USA Today is dipping its toe into the paid-content waters. Our last free national digital newspaper has announced that it’s going to start charging for certain types of premium content:
Much of the content on USA TODAY will still be free. But you’ll find a selection of stories each day marked “subscriber only.” These will be exclusive investigations, sophisticated visual explainers, thought-provoking takes on the news and immersive storytelling.
According to The New York Times, a digital subscription to USA Today will cost $10 a month after an initial discount, or $13 if you want an ad-free version.
It will be interesting to see if it works. USA Today is a perfectly fine paper, but it’s not quite in the class of the Times, The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal. Its principal attraction has been that it’s free, making it a quality source of national news that can easily be cited. When I link to a story in USA Today, I do so knowing that my readers will be able to access it.
On the other hand, we know that free news supported entirely by ads doesn’t work for digital newspapers, as Craigslist, Google and Facebook have destroyed the value of online advertising. I can understand why Gannett, USA Today’s corporate owner, decided it was time to get on board. I’m just not sure why someone would choose USA Today over one of the other national papers.
Then, too, USA Today’s traditional distribution routes no longer work, either. I haven’t seen any of the paper’s once-ubiquitous news boxes in years. The paper was also something generally offered free by hotels, but it could be a long time before business travel recovers from the COVID pandemic.
Gannett, as we know, is a debt-addled chain that has been slashing the newsrooms of its 100 or so daily newspapers and 1,000 weeklies, most of which already have paywalls. The USA Today announcement says that the paper has unique value because it can draw on the resources, such as they are, of the USA Today Network. But those of us who read a Gannett community paper know the journalism flows in both directions, with out-of-town news from other Gannett papers filling up space that ought to be devoted to local coverage.
My skepticism aside, I wish USA Today the best. I know that it produces good journalism, and perhaps it appeals to those who don’t like the Times’ snark, the Post’s breathlessness or the Journal’s focus on business coverage. We’ll see whether it works.