At USA Today, Larry Kramer jumps back into fray of digital journalism
By Steven Mufson,
One question people want to ask the journalist-turned-Web-entrepreneur Larry Kramer is: Why would he take a job as publisher and president of the troubled USA Today?
He doesn’t need money or success; the founder of MarketWatch sold that thriving financial Web site in 2005 for more than half a billion dollars (his share: about $20 million). He has won journalism prizes, run two local newspapers and served as a senior editor at The Washington Post.
He’s comfortable, too, with posts on corporate boards and homes in tony Tiburon, Calif., and on Manhattan’s Upper West Side (although he’s going to sell the one in Tiburon and buy something in Northern Virginia). And his wife, Myla, is dabbling in New York show business, sinking money and time into productions such as “End of the Rainbow,” “Hair,” and “Priscilla Queen of the Desert,” which is about three drag queens on a road trip across the Australian Outback.
The answer, Kramer says, is that he wanted to get back into the fray of digital journalism. “Being a board member and consultant is wonderful, but the one frustration about it is when you really want to get something done,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “You can give all the advice you want, but you can’t say, ‘Give me two weeks, and I’ll get it done for you.’ ”
There’s plenty to get done at USA Today, which on Monday announced Kramer’s appointment. The national newspaper of Gannett, a chain of 82 U.S. dailies, “has been struggling mightily,” says Doug Arthur, a media analyst at Evercore. While it is a strong brand, Arthur says, “it needs a lot of work.” Advertising has suffered badly during the recession, he adds. Although USA Today won a measure of respectability and is no longer ridiculed as the McPaper, or junk food, of journalism, the paper has grown thin.
But in an industry enveloped by the gloom of dwindling circulation and sinking ad sales, the genial Kramer sees opportunity.
“This is like a Gutenberg moment,” he said. “We’re reinventing storytelling on a digital platform. Suddenly, we can use every form of storytelling in one place — pictures, graphics, words. If we need an interactive map, show me the map. If it’s a plane crash, show me the video. We see a new art form that’s going to be a much more dominant form of storytelling. That’s the exciting part for me.”
Kramer says USA Today needs to distinguish itself. “We don’t just need to have a voice,” he says. “We need to be an orchestra of voices.”
Every newspaper has problems these days. As with other newspapers, part of USA Today’s business model in the publishing world — as a paper that could bring American travelers news of home — has been shattered by technology.
“I used to walk into a hotel and the fact that I could read four paragraphs on the Giants game was great,” says Kramer, 62, who grew up in northern New Jersey, where he delivered the Bergen Record. “Now I can watch the Giants game on my iPad.”
Like other newspapers, USA Today is turning to its digital operation, trying to figure out what the content should be and how to make money while providing it.
“There are a lot of people who are Web visionaries, but Larry is one of the few people who started a Web-only business and made it successful through its news gathering and its reporting,” said Dick Meyer, an executive producer of BBC News America who worked for Kramer at CBS News. “And he made money. There were lots of others aggregating news or making fun of it. But MarketWatch had a real newsroom. He was a great boss, an inspiring leader.”
Kramer started his career on a more conventional path. He attended Syracuse University and got his first break stringing for the Associated Press, including reports and photos on student unrest and Woodstock. He went to Harvard Business School because he wanted to cover business, then briefly worked for the San Francisco Examiner before joining The Post.
Soon, The Post dispatched him to be editor in chief of the company’s Trenton Times, which he restored to profitability. He returned to The Post and became the top editor for metro news, building up bureaus around the area.
“He’s a font of ideas,” says Rem Rieder, who worked for Kramer in Trenton and at The Post, and who is now editor of American Journalism Review. “He saw himself as not just the AME [assistant managing editor] Metro but as the CEO Metro. He saw his job as not to just run the news of the day . . . but come up with new concepts, new sections, new ideas.”
Kramer moved to become editor of the San Francisco Examiner. “Running a newspaper was all I ever dreamed of,” he said in an online interview posted on his personal Web site. But he left a few years later, after an economic downturn forced deep staff cutbacks.
That’s when his career path veered. A friend was developing a hand-held device that provided real-time stock quotes, something easily accessible now but then only available through expensive terminals. It could also deliver real-time sports scores. That morphed into MarketWatch, a financial news Web site. He partnered with CBS, then sold it to Dow Jones.
Afterward, CBS chief executive Leslie Moonves created a digital division and put Kramer in charge. In two years, he built up $150 million in revenue. That wasn’t fast enough for Moonves, who recruited an investment banker to make acquisitions in the digital sphere. Kramer stayed on for a year as a consultant, then stepped back, wrote a book and taught. It was a change, he says, from journalism, where “having a long-term project meant take all afternoon.”
Recently, Kramer was eating breakfast with a friend, former CBS News president Andrew Heyward, talking about their lives as advisers outside of big corporations. Kramer held up two fingers. “I have just have two words for you, Andrew,” he said. “No boss.”
Kramer has given up that independence in return for Gannett, a company that in the past has drawn on its own ranks of about 5,000 local journalists for management jobs.
The paper’s assets, Kramer says, are its “iconic brand.” Research shows that the paper is still “getting credit for things we haven’t done for a while,” he says, adding that the staff does “a lot of great journalism here.”
There are some areas where Kramer and Gannett see room for growth. Gannett has been pushing to expand its USA Today Sports Media Group. Sports accounts for about half of usatoday.com’s unique users — those who visit the site, Kramer says. The company is making acquisitions to strengthen that brand, and Kramer plans to hire “unique voices.”
He’ll do that in other areas, such as travel, too.
Kramer says that content is key. “Curation is really important,” he says. “Being only an aggregator is not the key to success. Everyone is looking for help in what they should be spending time with. Bloggers, yes, but which ones matter?”
He adds: “You have got to have original content in tone or voice, otherwise you’re spinning your wheels. Don’t give me two paragraphs on the Giants game. Tell me what’s wrong with that pitcher’s arm.”
When it comes to politics, Kramer says “you guys” — meaning The Post and other politically oriented Web sites — “can have politics inside the Beltway. We’ll take the rest of the country.” In business, he plans to stress consumer coverage and “maybe entrepreneurialism,” and aims to be “uber strong in entertainment.”
He wants to help people “sort through what TV shows to watch, what plays to see, what 401(k) plans to invest in.” He wants to “help you live your life” but also “tell you things that are important to you that you may not know.”
That’s where the investigative reporting fits in. “I will lay down on the tracks to protect the investigative reporting here,” Kramer says, “for all the reasons I got into the business.”
But it’s his track record with digital and advertising strategies that made him attractive to Gannett.
“I don’t want to give away too much,” he says, but he adds that the paper will build “closer relationships with our readers” through new uses of technologies. “We’re going to give people what they want, when they want it, where they want it. You want it on your watch, I’ll give it to you. Or inside of your sunglasses.”