Ink, Out! Web, In!

07.16.12

USA Today Takes Digital Gamble in Hiring David Callaway as New Editor

The once-pioneering product went outside the newspaper business for it new editor. Howard Kurtz on the challenges of shifting to web journalism—especially for a paper whose former innovations are everywhere at one swipe.

Why would David Callaway, who has spent most of his career in online journalism, want to plunge back into the print world and run USA Today?

“I don’t look at it as a newspaper,” he tells The Daily Beast. “Obviously the print product is their flagship. But the whole idea is to take the websites they have and make the journalism more relevant.”

The message here is that ink-stained wretches are out, web-savvy folks are in. Callaway, who spent the last 13 years at the online business site MarketWatch, was tapped by the new president and publisher, Larry Kramer—who, as it happens, helped build MarketWatch before moving to CBS Digital Media. Gannett is betting USA Today’s future not on the four-section product derided as McPaper after its 1982 launch, but on its ability to make money online.

“A lot of really great newspaper editors applied for this job,” Kramer says. “I needed someone who totally lived in digital.” Plus, “we know each other really well and I trust him implicitly.”

The two men agree on one thing, that “USA Today has been kind of siloed at Gannett,” as Kramer puts it. That’s why Callaway says he wants to work with other Gannett papers, websites, and television stations to improve the product. He also is inheriting a shrinking staff hurt by layoffs and furloughs.

Unlike many of Gannett’s 81 papers, and a growing number of newspapers across the country, USA Today does not charge for web access. What does it offer, beyond solid sports coverage, that people would be willing to pay for? Its political reporting is conventional, it has a dearth of investigative reporting, and its lack of standout columnists is notable.

As a national paper that has slipped to No. 2, with 1.8 million circulation, it has no local community as its base. And what was once innovative about the paper—local sports scores; news from 50 states—can now be downloaded in spades with the swipe of a finger.

But Callaway says USA Today’s brand is “reflecting what America stands for” and that he wants to “take that advocacy for the American people and bring it online.” In that sense, he says, it is very different from The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post, a paper attuned to what’s going on in the heartland and “not just in New York and Hollywood.”

The new duo isn’t exactly entering alien territory. Callaway once wrote a financial column for the Boston Herald. Kramer ran the San Francisco Examiner and the Washington Post metro staff. So they know the industry is ailing, that the Tribune papers have just emerged from bankruptcy, that the New Orleans Times-Picayune is cutting back to three times a week, and that the only man in America buying newspapers is Warren Buffett.

“Everyone in New York said, ‘Big challenge.’ Everyone who wasn’t in New York said, ‘My favorite paper.’”

Kramer instantly discovered an old media mind-set at USA Today. “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.”

Changes are clearly coming. Callaway, who will move from San Francisco to the USA Today offices in northern Virginia, talks about succeeding “online, on social platforms and mobile platforms.” He talks about adding “slide shows and archives and videos” to usatoday.com. And, he says, “I’m a huge weather fanatic,” and USA Today’s weather graphics are “second to none.”

After Callaway’s appointment was announced last week, he says, there was a striking variation in the emails he received.

“Everyone in New York said, ‘Big challenge.’ Everyone who wasn’t in New York said, ‘My favorite paper.’”