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USA Today rewrites strategy to cope with Internet

The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 23, 2011; 5:35 PM

McLEAN, Va. -- USA Today, a newspaper created nearly 30 years ago to appeal to people who grew up watching television, is revising its formula to try to counter the Internet's threat to its survival.

The nation's second-largest newspaper is expanding its coverage of advertising-friendly topics, designing content for smartphones and tablet computers and refreshing the look of its print edition, whose circulation has fallen by 20 percent over the past three years.

For readers, it means lots of travel tips, gadget reviews, sports features, financial advice and lifestyle recommendations. Top editors say investigative journalism will also be emphasized.

A new design of USA Today's front page was unveiled in late January. The rest of the newspaper will be filled with more of the colorful graphics that made USA Today stand out when Gannett Co. started it in September 1982. The print edition also now includes a few barcodes that can be scanned by a mobile device to view videos and other digital content related to certain stories.

USA Today Publisher Dave Hunke is so confident these changes will pay off that he expects the newspaper in 2011 to boost revenue and circulation, which stands at 1.8 million. That would be the first time both categories have gained in four years.

"The idea that you can take incremental steps in the media business is over," Hunke says. "You have to take some big steps and you have to take some risks."

Other newspaper publishers face many of the same challenges. The abundance of free content online has shrunk newspapers' print audience, in some cases cutting it in half during the past decade.

But the sharp decline in print advertising has been far more damaging. Advertisers can better target their messages online, for a fraction of the cost. That's why revenue from print advertising, traditionally a newspaper's financial backbone, has declined by more than 50 percent in the past five years. Attempts to increase online advertising revenue so far have done little to inspire confidence that newspapers can evolve into big moneymakers on digital devices.

"They're all just throwing a bunch of stuff against the wall and hoping some of it sticks," says Edward Atorino, a newspaper industry analyst at Benchmark Co.

Hunke spent most of last year drawing up USA Today's plan with a team that leaned on the digital expertise of Internet entrepreneur Rudd Davis.

Davis, 30, came to Gannett in 2008 after the company bought his "extreme" sports website, BNQT.com, pronounced "banquet." The site's focus on skateboarding and skiing appealed to advertisers eager to reach young men.

Hunke, 58, promoted Davis to USA Today's vice president of business development in August. His job is to oversee the effort to attract more advertising and find new places to sell the newspaper. "He helped us see and understand things that certain folks like me don't always get," Hunke says.

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