NY Times vs. USA Today: Who’s #1?

F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of “The Great Gatsby,” once observed that “there are no second acts in American lives.” He was referring to the eternal cycle of American culture, a cycle that briefly lifts anonymous citizens to fame and fortune and then destroys them, only to move on to its next hero / victim.

Many other icons have observed this same tendency. Pop art pioneer Andy Warhol, for instance, once remarked that all Americans “will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” And in the business world, entrepreneurs like Groupon founder Andrew Mason can plunge from the pinnacle of success to the unemployment line in the blink of an eye.

But there are times when fading business icons are able to turn the tables on their successors and reassume positions of leadership, thereby launching the very types of “second acts” that Fitzgerald deemed impossible. Indeed, there are times when their successors actually enable them to do so by failing to rejuvenate themselves.

All The News That’s Fit To Print

The most recent newspaper circulation data, for instance, revealed that the venerable New York Times has supplanted the USA Today as the #1 general interest newspaper in the United States. Although the Times still trails the business focused Wall Street Journal in total circulation, it is the only publication among the Big Three to cover “all the news that’s fit to print” on a seven-day-a-week production schedule.

The Times, of course, has been publishing newspapers since 1851, and has been awarded more Pulitzer Prizes for journalism than any other news organization. But as recently as two years ago, its very existence appeared to be threatened by the emergence of various internet based rivals.

That’s when its publisher “bet the business” on the introduction of a pay wall that covered most of its internet content, gambling that any gain in online subscription revenue would more than offset the loss of advertising revenue from declines in non-subscriber web traffic. Its bold leap into web based e-commerce succeeded; it has returned the Times to its traditional position of industry leader.

But what of its largest general news competitor, the USA Today?

America’s Newspaper

Former Gannett chairman Al Neuharth launched the USA Today in 1982, at a time when no general interest newspaper was pursuing a national circulation strategy. The commercial internet did not exist at that time; thus, it was considered impossible for any newspaper to deliver paper based products on a daily basis across the nation.

Neuharth met that challenge by implementing an innovative business model, one that features the distribution of free newspapers to business travelers through national hotel chains. These travelers have no personal interest in the local news stories of the cities they visit, and yet they are considered attractive targets for national advertising campaigns.

Although critics disparagingly refer to the USA Today as a “Mc Paper” for its brief articles and glossy format, it has grown into a true national newspaper. For thirty years, it has been known as a prominent resource of American media and culture.

USA Today … Today

So what is the condition of the USA Today … today? It once soared past the New York Times on the strength of an innovative business model, only to fall back recently. Is it hoping to repeat its historical success soon?

Ironically, the very business strategy that permitted it to succeed during a time of paper news products is now hindering its growth in the internet era. Today, business travelers can access a wide array of news stories via the world wide web. Thus, they are no longer reliant on a “McPaper” when they are traveling for business purposes.

At the moment, the USA Today does have a web site that presents its contemporary and archived news stories. But it is hardly ever mentioned as a credible competitor among the leading online news portals; indeed, it only ranked tenth in a Nielsen survey last year.

Ready For A Backlash?

Of course, it’s quite possible that the Gannett publication may yet invent a new business model that enables it to win its battle for relevance in the media market. In fact, a number of prominent newspapers have recently experienced a backlash against their new web based strategies, and have begun to issue paper based products again.

The New Orleans Times Picayune, for instance, recently launched a streamlined newspaper on the three weekdays when it had previously terminated paper deliveries. And the initially web-only political news service Politico has launched a daily newspaper in the Washington DC and New York City markets.

None of these “retro” newspaper success stories, of course, imply that the American news market will be turning away from the internet any time soon. Nevertheless, such successes may give organizations like the USA Today hope that they – like the New York Times – will be able to design new strategies for survival.