09.16.12

USA Today’s Ballsy Move Draws Attention to Newspaper’s Relaunch

In a bid to get back to No. 1—and into the 21st century—America’s second-most read newspaper is relaunching by elbowing the country in a sensitive place. Lauren Ashburn on whether the idea is nuts.

Well, that took balls.

Gone is the iconic globe in a blue rectangle at the top of the newspaper, adjacent to those all-cap white letters screaming USA TODAY. In its place, a simple blue sphere sitting atop columns of redesigned type, pretty pictures, and the patented infographic in the lower left-hand corner. Other blue circles splatter across the newspaper’s pages.

Call them what you will. Circles, spheres, coniforms, disks.

Not USA Today. The newly turned 30-year-old—possibly trying to keep up with such new kids on the block as Facebook, Twitter, Huffington Post, and The Daily Beast—is striding boldly forward into the adult world of double-entendres. One could say the company is thrusting the terms “blue balls” and “cool balls” in our face.

For a company that believes all words should be in their proper order—as a huge sign says on the way to the dining room at headquarters—the usually strait-laced, buttoned-up parent company, Gannett, kicked off the relaunch with a surprisingly hip and provocative email.

It was titled “Cool Balls.”

In his memo, put out by management, designer Sam Ward pushes us to draw a connection between the often-ignored brand and, well, sex.

“Just what are our balls? Well, they are what we will make of them. I believe our balls are symbols of who we are and where we’re headed. They are not stories, graphics, or illustrations. They are signposts, perhaps; reminders that offer inroads into America’s stream of consciousness.”

He continues:

“We should use our balls at the right time and for the right reasons. They should be important, and never feel too planned or overly scripted. We should think of them as we think about sex: sex is great but we don’t want to have it ALL the time. Well…maybe that’s the wrong analogy, but you get the point.”

Um, point?

This letter—in marketing speak—falls under the heading of “creative strategy.” It’s a blatant attempt to, say, penetrate the attention of younger readers and push the country’s second-most read newspaper back to No. 1—and into the 21st century, where snarky humor rules the day.

We knew a relaunch was coming when Gannett unceremoniously dumped short-time publisher Dave Hunke who was brought up through the ranks from the Detroit Free Press, and brought in outsider Larry Kramer, a digital-age former newspaper guy who founded MarketWatch. He in turn dumped the paper’s acting editor—a USA Today lifer—to hire his former MarketWatch colleague Dave Callaway. Four months later we have blue balls.

Oddly enough, smack dab in the middle of the chairman’s suite on the top floor of the company’s McLean, Va., headquarters is a blue ball sculpture. In what was a much-ballyhooed uproar, three USA Today sports employees lost their jobs—caught on surveillance camera—for defacing it.

Kramer has the arduous task of helping the familiar brand live up to its storied past. In 1982—seemingly out of nowhere—founder Al Neuharth, a hard charger who was not above telling people to grow a pair, turned the industry on its head by launching a national, four-section color-coded newspaper with short paragraphs, graphics, and the latest available, yes, ball scores going.

“We should use our balls at the right time and for the right reasons.”

Initially ridiculed as “McPaper,” it soared to No. 1 in circulation nationwide by cutting ball-breaking deals landing it at hotel room doors, airports, and street corners around the world. As the Internet stole more and more advertising dollars and eyeballs, USA Today’s profits, along with the rest of the industry’s, shriveled with every quarter.

As someone who spent the better part of a decade going balls to the wall for the company, first reporting and then cutting deals to drive revenue, my take is that Kramer is giving the place just the kick in the pants it needs. He’s even hired poison-pen media columnist Michael Wolff, a sharp departure from the evenhanded culture I came to know so well. Wolff’s own career needs an overhaul after his Rupert Murdoch book bombed and he was fired last fall as editor of Adweek. It’s a clear sign that USA Today is determined to grab attention one way or another.

In his memo, Ward says “it’s been too long since USA TODAY has taken a chance” and that now “our mojo is back.” But it will take more than packaging and attitude to get people buzzing once again about the paper and its impressively overhauled website.

We’ll see whether the company has the cojones to pull it off.