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USA Today rewrites strategy to cope with Internet

Davis helped convince Hunke that USA Today's newsroom should emphasize topics that attract readers and advertisers on the Web and digital devices. USA Today took the first step with the debut in November of Your Life, a health and fitness website that contributes material to the print edition. Upcoming websites will be devoted to personal finance, personal technology and "diversions" - movies, games and hobbies.

With thousands of bloggers and specialty websites already writing about those topics, one analyst who follows the newspaper industry believes it will be difficult for USA Today to catch up.

"It's a middle-brow newspaper that doesn't have the same cachet in the digital media as it does in print," says Ken Doctor, who works for Outsell Inc. "I don't think a lot of people were thinking about reading USA Today after they got their new iPads for Christmas."

USA Today's applications for mobile devices have been downloaded more than 8 million times, including those designed for Apple Inc.'s hot-selling iPad. Mobile applications of The New York Times, another national newspaper that's trying to gain more readers and make more money on the Web, have been downloaded more than 11 million times.

Unlike the Times, Hunke doesn't plan to charge readers for digital access to USA Today's coverage.

USA Today is counting on its penchant for producing compact stories surrounded by charts, illustrations and photos to attract readers on digital devices. Hunke believes that formula, originally developed to cater to travelers pressed for time, is ideally suited to iPad screens, which measure 9.7 inches diagonally, and other tablet computers coming this year.

That breezy approach has reinforced perceptions that USA Today lacks the intellectual heft and sway of the Times and another national newspaper, The Wall Street Journal. Both those newspapers are also trying to expand their audiences and sell more advertising on digital devices.

"USA Today doesn't stand for authority in a lot of areas," Doctor says. "It stands for familiarity."

Even USA Today's mass appeal is waning as Internet search engines and other tools on digital devices enable people to parse the news to find just the stories that suit their tastes. Those selections then are frequently passed on to people's own relatively small circles of family, friends and fans on Facebook and Twitter - two online communication channels that have emerged as cultural phenomena in the past three years.

"USA Today was designed as every man's newspaper, but every man has been moving on to other things," Atorino says.

The shift already has cost USA Today its bragging rights as the nation's largest newspaper, although it still boasts the largest circulation in print. The Journal now has the highest total circulation, at just fewer than 2.1 million, because it sells nearly 450,000 online subscriptions compared with 18,500 for USA Today, according to the latest data from the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Even more worrisome for its financial health, USA Today sold about 2,300 advertising pages in 2010, a drop of nearly 50 percent from 2005. The troubles at USA Today and Gannett's more than 80 other U.S. newspapers have caused the company's stock price to plummet about 70 percent during the same period

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