Rethinking Digital: USA Today’s Top Editor on the Evolution of Print Media

December 31, 2014

Dave Callaway
Dave Callaway

Dave Callaway has been editor-in-chief of USA Today since July 2012. He came to the paper from MarketWatch and its predecessor, CBS MarketWatch, where he spent nine years as editor-in-chief and four years as executive editor and was responsible for managing day-to-day coverage across 11 bureaus worldwide.

His journalism career includes five years as a London correspondent for Bloomberg, where he was responsible for covering the securities industry, as well as six years as a business reporter and columnist for the Boston Herald. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Here, he talks about reshaping a “digital first” newsroom, the future of USA Today and how he’ll always be just a journalist.

You and I scoffed at USA Today when we were first starting out in journalism. Today, many of its print innovations — infographics, visual storytelling, brevity — have become staples in digital content. Was there a point in your career where you came to view USA Today differently?

The use of color was new at the time, and I couldn’t understand why the other papers didn’t do it. But I wasn’t reading it. I liked the color and the graphics. I liked that it presented news and information in a way that allowed you to scan stories, absorb the information and move on quickly.

I really came to appreciate USA Today when I got back here in the late 1990s after being in London. It invented the Internet news style in 1982, long before the Internet even existed as a mass media vehicle.

What lessons have you learned about USA Today since coming aboard in summer 2012? What has surprised you about it? What’s been the hardest part of the job?

I was most surprised about the absolute depth of talent in the newsroom. USA Today has talent in every single topic, deeply talented people who know their beat and who have access to the highest-level sources.

The most challenging part of the job has been shaping that talent and culture for a digital world, for a digital daily workflow that is far different from the print daily workflow. I’ve been focused on how to convince our talent that they can reach a far larger audience through digital channels than through a 25-inch story in print only; that their impact can be four to five times larger if they could write and publish their stories in the morning rather than evening. I’m happy to say that almost all of our journalists have now embraced that digital first mindset in their daily routines.

Many of the headlines announcing your arrival at USA Today described you as a “digital news executive.” Is that how you see yourself? 

Whenever anyone asks me what I do, I say, ‘I am a journalist.’ I certainly don’t say I am a digital news executive. I can remember doing a radio interview in 1998 and the host asked me off the air, ‘Is there any rung loweron the media ladder than a web journalist?’ It was asked in a mocking tone. Guess what? Within six years, he was writing a column for me at CBS MarketWatch.

USA Today was once viewed as a traveler’s news source. You’d see people reading it on planes. You’d get it outside your door when you stayed at a hotel. What is the socioeconomic and demographic makeup of your readers today?

When you see people standing in line at a newsstand these days, what are they doing? They are looking at their phones. I say that because it’s important to understand that between two-thirds and three-quarters of our daily readers never see the physical paper. The vast majority of our readers are digital, and the majority of those are mobile. Of those in our print audience, a quarter sees the paper by home subscription, half get it at hotels and the remaining quarter is buying it at newsstands. The print audience is older, obviously; that’s just the nature of the beast.

In terms of print circulation, we’re number one, but the newspaper is only one of five platforms we publish on, and it’s not the largest. Like everyone else, we’re striving to convert the 18- to 35-year-old audience first into news readers and second into brand loyalists across all platforms.

Where does USA Today stand in digital traffic? Who do you see as competitors?

When you think about the media on the web that are the most popular: CNN, NBC, ABC — the big, populist broadcast networks that are heavy in video and heavy in online distribution — that’s closer to what we are and what we are trying to be. That’s how I measure our performance each month. The number-one site is Yahoo. They produce a small amount of original news, but traffic is not coming to their site for news. The same is true with The Huffington Post.

So, if you look at comScore, in terms of dedicated news sites, CNN is first, then NBC, then USA Today, followed by CBS and ABC. NBC News is the one we’d like to catch, and CBS is the one we’d like to stay ahead of.

How did you get news consumers to understand that USA Today has a valuable digital offering that they should try?

We did all the things you’d expect: We redesigned the site to make it mobile-friendly, introduced social media apps, did the marketing. But the number-one reason we have the audience we do has to do with editorial. We dramatically picked up the pace and breadth of our coverage.

In the old days, the newspaper would put its newspaper stories on the site at six the next morning. You’d go to the website and you could see yesterday’s news in a newspaper that was reproduced online. Essentially, we were trying to control when our audience could see our content and give it to them in the same style we were accustomed to producing in print.

We’ve adapted the format of a wire service. We are about 24/7 breaking news. We have to be first with our news alerts — whether it’s something happening in Ferguson, a sports score, or a stock alert. We have to be first, period. We are not going to run wire. I hate running wire. I want us to do our own stories and be competitive on all of the stories we do, no matter how small.

Our success has come, in large part, because readers noticed this 24/7 mentality. They notice that we are beating everybody else on the big stories. They see us where they look for news and information and like what we are doing.

Let’s talk about that. Tell me about the process that you use to make decisions about customizing USA Today content to platforms.

The only way for a news organization like ours to expand its reach is to be wherever the readers are when the news breaks.  When you and I were newspaper reporters, we would come in at 10 or 11 a.m., read the papers, check with our editors, maybe have a leisurely lunch. The news meeting ran from 2 to 3 p.m. Then, we would work hard until we filed our stories in the late afternoon or early evening.

Today, we have our news meeting at 8:30 in the morning. Our stories have to be online in the morning, when online traffic is rising across the United States. The Internet reader demands it. The reality is that any news organization worth its salt has to report as fast as the AP or Reuters.

So, our philosophy is, nothing goes in print before it goes online. Everything goes online first. That creates another important decision on how a story should be treated across channels. Let’s say we produce a story analyzing the players in the war in Syria. We need to package it for our TV stations. We need to package it for our online partners. How do we represent the story in our social media feeds? What can we do with active video? Can we do two minutes summarizing the story? How do we treat it on Facebook? What’s the best quote for Twitter? We really think hard about how to tell each particular story for each different platform to take advantage of reader loyalties to those platforms.

What are the challenges that USA Today faces in the year ahead to remain a top media brand? What can readers expect in 2015?

We have a couple. One big challenge is keeping up with the explosive growth of mobile. How do we stay relevant and build audience? How do we build social and better monetize it? We need to dramatically expand our footprint in video and in social while maintaining our print business. I think you’ll see a lot more of USA Today in social and through video. I also think you’ll see more high-impact news stories and a larger breadth of stories across money, sports and entertainment.

Ed Cafasso
A member of PRSA's Corporate Communications Section, Ed Cafasso is a managing director in the corporate and financial practice for Burson-Marsteller and the agency's Boston market leader.


Andy Tomolonis says:

Great interview, Ed. And good to see former Boston Herald colleagues in new positions. Digital First is a way of life in our newsroom -- both as a way to drive traffic and to maintain credibility as a source for breaking news.

Jan. 11, 2015

Ann Moravick says:

Ed, Great interview! Hope you are doing well! Ann

Jan. 14, 2015

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