Over the past couple of decades, management at news giant Gannett has displayed an amazing talent for discovering media trends that are about to be left behind.
This at least goes back to that big CD-ROM project as the Internet was breaking.
The just-unveiled USA Today redesign looks like another such moment.
The print publication is being re-made to look more like a web site. Yet we’ve arrived at a juncture when web sites are going to look more like print publications.
News web sites evolved in an age of PC and laptop screens, which sat on desks a foot or so away and were navigated by keyboards and mice (mouses?). That set-up seemed to discourage people from reading anything that ran long. Web front pages turned into menus and tiny photos, all begging you to click and keep going (in part because the ad model was based on CPMs).
But that’s a bastardization of how people read. If someone picks up a magazine, they don’t turn first to the table of contents, find a story they like, turn to that story, then go back to the table of contents to find another story, and so on. They sit down and flip through.
Kindles and iPads and other tablets allow just that kind of experience, and the learning from tablets is seeping into web sites.
Print publications like Vogue are discovering that the old way they did things in the magazine is actually the best new way to do things in digital. Flipboard founder Mike McCue — who has always been a step ahead of big trends — said at a conference a year ago that digital media would go back to the future.
“The soul of the website is the content, but we have narrowed it down to this little box, and someday that is destined to change,” he told the audience. “Interestingly enough, the solution has been right under our noses for decades – it’s print: magazines, newspapers.”
So USA Today seems to be moving backwards by making the newspaper look like the web. The right move now would’ve been to rediscover what made the newspaper so successful in the 1990s, and bring that forward to digital.
It’s a good lesson for any content producing entity. Print is the new web.
Oh, and as full disclosure, I worked at USA Today from 1985 to 2007. I saw it at its best, and I watched it fumble the changing post-Internet landscape. I still have a lot of friends there, so while I’m not convinced the redesign is the right medicine, I certainly hope it is — for the sake of some great people who work there.