Former USA Today ad exec says killing the print edition would be ‘a friggin’ travesty’

USA Today editor-in-chief David Callaway said on Wednesday that the company could stop publishing a daily print newspaper as early as the next “five or six years.” (A weekly USA Today print edition coming soon?)

That remark didn’t go over well with Jim Gath, who was on the ground floor of USA Today. He tells me in an email: “I was there from the 2nd prototype onward – from 3/81 to 10/94. Was Director of Special Sales, Director of Sports Marketing & VP/Advertising. Also a founder of Baseball Weekly.”

Gath says of Callaway’s remarks: “To me & to an awful lot of other people out there who remember what having guts is like, this idea of ceasing the print version of USA TODAY is nothing short of a travesty. Not a shame, mind you. A friggin’ travesty.”

He adds: “People WILL buy pieces of paper with stuff printed on it. But only if they feel they can’t live without it or it adds an important, welcome addition to their lives. If you give people something they can’t possibly get anywhere else, they’ll flock to your door.”

His full blast is posted on Facebook, but it’s reprinted after the jump for readers who’ve chosen not to log in at Mark Zuckerberg’s place.

By Jim Gath

USA TODAY: “WE’RE ALMOST GONE!”
Yesterday, as part of an Internet Week New York panel entitled, “The Future of Media”, USA TODAY’s editor-in-chief, David Callaway, was quoted as saying that the newspaper could stop publishing as a daily print product in the next “five or six years”.

I guess it’s not surprising.

And it’s not surprising simply because print media is on the downswing.

That’s the excuse of losers.

The excuse of hand-wringers who have no idea what to do. The excuse of the unimaginative. The excuse of those who don’t have the thrill of challenges & of competition coursing through their bloodstreams.

The excuse of people who buy into the notion that ‘it just can’t be done’.

The excuse of big corporations run by bean-counters.

Without going into an entire treatise on the origins of USA TODAY, suffice it to say that all of those involved – from the delivery people who drove through the morning darkness to the ‘loaners’ that came from all over the country to sleep 4 to a room for 3 hours a night just to get the paper out, all the way up to the chairman of the company – there was the greatest ‘can-do’ attitude I’ve ever encountered.

And I’m not alone in that. Every single man & every single woman that had anything to do with launching & making a success out of the only daily national newspaper this country has ever had felt the exact same way: That nothing – nothing! – could stop us.

People were on airplanes seven days a week. Reporters, editors & graphics people didn’t leave the newsroom for days on end. Delivery guys were accosted & beaten by angry union members. Trucks were burned.

Mistakes were made, big & small. And mistakes, big & small, were forgiven. Because it was well known throughout the enterprise that everyone was doing the very best they could to accomplish something that had never been done before nor has ever been done since.

We fought for every single inch. We fought for every single ad & we fought for every single sale. We fought among ourselves. We fought the friggin’ world. The world that said it couldn’t be done.

And we fucking won.

We beat the odds. We beat the naysayers. We beat the gloom & we beat the doom. We beat the unimaginative. We left the hand-wringers in the dust. And, yeah, we beat the bean-counters.

When the bean-counters told our leader – the chairman of the company & USA TODAY’s founder, Al Neuharth – that the early days were becoming a huge financial drain on the company & that USA TODAY should look for ways to save money, know what he did?

He got them in a room & read them the riot act.

“Goddammit!”, said Al. “When are you bean-counters gonna get it through your thick skulls that nobody EVER saved their way to prosperity? Ever! The only way to make money is to SELL your way to prosperity! And that’s exactly what we’re gonna do & I don’t ever want to hear another word about it.

“If you can live with that, fine”, said Al. “If you can’t, you can get up & leave right now. Right this very minute. You can take your stuff & walk out of this conference room & never come back.”

He stopped talking & looked at each person around the table. Looked ‘em right in the eye.

And nobody left.

And, from that moment forward, there was never another discussion about cutting costs at USA TODAY.

It took us 11 years to finally turn a profit. But when we did, the money rolled in. Like, nine-figure money.

All because a whole lot of people believed.

Now? Ah, hell – are you kidding?

Over the years, they gave it away.

Gave away a sports franchise that was the envy of all American media & the go-to source for millions of people. No matter where in the country you were, you had the day’s & the night’s final late scores, along with descriptions of each game.

The nation turned to USA TODAY for its Olympics coverage. Every athlete. Every sport. Every game. Every event. Every day.

For years, Major League Baseball relied on USA TODAY to deliver its All-Star balloting program.

The National Football League relied on USA TODAY to deliver its Player of the Game, Player of the Week & Player of the Year programs & to provide the penultimate guide to the Super Bowl.

The NCAA’s ever-popular 64-team basketball grid? Appeared for the first time in USA TODAY.

The weekly NCAA college football poll? USA TODAY’s.

The trophy awarded to college football’s national champion? The USA TODAY Coaches’ Trophy.

The High School All-America players, teams & coaches. The America’s Cup. The very first Breeders’ Cup. All – & more – were arrows in USA TODAY’s sports quiver.

And those programs combined to not only make tens upon tens of millions of dollars for the newspaper, they made it the nation’s number one source for sports.

And they let it go. Let it all go.

The News section? We had correspondents all over the Mideast during the First Gulf War. In Bosnia. In Herzegovina. And from this nation’s eastern shores to the farthest reaches of Hawaii. Wherever there was news to be covered, USA TODAY was there. Its writers & correspondents were all over the big-name television newscasts.

Ah, that’s gone, too.

Today, the News section is often down to eight pages. Really? You can cover the nation & the world in eight pages?

Good luck with that.

And that notion that print is dying is, again, a straw man.

Oh, to be certain, for the most part, it is.

Why?

No imagination. No competitive spirit. No drive.

People WILL buy pieces of paper with stuff printed on it.

But only if they feel they can’t live without it or it adds an important, welcome addition to their lives.

If you give people something they can’t possibly get anywhere else, they’ll flock to your door. At least millions will & that’s all that’s necessary.

So, rather than cutting back the newshole (the amount of prose in the paper) & the number of people necessary to get the job done properly – which they’ve already done – there are still those out there who would jump at the chance to dig deeper than anybody else, investigate issues & people & institutions that need investigating & do it better than anyone else in the world.

The monster bank fraud. The blistering cauldron that is the Mideast. The political votes-for-money that we all know is happening. The entire behind-the-scenes financing of the political landscape. What the Edward Snowden files really mean.

These are big issues, kids.

And nobody – not one single media outlet – has had the guts or the wherewithal to take on these issues.

Why?

Because it costs money & time & a lot of hard work, not to mention the firestorm that would undoubtedly be brought on by those being investigated.

But that’s what the Fourth Estate is all about.

Digging all the way down & finding the truth. The God’s honest truth. And shining a Midnight Sun-type light on it & letting the chips fall where they may.

Now – you tell me…….

Wouldn’t you pay money for that? For somebody to get to the bottom of all that we wonder about & complain about because we’re thirsting for the truth?

Fair enough. Some of you would & some of you wouldn’t. No matter. There would be enough of you to more than sustain a newspaper like USA TODAY in the grandest, boldest way possible.

But it ain’t gonna happen.

Nope.

Why?

Simple.

No guts.

And, to me & to an awful lot of other people out there who remember what having guts is like, this idea of ceasing the print version of USA TODAY is nothing short of a travesty.

Not a shame, mind you.

A friggin’ travesty.

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