January 9, 2014


By Dean Starkman

Gannett recently announced that next year it will be accelerating its strategy of putting mini-editions of its flagship USA Today inside the company’s local newspapers, adding 31 more papers to a pilot program—a move its CEO calls “another step in the reinvention of news.”

And while only at Gannett does an insert count as a “reinvention of news,” the larger strategy is worth thinking about.

The New York Times dutifully reported that the 12-to-14-page branded section will provide a big boost to USAT’s circulation. Keep an eye on the numbers with my emphasis:

By incorporating USA Today into local papers, Gannett is able to increase the national paper’s circulation by roughly 1.5 million readers during the week and 2.5 million readers on Sundays, and then try to sell advertising against these larger numbers.

According to the Alliance for Audited Media, USA Today has 2.876 millionweekday readers for both the print and digital editions, with just over 1.3 million of those for the printed paper.

But, as has been noted, the current total circulation figure includes users of free digital apps on tablets and phones access free content. Thanks to last year’s rule-changes by the Alliance for Audited Media (formerly the Audit Bureau of Circulation), these readers are counted in total circulation figures as long they use the apps just a single time per month. These readers are far cry from paid digital subscribers like those buoying revenues at papers around the world.

Indeed, circulation is one of the many things in journalism that is certainly not what it used to be. Topline circulation totals now mix so many paid apples with free lemons that the AAM itself is no longer posting comparative US circulation rankings.

That doesn’t stop the horserace stories, of course, including in USA Today, which in October announced:

USA TODAY regains national circulation lead

It’s perfectly legitimate to claim such under the new rules, and the paper makes clear further down that the much of the gain came via free access from free apps.

USA TODAY’s five-weekday average circulation totaled 2.88 million for the six-month period ending September, up from 1.71 million a year ago, according to the latest circulation report released Thursday by the Alliance for Audited Media.

The big jump was largely attributable to 1.48 million counted in the paper’s “digital non-replica” category, which primarily refers to mobile and tablet apps. USA TODAY’s apps and their content are free.

Key word being “free:”

Adding the 1.5 million weekday readers from the free branded content to a digitally enhanced circulation of “2.876 million,” would give USA Today circulation of (cue Dr. Evil voice) 4.376 million—most of it, free.

What’s striking, beyond the increasing meaninglessness of gross newspaper circulation figures, is that USA Today is bucking wider trends toward charging readers for news and is instead giving its content away through a growing number of channels.

As noted, the rest of the word, including even Gannett’s local papers, are putting up paywalls to charge for digital subscriptions, and readers have responded by agreeing to shoulder a greater part of the cost of producing the news.

But every strategy must fit the product. USA Today’s publisher, Larry Kramer, hailed the gains in a memo to employees:

Our circulation number now exceeds that of the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Total USA TODAY daily circulation grew to 2,862,229 for the period ending September 30, 2013. This increase is led by the first time inclusion of USA TODAY tablet and mobile phone app usage figures, as well as increased use of The Point.

The upward trajectory of USA TODAY’s digital growth matches the shift in habits of consumers wanting their news on-the-go.

And the paper is hiring staffers in bureaus around the country.

That’s always a good sign.

In a note to me, Gannett spokesman Jeremy Gaines says the inserts are part of a wider plan to try to give readers more for their money.

This project is a partnership between Gannett’s local publishers and USA TODAY, so the increased circulation is just one aspect. The central focus of this project is increasing content (both the USA TODAY content and increased local content) and adding to the value we’re bringing to our consumers. As we introduce enhanced products, consumers tell us they are willing to pay for the added value we’re bringing them.

But it’s worth recalling that Kramer himself a year ago said the reason USA Today didn’t charge was that“we’re not unique enough,” and he deserved credit for his candor.

USAT was founded, remember, by one Al Neuharth, who left an indelible legacy on the paper (not to mention the newspaper business in general, a subject for another day). Neuharth, who died earlier this year, wore his anti-intellectualism on his sleeve, mocked the most ambitious journalism as “elitist” and fixated on what he called the “bad and sad” (e.g. social problems, corruption), and stumped the country evangelizing his “Journalism of Hope,” the commoditized boosterism that earned McPaper its nickname. I mean, its news boxes were designed to look like TV sets, for pete’s sake. The Journalism of Hope’s main fault was that it was just deadly dull. In his 1989 memoir, he made a list of the country’s “10 most overrated papers” that included basically every great paper of that, or any, era—from the Times, the Post to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Miami Herald, and, ominously for them, the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Des Moines Register, both then-recently acquired by Gannett, never to be the same again.

The larger lesson, though, is that “uniqueness” of content, aka, quality, is the key to getting readers to contribute more to the production of news.

In a sense, USA Today’s current free tilt is born of necessity—a legacy of Neuharth’s banal vision of journalism and one the paper will eventually need to overcome.

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Forget digital: the print-edition circulation of USA Today has always been heavily boosted by free distribution and essentially free distribution through barter and other deals with hotels and airlines. Getting the rest of the media to accept USA Today’s jive circulation figures is Neuharth’s true legacy. Ask around: How many of you have actually ever paid for a copy of USA Today?

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