It’s a Tough Job: Making a Newspaper Profitable in the Digital Age

USA Today’s Larry Kramer is convinced he can make his newspaper profitable in the digital age.
Larry Kramer turned down the USA Today publisher’s job the first time it was
      offered. Photograph by Tim Devine.
Larry Kramer turned down the USA Today publisher’s job the first time it was offered. Photograph by Tim Devine.

Larry Kramer’s office in the
blue-glass-sheathed USA Today headquarters in Tysons Corner has a
clear view of snarled traffic approaching the Beltway. His mission as
publisher, a position he accepted in mid-May, might be as impossible as
keeping those cars moving: to find a business model that will profitably
pay for high-quality journalism.

“Revenue on the digital side will rise—it will,” Kramer says.
But what about USA Today in print, which still brings in the vast
majority of the revenue? “We’ll maintain a print product as long as people
will buy it.”

They are, so far. The paper’s 1.8-million circulation is the
highest in the US. “We have a great brand,” he says. “The trick
is translating that to the digital side.”

Kramer, 62, is uniquely suited to solve journalism’s business
conundrum. He lived in Washington in the late ’70s and early ’80s, winning
awards as a financial reporter for the Washington Post, where he
started in 1977. Then-publisher Katharine Graham promoted
him to executive editor of the Post Company’s Times of Trenton
when he was 30, and in 1982 Don Graham brought him back,
first as executive editor Ben Bradlee’s assistant, then
as Metro editor. Kramer started a family in DC and in 1986 moved to San
Francisco to edit the Examiner.

Then he made a bundle of money.

Kramer left the Examiner and started MarketWatch, a
digital newswire for the stock market. He sold it to Dow Jones in 2005 for
$528 million. “If you take a company from zero to a half a billion,” he
says, “the money people are all over you.”

He next became the first president of CBS Digital Media, then
wrote a book about how businesses could succeed in the digital age. By the
time USA Today started calling earlier this year, Kramer was
among the most sought-after media minds around.

Why take a job he hardly needed?

“In my eye,” he says, “I have one more in me.”

When Al Neuharth founded USA Today in
1982, Kramer was at the Post. He saw the shorter articles and
flashy graphics in “McPaper,” as USA Today was derisively dubbed,
and knew newspapering had changed. Thirty years later, USA Today
is the only general-interest national paper. Its journalism is
trusted and strong, if often short, but it still pounds out deeply
reported investigative stories.

Kramer plans to reinvigorate the paper’s once-innovative
approach to graphics. And he wants writers to adapt: “I want really
pronounced voices that differentiate content. Some might already be on the
staff. A voice doesn’t mean an opinion. People need to come to us for our
take on things.”

Kramer wants to “own” coverage of media and advertising, cover
travel “with more personality,” and report more on politics outside the
Beltway.

“I want to maintain a big news operation,” he says. “It’s
expensive—we’re going to need multiple revenue streams on multiple
platforms.”

This article appears in the July 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.

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