Desperate to cut costs, might Gannett ‘go nuclear’?

I’ve run across some recent speculation that GCI could take the nuclear option: It would combine some of its most troubled print newspapers with USA Today — creating a hybrid, community paper with local content wrapped around, or inserted inside, USAT‘s four established sections: news, sports, business and features.

Think of it as zoned editions of USA Today. You can read some of the chatter about the idea on SportsJournalists.com. Now, this may be nothing more than a long-standing rumor that pops up whenever the economy goes south; indeed, readers are already knocking it down in the comments section, below.

Still, I’ve been around Gannett more than 20 years — my final eight at USAT — and never heard this one before. I’m writing about it now because I got an e-mail from a former colleague detailing the “tip/rumor/street talk” that flew around one state last Friday where Gannett now does business.

Here’s the gist of my tipster’s note: “Gannett is considering dropping daily production of 10-12 of its U.S. papers, and folding a local news section or sections into USA Today, which the company would attempt to circulate to local readers as the primary daily newspaper.”

What’s more, my tipster says, employees at one newspaper in particular have “heard that their paper is one of the 10-12 on the list.” I’m not going to identify that paper. But assuming this tip is good, I’m hoping those employees step forward here with more details.

Don’t hold your breath, some of my readers say. “The idea that USAT would become a wrapper for local publications — which could then be stripped of all but local reporting and editing staff — has dogged the paper since it was launched in 1982,” one reader says in a new comment. “At the Gannett paper where I worked that game plan was the common speculation. Those predictions never came to pass, obviously, but they are as old as USAT itself.”

(As always, I welcome a comment from Corporate.)

An essential question: How would this scheme save Gannett money? Please post your replies in the comments section, below. To e-mail confidentially, write gannettblog[at]gmail[dot-com]; see Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the green sidebar, upper right.

Earlier: In print task force report, GCI discovers the answer is local news. Again.

[Image: this morning’s USAT front page, Newseum]

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40 Responses to “Desperate to cut costs, might Gannett ‘go nuclear’?”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    As a long-time reader of sportsjournalists.com, let me say that the source involved there is slightly less than credible.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    GROSS!

  3. Anonymous Says:

    The idea that USAT would become a wrapper for local publications — which could then be stripped of all but local reporting and editing staff — has dogged the paper since it was launched in 1982. At the Gannett paper where I worked that game plan was the common speculation. Those predictions never came to pass, obviously, but they are as old as USAT itself.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    I think you’re all missing the point. USAToday could be used as an effective to to eliminate a lot of “waste.” Think of it this way: A newspaper’s name appearing below the USAT logo either identifying the newspaper name or just an edition name. USAT designers could leave a couple key spots open on section fronts for the big local news.

    Another approach that I suspect has been studied is what is going on in Las Vegas with the two dailies there. Why not just insert an 8-20 page daily newspaper section into the USAT. The newspaper could still be on the “top” of the wrap and contain all the local news. Frankly, it doesn’t make sense to duplicate National and World news, sports and lifestyles across 84 markets. I bet readers would be happy getting a USAT along with their local paper. Plus it would stretch USAT’s reach and allow for it to charge more for ads!

    Corporate needs to hire me. I could really eliminate a ton of fat from the daily newspaper process.

    I really hope this does happen and that it frees up additional money to focus on Gannett 3.0 — whatever that ends up being

  5. Jim Hopkins Says:

    The other reason I published this tip — beyond your smart responses — was because there have been rumblings about another reorganization of the newspaper division; I wondered if this could be a part of that. Please see: http://tinyurl.com/5qzfnv

  6. john reinan Says:

    On the surface this seems bizarre, and yet one cannot deny that it would be a dramatic and innovative move. This blog is full of commenters calling for such moves — well, this would be one.

    Would local readers accept it? Well, what choice would they have? I’ve been a regular reader of USAT since it came out, and I really like the paper. It serves a purpose for me.

    It might actually be the best of both worlds to get USAT with a 10-12 page local insert. It might help USAT sell more national ads.

    I’m just reacting on a gut level, not with deep analysis. I leave that to others.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    6:59 pm: As I understand it, that was one of the original ideas for USAT in the 1980’s, and rejected partly because it would undercut the local franchise and open the door to a new local paper starting up. Since anyone starting up a local paper in this market seems more remote, perhaps the old idea is being dusted off again.

  8. Anonymous Says:

    A lot of Gannetts smaller dailys are already under 20 pages per day so USAT with 10-12 pages of local might fly. Depends on the Market.
    Focus on the Smaller Community Sites that already print USAT, are PM pubs and are struggling. Port Huron, Mi and Richmond, Ind come to mind.

  9. Anonymous Says:

    Interesting: Greenville News not reporting its own layoffs and apparently preventing its Pluck bloggers from talking about it too: http://tinyurl.com/6cjcen

  10. Anonymous Says:

    Whether or not SJ is credible, the rumor stands or sinks on its own.

    The biggest obstacle in my mind is how you cover local sports in a large city, particularly on the preps and youth levels. Lots of readers buy the paper to check results, linescores and roundups; will Gannett be mindful of those readers if it decides to implement this in, say, Louisville or Cincinnati? Does this mean Gannett would rather, long term, have one national paper than to go mostly local? Or that Gannett is desperately looking for something that works before “going nuclear”?

  11. Anonymous Says:

    Probably the bigger obstacle is trying ti fit enough local advertisers into the “Local” wrap portion. You’d have to have enough local advertisers running to support the pay checks of the sites employees. Hard to properly space competitors in 10-20 pages plus I hardly doubt that the split between USAT and the local papers for the large nationals would be enough to cover pay, paper and ink. I think it would be a dud.

  12. Anonymous Says:

    Making USAT a wrapper for locals:
    Upside:
    1. Expands reach and coverage of the local paper.
    2. Might attract more local ads to take advantage of USAT’s brand.
    3. Allows Gannett to establish new statewide papers in some states, merging Tucson and Phoenix, for example, or New Jersey.
    Downside:
    1. Would be a logistical nightmare since USAT and local papers currently often cover the same events, especially sports. To prevent repetition, both USAT and the local paper would have to be open for local editing with replacement stories ready to replace the redundant stories removed. That means additional staff.
    2. Some loss of circulation as local newspaper readers are buying USAT, too.
    3. Some lack of consistency between the way USAT stories written/edited, versus local.
    4. Could be a local reaction against the paper if local advertisers felt the local papers was being nationalized.

  13. Anonymous Says:

    Des Moines Register just got rid of 7 in the information center, 2 with buyouts at the 2 week per year agreement and 5 layoffs with 1 week per year. Other positions people were laid off: 1 in marketing, 1 quality control analyst, (1 in obituaries gave notice), 1 in community smaller paper Indianola, possibly 4-5 in Iowa City, Ames paper is being eliminated and going online only! Managers have decided that they are not going to release a full list of names, even though Carolyn Washburn already released all 7 of the news reporters. The writers that are left are being distributed very differently and reorganization is taking place this week.

    School sports reporting is gone in the community papers.

  14. Anonymous Says:

    I think if this happened, someone would probably step in and create a bigger and better local product, and the community would rebelliously turn to it. I think people want to know what is going on in their communities, and if Gannett did this, citizens would fight it by supporting a local competitor that offers more news that directly affects them.

    I also think the print version of USAT will eventually become redundant since it competes with so many other media entities that write and publish the same stories online.

    I also think the only thing that will help newspapers survive is if they carve out a strong regional identity for themselves. They must reflect the cities and states they serve, and they must strive for individualism in that regard. Right now, Gannett leaders seem to be set on making everything the same, like the identical Web sites. The papers all need a unique regional definition.

  15. Anonymous Says:

    My first thought was this is another crackpot rumor, but now I'm wondering if it could be another crackpot Grand Plan from Craig &Co.

    The decision to force all the local papers to adopt a single Web template supposedly was meant to turn the chain into a national brand, to be sold to national advertisers. How much of a reach is it to see them doing the same in print? (With, presumably, the same disastrous results.)

  16. Anonymous Says:

    One thing I think about from an Advertising standpoint is position… It was said earlier… but I now people fight for those Front Positions… I just don’t see them doing it with a paper like Louisville or Indianapolis… Yeah, they’ll make more from a larger USAToday readership Ad Dollars… but they’ll lose all those larger contracts that spend money for those guaranteed positions (Larger Car Dealerships, Retail Stores, etc.)

    I can see where it might be a good idea for a smaller newspaper, but not the larger ones…

  17. Anonymous Says:

    I think anything goes now. By the way, I’m hearing a lot of nervousness from people at Gannett News Service. Since editor Derek Osenenko bailed out, they’re without a rudder and growing more and more worried that they are going to disappear.

  18. Anonymous Says:

    new publisher in indy is meeting with all hands in 4 sessions spread over next tuesday and wensday — 2 downtown & 2 at printing plant. nothing that big happened when we were bought.

    could be a big deal or just the new guy's style, but they're spending money to rent space for at least one meeting.

  19. Anonymous Says:

    9:49 am: Making USAT a wrapper for local newspapers doesn’t save money, or cut costs. This is the magic potion the suits are searching for. Merging Arizona and some of New Jersey does save money, and so is in the cards, IMHO.

  20. Anonymous Says:

    From The Hattiesburg American:

    “Two years later, the American spent more than $5.6 million for more space and upgraded equipment to print USA Today, the national daily newspaper published by Gannett.”

    I’ve heard rumors that the Hattiesburg American and Clarion-Ledger will merge. I know corporate was recently at the Ledger for “secret squirrel” meetings. The marriage with USA Today seems almost inevitable.

    Hmmmmmm-mm… comments anyone?

  21. Anonymous Says:

    Well, USAT is already wrapping into the local newspaper in the Bahamas. It’s called the Tropics (formerly Island) edition. Basically, it’s a truncated version of USAT combined with the Bahama Times or whatever. It was pitched as a “new revenue stream” when it launched several months ago, which I’m certain it was, but could it also be an experiment for what’s been described in the post? I dunno.

  22. Anonymous Says:

    @6:20 wrote: “The idea that USAT would become a wrapper for local publications — which could then be stripped of all but local reporting and editing staff — has dogged the paper since it was launched in 1982.”

    i can attest to that – heard it from one of the original USAT staffers.

    As for local ads … spaces could be left for them on a USAT page and reps could sell to the hole. Scary, but possible.

  23. Anonymous Says:

    Merging the Phoenix and Tucson papers is a logistical nightmare. Forget that you’re talking about two cities that HATE each other and have entirely different cultural outlooks. The Republic is inseparable from KPNX, the Gannett-owned NBC affiliate. I believe the Tucson paper contributes copy to the Republic, but has agreement with the Gannett-owned ABC affiliate in Tucson.

    A combined project would be rejected locally and could never fully integrate online, which is a big Gannett initiative right now.

  24. Anonymous Says:

    Two or three years before the Los Angeles Herald Examiner folded in 1989, the Hearst folks were in serious negotiations with Gannett to wrap the local news section of the failing L.A. paper around the up-and-coming national and world report of USAT. At the time, the HerEx had very aggressive local coverage with a small staff, beating the “whale” L.A Times on a daily basis.

    That hybrid never happened and eventually the paper was shuttered.

    For more, see http://herex0.tripod.com/.

  25. Anonymous Says:

    11:57 PM
    I think anything that would bring credibility to the American would be a welcome change for readers in South Mississippi, not to mention the cost savings realized by eliminating the unnecessary layer of newsroom management in Hattiesburg.

    I guess the plan could backfire, though, and drag down the reputation of both USAT and Ledger.

  26. Anonymous Says:

    Re: merging Tucson and Phoenix. Yes, the towns hate each other and have different cultures and Tucson is notoriously anti-intellectual. But the merged product would be a statewide edition, not one tailored to each city as now, and aimed at retirees and snowbirds. There are a lot of really wealthy retirees in Arizona, and companies want to reach them with cruise, vacation and banking offers. Since newspapers have lost/are losing the younger generation of readers, it makes sense to go after the audience that still wants to read the dead tree product.

  27. Anonymous Says:

    My bet: GNS is gone, merged into USAT, with the staff let go.

  28. Anonymous Says:

    What a wonderful opportunity Gannett is presenting for all the small non-Gannett community papers.
    They’ll flourish.

  29. Anonymous Says:

    There is an advertising media blitz in Indianapolis pushing USAT. Radio spots…that once pushed the local product, along with newspaper ads.

  30. Anonymous Says:

    Well, I guess the mystery about the transformation is solved. Why didn’t Gannett just announce it, promote it and be done with it? And why did this transformation take more than two decades?

  31. Anonymous Says:

    Des Moines Register just got rid of 7 in the information center, 2 with buyouts at the 2 week per year agreement and 5 layoffs with 1 week per year.

    +++++++

    This is wrong. The people taking the buyouts also got 1 week per year, just like those getting laid off.

  32. Anonymous Says:

    This is not a new rumor, Jim. We’ve talked about it for years at our paper. We’ve been doing the Nation/World and Sports pages for other papers nearby us for some time now. This is a logical (as in twisted Gannett logic) next step.

  33. Anonymous Says:

    Don’t tell Gannett about Sporting News Today. That “twisted Gannett logic” might put them over the edge and delude them into converting every local paper into “The Nation’s Newspaper”

  34. Anonymous Says:

    Newspapers will continue to die if corporate continues to lead. I often think it’s almost like there’s some political conspiracy to kill them, because right now they seem to be doing the opposite of everything they should be doing.

    One of the main things they should be doing is listening to their 30 and under staffers who know much more about technology than their older colleagues.

    All age groups have something to contribute to the new newspaper model, but if you aren’t socially networking and at least exploring sites and seeing what is out there, or if you don’t know basic coding terminology, then perhaps you aren’t the right person to lead the employees of the future.

  35. Anonymous Says:

    Forget about the under 30 groups. They aren’t going to read old-fashioned newspapers even if they are given a free Jamba Juice to do it. What is terrifying is that newspapers are losing their older readers, and advertisers are looking for other ways to reach this audience. Look at the figures: only 16 percent of the U.S. population today (53 million out of 305 million) read newspapers. We are publishing for an ever dwindling population, and advertisers realize this and are voting with their pocketbooks. How many department store executives does it take before the suits wake up and realize newspaper ads don’t draw customers anymore?

  36. ash Says:

    i like the idea of having USA Today go nuclear. but take it a step further — think of exploding all local papers, along with USA Today.

    allow a reader to pay a dime for just the local news section. or allow readers to create their own newspaper by choosing what sections they want. you could have a newspaper that’s USA Today’s sports and living sections, combined with your local newspaper’s local news section.

    the corporate attitude should be: anything goes, and let’s try it. now.

    sill, innovation with print is probably a non-starter. ink, paper and delivery costs make it so. consider Wired Editor Chris Anderson’s argument that the Internet has created a competitive dynamic that’s forcing prices toward zero — that’s where business-owners will be looking. think of the young people today — they’re used to getting these things for free, including alternative weekly newspapers.

    Link: http://www.btobonline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080310/FREE/684560937/1209

    “The Internet has created a new competitive dynamic that is relentlessly forcing the price of all things digital toward zero. Software that commanded six-figure license fees just five years ago is now free. The entertainment industry has all but abandoned digital rights management on recorded music. Artists now give away music and make money on concerts.

    Not long ago, people had to buy Consumer Reports or Fodor’s to find product reviews. Now they get them free at such Web site as Kaboodle, ThisNext and Yelp. Magazines that I don’t remember subscribing to arrive in my mailbox. Yahoo now gives away unlimited free storage on its e-mail accounts.”

  37. Anonymous Says:

    “Don’t tell Gannett about Sporting News Today. That “twisted Gannett logic” might put them over the edge and delude them into converting every local paper into “The Nation’s Newspaper”

    the only reason people really read newspapers are for the local coverage. people don’t want a national newspaper. thats what the internet and TV networks are for.

    the only reason i would ever use our newspaper or website is to see who that was getting arrested downtown last night, or why that building on mainstreet was on fire.

    if i wanted to read national news i’d hit up cnn.com or something.

    this is idea of wrapping locals around USAT is a mistake, but GCI hasn’t been short on mistakes lately so I wouldn’t be surprised if I go into work tomorrow and see our product stuffed inside of a USAToday

  38. Anonymous Says:

    “I think you’re all missing the point. USAToday could be used as an effective to to eliminate a lot of “waste.” Think of it this way: A newspaper’s name appearing below the USAT logo either identifying the newspaper name or just an edition name. USAT designers could leave a couple key spots open on section fronts for the big local news.

    Another approach that I suspect has been studied is what is going on in Las Vegas with the two dailies there. Why not just insert an 8-20 page daily newspaper section into the USAT. The newspaper could still be on the “top” of the wrap and contain all the local news. Frankly, it doesn’t make sense to duplicate National and World news, sports and lifestyles across 84 markets. I bet readers would be happy getting a USAT along with their local paper. Plus it would stretch USAT’s reach and allow for it to charge more for ads!

    Corporate needs to hire me. I could really eliminate a ton of fat from the daily newspaper process.

    I really hope this does happen and that it frees up additional money to focus on Gannett 3.0 — whatever that ends up being”

    —-

    you see the problem is. they would let you go, so that more of the suits could keep their jobs and bonuses.

    and rather than use ideas to make money, they would ignore them and continue to look at ways to cut budgets and reduce costs.

  39. Anonymous Says:

    Darn it. The local-national blend is such a wonderful idea, but it won’t work with the existing Gannett mindset and management.

    A plan like that won’t work until Gannett clearly defines “local, local, local” or at least “local.”

    There’s a huge difference between listing local information somewhere in print or online and truly reporting local news.

    Truly reporting local news takes time, talent and money. Slopping together a bunch of school lunch menues and meeting times doesn’t.

    Until Gannett finally gets it that readers are begging for real local news— not stenography— any plan will fail.

    In other words, until Gannett is willing to devote time and resources to that all-so-important mayor’s race in that tiny little town of 3,000 people, and to timely crime reporting in that city of 52,000, nothing will change.

    I think readers see right through the local fluff reports the local papers have been passing off as news. It’s got me wondering whether or not the USAT reputation as a credible news outlet can hold up if Gannett merges it with, in some areas, non-news.

  40. Anonymous Says:

    The local/national idea has some legs. Consumers would be able to get all the news in one place. less paper to recycle, less subscriptions to pay for, more effiecient use of time. And lets face it, reading a paper still is better than being on the computer in many places ….the beach, the bathroom, the bed, the front porch.
    But then again, once braodband and technology catch up, who knows?

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