The Public Relations Strategist

Q-and-A With Randy Lovely, Vice President of Community News, USA Today Network

April 24, 2017

On the challenges in reaching readers:

Readers have a plethora of choices, and they now make their own decisions about their media-consumption behaviors — we don’t dictate that anymore. And so, the challenge for us is always: How do we get information in front of consumers while also giving our content enough opportunity to find its consumers?

This plays out on several levels. First and foremost, and probably the most obvious, are our efforts at social media and working aggressively to better program social media — to be better engaged, to help find the connection between the right content and the right consumer.

The other piece that is a little different for us is about slowing down how we program content across our digital portfolio so the content has a lifespan in which the reader can find it. If you go back over the course of, say, 10 years, we’ve really had to condition our newsroom to be much faster and more nimble, because we were used to working on a traditional, once-every-24-hours news cycle.

We’ve had to work at being in-the-moment and quick. But we also have to realize that we program our sites at a much more frenetic pace than meets the consuming behaviors of the public. They’re not coming to our home page every 15 minutes for the latest updates.

On the use of platforms:

The benefit we have as a company, with 109 local markets and USA Today as a national brand, is the ability to experiment in small situations. We can take a handful of markets and experiment with different strategies, and then see what is the value, what’s the level of effort, before we roll something out across the company.

For example, over the course of the last several months, USA Today has been sharing its content on Facebook Instant Articles. Now we’re starting to have conversations about doing some experimenting at the local level, because we have to find the right balance between the social engagement we get with content on Instant Articles versus the potential revenue offset that we might see by putting our content on Facebook and taking it out of our own environment.

On the use of AR, AI:

We’re starting to learn how to connect technology and what it allows us to do with our unique position as a network. Before the inauguration, we were providing Facebook Live coverage of election night across multiple locations in the USA Today network, so the consumer could move seamlessly from one feed in one location to another feed in another location.

Now, we’re looking at using the technology to expand storytelling opportunities and innovations, whether around the Kentucky Derby, where we have a property; or the Indianapolis 500, where we also have a property. We’ve always had top-notch, local coverage of those events, but how can we expand it for a national audience?

On the challenges with print:

It has been a continual transition. On big, breaking-news stories, you have representation of that in print. But by the time the print edition hits people’s doorsteps, the story should have evolved beyond the in-the-moment coverage to more analytical, contextual, enterprise-driven content.

We’re seeing a much deeper division now in how we program content between digital and print. Print is not a breaking-news medium anymore. We’re breaking news digitally. And then how do we serve our print readers, who are very loyal, with deeper storytelling, investigative work, more contextual, explanatory types of journalism, which can be fulfilled within that medium at a much better level than with breaking news?

On blending online with print:

On bigger stories, it takes a team effort and groups of journalists — not just reporters, but visual journalists, journalists who specialize in social media, all swarming together. And oftentimes, one reporter may be taking feeds and managing the overall rewrite in the breaking-news environment. Then, at some point, you’re peeling off another reporter from the in-the-moment digital world, and having them start thinking about crafting that next-day story. I’ve been in this business for 30 years. We used to talk about the second-day story. Now the second-day story is still in the first day. Reporters are less often working on a story by themselves. Most often it’s a team effort now.

On changes between the PR and news editorial side:

Before coming into this role a year ago, I spent 14 years in Phoenix working at the Arizona Republic. Oftentimes, we’d meet with organizations, PR officials, people who relied on local news media to help get their story out.

And I don’t think it’s any different than it used to be for those who were successful at this. You have to build a relationship with your best point of contact within a news organization. In Phoenix, we had up to 20 different community publications that had geographic-specific distribution. I used to say to PR organizations, “Find a slice of your story that has very specific interest within a particular geography, and it will have a better chance of finding a home within those publications.”

It’s not easy, though. You can’t just send out a press release and hope for the best. You have to tailor the work you’re doing and match it with the news media and the products they’re distributing

On characterizing this period of journalism:

It’s both exciting and challenging. There’s no mistaking the challenges that we face. The consumer is in the driver’s seat and has lots of options. We’re just one option they may choose for their news and information.

The opportunity is that technology has now created a world in which consumers are receiving, processing and digesting news and information at a level never before seen in the history of mankind. Not a moment seems to go by in which an average person isn’t getting a text alert or seeing something shared by a friend on social media. The stream of news and information and its consumption gives me great hope.

Another exciting piece is: How do we continue to leverage and experiment with technology to grow that connection and engagement with consumers? I think our biggest challenge is moving away from traditional narrative writing and being more creative about alternative ways of delivering information in a way that matches what the consumer needs.

John Elsasser

John Elsasser is the editor-in-chief of Strategies & Tactics. He joined PRSA in 1994.


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