USA Today Publisher Larry Kramer Looks to a Local Future

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It’s lunch time, but Larry Kramer is not eating. He’s too busy reviewing the new iPad edition of USA Today, comparing it against the Web, taking a call and attending to a blogger all at once. Then there’s the nasty cold that would keep some people home, but not the chief of the country’s largest newspaper.

Kramer took the helm of USA Today last spring, inheriting a product that missed the Internet when the Internet was a “thing,” but is roaring back with multi-platform news delivery, including crafty mobile products for all key platforms. [It should be noted that Kramer has been an advisor to and investor in Street Fight.] In fact, as I was told by a friend in the design department, the website design actually follows the iPad UX, and iPad content is built ahead of the Web. That’s the kind of forward thinking that was evident when the paper revolutionized news (and pissed off so many established news outlets) 30 years ago when a plucky paper distributed inside Cocoa Today in Florida for several weeks caused a rebellion because people hated that they’d changed the local paper to look like USA Today … and they pulled the plug on the test.

But that was a hiccup — one of many in early days — that led to the colorful national paper re-educating Americans that the best way to ingest news was in short bites, no jumps, and tight edits. Sound familiar, online news fans?

USA Today publisher Larry Kramer

There’s an important point in there that Kramer makes — that part about the paper being snuggled inside your local (Gannett) paper way back when.

“This whole company is hyperlocal,” Kramer says when asked about the locally targeted news. “We’ve got 81 newspapers and 23 TV stations all with local news operations.” Oh, and 5,000 journalists. And many of them are being brought closer to the center (and vice versa) as Kramer leads the development of a new sort of multipurpose “breaking news” desk in the center of the newsroom. Here, editors from the flagship paper will work face-to-face with representatives from local papers and other Gannett media properties. Think of it as a continuously operating wire service pulling from the field, while also delivering back all matter of content (video, digital only, content for print) and working closely with the social team (also with a seat) to make sure distribution happens at all levels and the feedback loop to the new desk is a closed one.

Kramer’s involvement is granular on other levels as well. He entered USAT just as it was undergoing a major redesign. Kramer could have stepped back and let it play out but instead became very hands-on.

“Print redesign has been great. It was halfway through when I got here, but I made considerable changes to it,” he said (likely to the chagrin of staff designers). “Almost all the reaction has been positive…there were some people who didn’t like that we had dropped stocks or didn’t like the new body type face, and found it hard to read. Also, some people were upset with changes in the puzzles, etc. We did a mea culpa a couple weeks ago where, after further study, we decided to up the density of the typeface to make it easier to read and changed some puzzles back.”

This whole company is hyperlocal … We’ve got 81 newspapers and 23 TV stations all with local news operations. — Larry Kramer, USA Today Publisher

Reader responses have been great, he said. And in an unusual move the paper spoke directly to readers about it from the front page:  “We got a terrific response … to the fact that we put a front page letter in the paper that day to apologize for the fact that some of the changes we made didn’t accomplish our goals, and to outline our fixes and to thank the people who told us their problems. ”

As if that wasn’t enough, Kramer persuaded the paper to give a two-week subscription to all those upset by the temporary changes. Many of this feedback came in through the social door. As Kramer noted, “We are always looking at our tweets.”

To understand Kramer’s perspective on this, you have to know the following: He was a reporter for The Washington Post and the executive editor of the San Francisco Examiner. He is an adjunct professor at the Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University, an author, a board member multiple times (primarily of dot-coms), creator of CBS MarketWatch and former editor to Hunter S. Thompson. So he knows what’s what.

Kramer admits it’s a work in progress, but one that will benefit both local news outlets with resources (why would a local paper cover a national story when it could get the piece from USAT? AP and other services are options, true, but this way keeps it in the family). In fact, Gannett has a tradition of bringing people from its papers in to the Virginia headquarters as short-term reporters and editors to help build the brand.

“They now want to devote their assets to covering local news,” Kramer explained regarding the local outlets. “The Detroit paper doesn’t aspire to cover Moscow anymore, nor should they. They do want to do the best job in Detroit. They’re up against lots of new competitors that don’t really cover an area too well but put up a lot of stuff.”

Some of those competitors include AOL’s Patch and local bloggers, whom Kramer regards not with the disdain of many traditional journalists but with perspective, noting that blogging is a platform first and that on that platform can be great news sources and poor ones.

“People who blog frequently are very valuable sources of news,” Kramer said, pointing out that user-generated content in general can be great sources for reporters.

In fact, “for the very reason they are not journalists might mean they have a lot of insight and interesting information,” he noted, sitting in his office in the newsroom on the third floor, forgoing the traditional perch for the paper’s publisher tucked out of the way on the ninth. “They could have a deep knowledge of the subject they are writing about because they are very close to it.”

“We have to as journalists help people put every bit of content the into perspective,” Kramer said. “They are getting tons of information, much of it raw. So part of our job is to be curators for them and help them piece through what is valuable.”

And despite those 5,000 journos on the street, Kramer admits, “We’re not going to be able to be everywhere a story breaks.” So count on socially and locally collected  (and refracted) news as well as other traditional user-gen channels to be accelerated.

Gannett, which of course owns USAT, has winnowed into hyperlocal recently with several efforts both commercial and journalistic. Recall the offers site Deal Chicken as well as their high school sports site USA Today Hight School Sports. One of our readers at Street Fight wanted know about the fate of the so-called “hyperlocal” content from their Sports Weekly pub, announced in March 2011 under the brand “Extra” … I didn’t find a definitive answer but did hear from Kramer about “Pulse,” a sports product made up of content packages generated by the national edit team and distributed on the local papers’ websites.

Kramer says there’s a real place for local news, pointing out that “news doesn’t happen in front of us …so we need eyes and ears of people to tell us.”

He continued,  reframing his thought, saying that “people have to see it to know about it” and the “it” can only be exposed by local eyes.

And on the coverage of kids sporting events — something often cited as a benchmark in truly local reportage — Kramer says that “you don’t need trained journalists with master’s degrees from Syracuse University covering Little League games.” On the other hand, to the parents of the kids in that game that is the most important kind of news.

Kramer believes there’s a need to provide paths for trustworthy coaches to input data for stories.

And perhaps there’s no better example as an analog for this “trust the local community voice but verify” model than HotelMe, a travel and review site USA Today and Gannett invested in. The site thrives on reviews of properties by “real people” but there’s a catch that sets it apart from the wilds of other digital review sites: the service verifies that the reviewers actually stayed at the hotel.

These partnerships and acquisitions may portend a future of continued change through strategic choices around fresh and nimble mobile and Web startups. But for now the focus appears to be around adjustment: reporters and editors becoming more familiar with modern methods of communications and news dissemination, cultural shifts toward organic gathering of information and greater involvement of the spokes with the hub.

Give it another six months and Street Fight will check in again to see if Kramer’s still present in the newsroom (or retreated to the ninth, letting someone else juggle while he focuses on one thing at a time).

Rick Robinson’s Turf Talk column appear every second week on Street Fight. Follow him at @wideopensea.