Spin Cycle

05.15.12

Digital Makeover for USA Today

Web whiz Larry Kramer returns to newspapering

Larry Kramer left the newspaper world long ago and plunged into digital journalism.

“It’s like I got sent to graduate school for 30 years,” he says.

author-photo-larry-kramer

Kramer, who built Marketwatch.com into a viable business, has just been tapped as president and publisher of USA Today—and plans to push the newsroom further into the 21st century. As for newspapers, he says, “we don’t want to be viewed as the railroad industry.”

Kramer had been presiding over layoffs as editor of the San Francisco Examiner, having already served as an editor at the Washington Post, when he joined the emerging field of digital news. “I was lucky,” he says. “I got jolted into something I wouldn’t have gone into voluntarily.”

He spent 12 years running San Francisco-based MarketWatch until it was sold to Dow Jones in 2005. Then he spent a couple of years in charge of CBS Digital Media.

USA Today was ahead of the game in its early years, with color and advanced graphics, says Kramer. But the world changed. “None of the top people here were very digitally oriented,” he says. “When you’re successful at something, you get very defensive about what you do.”

In fact, as Poynter’s MediaWire points out, Kramer had offered this critique of the newspaper’s iPad app:

“The good and the bad news about the USA Today app is that it is a close cousin to the look of the paper. While it captures some of the design feature of the paper, some have become tired. The site loses a sense of urgency and news judgment by stacking stories with essentially the same look and feel as each other.”

Back in the day, Kramer says, the great thing about USA Today was that you could get it at your hotel and read four paragraphs about the Giants baseball game. Now, he says, “I’m watching the game on my iPad.”

So what does the Harvard MBA plan for one of our three nationally circulated newspapers?

“The place needs some stronger voices,” he says. That’s been true since Gannett launched the paper in 1982. With its homogenized style, USA Today has produced few notable columnists or narrative writers; even the editorials are tempered by opposing views.

But Kramer says that “personal brands matter a lot now,” that readers want a writer’s “take,” and that he wants journalists who can blog, tweet and report. That approach would be a departure for USA Today.

Where to start? Kramer points to sports, travel, business, media, advertising, consumer electronics and “an outside-the-Beltway newsroom when it comes to politics.” (The Virginia headquarters is just barely outside the Capital Beltway.) Kramer’s real challenge will be changing the culture at a newspaper that, while struggling with layoffs and furloughs in recent years, has been wedded to doing things a certain way.