Hangin’ with USA Today’s new masthead

June 10, 2009

Gannett Co Inc has not been too generous lately with making its executives available to media reporters. And why would it? Few newspaper publishers have because there’s little good to say about the business.

Ad sales are tanking, as usual. Debt is looming (what else does it ever do?). Lots of self-styled media experts can’t let a day go by without writing a few blog posts telling publishers that they brought it on themselves and they deserve to die.

With that merry backdrop, I was surprised to get invited to a press conference and an interview with Gannett’s latest picks for editor (John Hillkirk) and publisher (Former Detroit Free Press Publisher David Hunke) of USA Today. Gannett brought them to New York to meet the insular Manhattan media world, which is responsible for writing all those obituaries that you’ve been reading about newspapers lately.

Here are some excerpts (paraphrased as well as verbatim) from our conversation on Wednesday afternoon at Gannett’s New York bureau at Madison Avenue and 54th Street:

Advertising revenue is down by some 30 percent versus last year. Publishers say much of this is because of the recession. How far down would ad revenue be without the financial crisis?

About 10 percent, Hunke guessed.

Nobody we talk to in the newspapers around the United States is very happy. At Gannett, they’re dealing with layoffs, furloughs, you name it. What can management do?

“There is a problem… These are crushing times for people in this country… People are getting nervous and afraid… Management has to shoulder the duty to do more to communicate,” Hunke said. That means keeping the door open and talking to employees at USA Today, he added.

When will the bad times end?

“I don’t know,” Hunke said. “We’re not going to get better [in advertising declines] in the third or fourth quarter, but I don’t think it is getting worse… That’s a far cry from me delivering good and warm news.”

On plans, announced Wednesday, to charge for an electronic edition of USA Today:

  • It will cost $120 a year, or $10 a month.
  • USAToday.com stays free.
  • Hunke would not say how much money he expects it to make. This is an important question because there already is a very free way to get the paper’s contents. And while Hunke said it’s not an interim step toward making the paper available on an electronic reader, this still could be the ultimate goal.

This may not be groundbreaking news, but it is a sign that at least some top officials in the U.S. newspaper business are trying to inspire some confidence by offering up plain talk about the state of the journalism industry instead of saying as little as possible and hoping that everyone is satisfied with that.

(Photo: Reuters)

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