Voicelessness is over at USA Today, according to its new boss.
Larry Kramer was recently put in charge of USA Today. He turned down the top editor’s job because he didn’t see that position as a way to make real change. That’s when Gannett called back to offer him President and Publisher instead. He took it. Kramer is a smart and extremely capable executive, both an entrepreneur and a journalist, a newspaper editor and a digital guy.
In his initial round of press interviews after accepting the job, Kramer has said that one of the first changes he will make is to introduce more voice and more voices—singular and plural—into USA Today journalism.
That certainly makes sense to me. But it’s a big shift for mainstream journalism, and especially for USA Today. When it launched it refused even to have a voice. For example: no editorial page. Quick: name a USA Today columnist or blogger you follow. You probably can’t, because USA Today has always been an editor’s paper—very digestible news is the big idea—not a home for writers or a school for sensibility. But Kramer is saying that this cannot be the way forward: not enough added value. And he’s in charge.
I’ve requested an interview with Larry Kramer about some of the things he’s said on the subject. In the meantime, here are the key quotes.
I think we are going to have to move toward more pronounced voices. One of the definite changes in media in the last few years: great media brands have become much more a compendium of multiple voices, not just one voice. I think both USA Today and CNN for a long time concentrated on the news being the voice. Now I think with Twitter and with all the different ways news is disseminated, people are looking for a little bit more of an interesting take on a story.
We really can’t survive if all we do is commodity journalism. We have to do things that… we say things differently, we help people understand things. Investigative reporting is going to be a huge part of what we do on an ongoing basis, not less but more. But also explanatory journalism, the things that people need. And we have to give it to them differently that we used to. It isn’t going to be just about a five-page package in the newspaper. It’s going to be interactivity. It s going to be: you can get into this story as deeply as you like.
Kramer says USA Today needs to distinguish itself. “We don’t just need to have a voice,” he says. “We need to be an orchestra of voices…”
Sports accounts for about half of usatoday.com’s unique users — those who visit the site, Kramer says. The company is making acquisitions to strengthen that brand, and Kramer plans to hire “unique voices…”
“You have got to have original content in tone or voice, otherwise you’re spinning your wheels. Don’t give me two paragraphs on the Giants game. Tell me what’s wrong with that pitcher’s arm.”
“What we need here is what we haven’t had before — a lot of strong voices,” Kramer said with a sense of urgency. “Here, it was just the USA Today brand by definition…”
Kramer intends for the new USA Today brand to be a “compendium” of “strong voices” and “content you can only get here.”
Q: What are the first moves coming in?
More distinctive voices in several areas…. We have begun the process in sports, but I want to boost coverage of the changing media landscape, the arts — including all forms of video entertainment, politics from outside the beltway, business and finance, entrepreneurism, advertising and marketing, education. I’d like us to be more complete and more outspoken in several areas, including stories about the impact of actions by government and business.
Q: You’ve said you “love the brand” and “what it stands for”…. What does the brand stand for?
It’s America’s storyteller. I really want us to engage the country in the discussions they are already having about many of those topics. They need both curators of the discussion that is already out there, and new voices that add something to the discussion. We should be both.
Kramer seems to be saying that the View from Nowhere has become a liability. Again: I agree. But overthrowing that approach isn’t as simple as hiring a few bloggers or loosening the rules for writers. We’re talking about ideological change within an occupation that sees itself as having no ideology. That’s… tricky. And there’s no guarantee that people who excelled at the old way will be any good at the new.
Finally: what’s the politics of USA Today? The answer always used to be: to have no politics! That was the easy answer. Now that the easy answer isn’t good enough, what replaces it? We don’t know.
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