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July 19, 2016, 9:33 a.m.
Audience & Social

As USA Today network builds its investigative ambitions, it looks to keep things in the Gannett family

Its chief content officer: “My message has been, any journalist at any of our papers can come up with a great idea, something that we think is scalable, we will help them scale it.”

Gannett has been trying to swallow whole the company formerly known as Tribune Publishing, while continuing to buy up newspapers around the country. In April it concluded its acquisition of Journal Media Group — which included the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel — adding another 15 dailies to its collection. Most recently this month, it bought the North Jersey Media Group, adding papers like the Bergen County Record, bringing its tally of dailies owned to 109, including its national presence, USA Today.

joanne-lipman-gannett“Our CEO Bob Dickey has been pretty transparent about the fact that he wants to grow our footprint,” Joanne Lipman, Gannett’s chief content officer, said when I asked her about the company’s ambitions (and hopes and dreams, for new technologies and new reporting collaborations). Lipman, former deputy managing editor of The Wall Street Journal and founder of the short-lived Condé Nast Portfolio, joined Gannett eight months ago to oversee the USA Today network, not long after Gannett split off its broadcast assets into a separate company called Tegna (sorry, “TEGNA”) and rebranded its constellation of local news organizations as part of the “USA TODAY Network.”

The Gannett’s vision for the network is becoming increasingly clear. The larger papers in the network can draw wholesale from USA Today news and entertainment sections, and USA Today can conduct nationwide investigations, bolstered by boots-on-the-ground local reporting from its many local outlets. A year-long investigation into the broken system of tracking teacher misconduct was the first USA Today network project to run in print and online in every publication within the network. A virtual reality news show, coming this fall, will pull in local stories. Gannett’s properties now also use a single CMS, and the company is currently building out a “unified budgeting and communication system,” Lipman told me (“to make it easier for our properties to grab an article, photograph, or video from the network than it is for them to grab something from the AP”).

Our full conversation, slightly edited for length and clarity, is below.

Shan Wang: Can you start by telling me a little more about your day-to-day, or week-to-week even, and about your mandate and priorities at Gannett and with the USA Today network?

Joanne Lipman: I’m the chief content officer and I’m also the editor-in-chief of the USA Today network. I started in January to lead the USA Today network, to actually turn it into a network — from a siloed network to a connected organization.

Now, whether you’re at USA Today or whether you’re in Jackson, Mississippi, and you come up with a great idea as a reporter, we can execute it. It’s really exciting.The transformation from individual publications to working together as a network has gone much faster than I would’ve expected.

The first example of that came out in February. For the teachers’ investigation: we have a data investigation team and they were able to collect data from all 50 states, looking at teachers who had been fired for sexual abuse, physical abuse, who were able to get jobs in other states because of a really broken background check system.

There was a big national story that ran in USA Today. A lot of the examples that were in the story came from our local properties — our journalists went out and did their reporting in local markets. Because we were able to distribute this incredible dataset to all of our local properties, they localized and customized the articles that they ran. That investigation was the first in the USA Today network that ran in print and online in every one of our publications.

A national investigation grew out of it, and a number of statewide investigations. There were quite a few teachers who were removed from classrooms who, it turns out, were sexual predators.

usatoday-water-investigation-interactive

In the wake of Flint, we wondered how many other communities have toxic levels of lead in the water. We found there were 2,000 communities in all 50 states that had toxic levels of lead in their drinking water, which is astonishing. Again, this was a huge national story, but many of our properties were able to customize the data for their own local markets.

You’ve seen this model most recently in the Trump and the law series. It grew out of a very simple question I’d asked our investigative and political team back in February: Every news organization describes Donald Trump as litigious. How litigious is he? How many lawsuits has he been involved in, on either side? That grew into an interactive database online. A large portion of those lawsuits were for nonpayment to very small businesses — people like painters, carpenters, plumbers.

trump-lawsuits-usatoday

The fact that we have the entire network is absolutely key to us being able to do this kind of work, which we weren’t able to do previously.

Wang: What direction do the story ideas flow in these USA Today network projects? It sounds like in that Trump example, that was your own idea. Do these projects come top-down, and local properties are asked to look into the story from their local angles? How does the collaboration actually work — do reporters meet with other USA Today reporters in their geographic area?

Lipman: A really important part of the network is empowering journalists in any newsroom to come up with an idea. The toxic water series was co-led by an investigative editor at the Arizona Republic, working with an investigative editor at USA Today, and working with the properties across the network.

I talk about this a lot with our properties. We can support them on any idea that they might have.

There’s something going on right now. We have a reporter in Jackson, Mississippi, which is one of our smaller properties. He had a great idea — we can’t tell you about it because it hasn’t been published yet — for something that would include a documentary series. Because it’s a smaller newsroom, they don’t have those assets in-house. We have a terrific VP of community news, Randy Lovely, who’s been with us for many years. He called around to a variety of publications around the network. The Des Moines Register said they had an editor they could lend to the project. USA Today had a great videographer. Suddenly, you have a project team based out of Mississippi working on a project that we’re able to support through the network’s other publications.

Wang: The Arizona Republic or the Des Moines Register or other papers you called out earlier are still relatively large presences in bigger cities. For a tiny paper, if they don’t have a data journalist, for instance, or someone who’s able to spare some time working with the data, what resources do they get from the network specifically to help “customize” those network-wide national projects you highlighted?

Lipman: We have data reporters in various newsrooms who can work collaboratively together. We have a reporter who specializes in taxation based in our Westchester publication, for example. You find people across the network who have expertise.

It wouldn’t generally be that I’m in one market, and I call the market in the next state over and say, hey, can you send me a photographer? But it could be! That could happen. There’s pretty much nothing we can’t do. We can move the resources around to help.

If we have a lengthy investigation, and it’s got import for all markets, and you’re a journalist in a very small newsroom, you can have all our data to do your own reporting around it. Or, we also do a couple of different sizes of the article. USA Today might run the full-length piece, and then there might be shorter articles for some of the smaller publications.

Sometimes we’ll do several different cuts of a piece so different publications have the ability to run it online and in print in different formats, because we’ve got some very large metro papers and some much smaller sites.

A reporter at one of our smaller properties in Florida came up with a really fun sports idea and realized that pretty much every local market had a similar thing going on. He and his editor sent a note to me. We put together a small team of people — editors from a couple of our publications — to talk through the idea. It’s grown into something that you will see in the next month or so. It starts at the local level and ladders up to USA Today.

This isn’t top-down. It isn’t: “USA Today comes up with an idea and imposes it on the rest of the world.” Any one of our 4,000 reporters can come up with an idea and if it scales across the network, we will help them scale it.

The network turned out to be a real benefit in this political season. We are in red states, blue states, giant cities, suburban areas, rural areas, and small towns. We’re doing a project for both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions and it’ll appear on the first day of the convention. We’ve done a really deep dive on who the voters are across the country. The project takes advantage of that sweep of the network and our understanding of local communities.

Nieman Lab had a piece on the concentration of journalism jobs on the coasts (New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles). [From that story: “When The Washington Post looked at Bureau of Labor Statistics data last year, it found that the share of American reporting jobs that were in New York, Washington, and Los Angeles went from 1 in 8 in 2004 to 1 in 5 in 2014.”]

We saw that and were interested to see how we stacked up. We crunched our own numbers. For us, it’s one in 39. The vast majority of our journalists are not in the big cities. They’re boots on the ground. They see the country in a way other journalists cannot.

The key to our network is having strong community news organizations. After most elections we look to see who our papers have endorsed, and it’s split pretty evenly between red states and blue states for endorsements.

The Orlando shooting is another example of the network’s potential. In the past, USA Today would’ve put 20 people on an airplane down to Florida to make sure they covered every aspect of the Orlando shooting. We now have publications throughout Florida. They did the coverage and their coverage was spectacular. In the first 24 hours after the shooting, we had something like 100 pieces of journalism, all of it gathered on the USA Today site. All our local Florida publications also coordinated to cover the tragic events. The rest of the network could pick up whatever pieces were relevant to their markets, whatever they had room for in their publications.

Wang: So there are specific circles of collaboration, too, state by state? I saw in Wisconsin there’s a sort of investigative reporting consortium. Are there other new collaborations you’re trying to push?

Lipman: In Wisconsin we have about 10 properties that are mostly smaller community news organizations. We have a single editor who oversees the coverage. We have the property in Green Bay, which really knows football. Every property in Wisconsin is interested in football coverage. Everybody. They cover the statehouse. All the properties are interested in that.

This was a great model for us for the network, because they were already operating as a network when I got here. I actually went out and visited them and asked them to tell me what worked and didn’t work, what lessons they’ve learned. They’re a microcosm of what we’re doing network-wide.

Wang: And what are those lessons?

Lipman: When I came in to USA Today, I had three major priorities. One, strengthening the network. Two, focusing on innovation — video, social, mobile, virtual reality. Three, making sure we had the organization and communication systems in place to make all this work together.

On priority one, we are well ahead of what my expectations were. For that I give all credit to journalists who are here. There’s a culture of collaboration. For journalists in other markets, to see their work appear on USA Today and appear on publications around America is satisfying.

For priority number two, we really want to increase our video views. We had close to a billion last year. We’re on a sharp upward curve in terms of Facebook and Twitter engagement, and we have a new network head of social media. Mobile is important. The vast majority of our audience is reaching us on a mobile device. That’s making us rethink how we present our articles, and video in particular: We know people are watching video on their phones with the sound turned off.

Virtual reality is something we’re really excited about. Our show Vrtually There is going to launch in the fall. Our chief revenue officer took a pilot to Cannes. That is a major push for us. We think of ourselves as a digital news organization overall. We still print papers, but our audience is increasingly digital and mobile.

When I talked about that 100 million-plus in our audience, we have more millennials than Vice or Vox. We have more C-suiters than The Wall Street Journal in our audience. We think very purposefully about how we interact with those audiences.

Third priority: Communication and organization are things we’re working on very aggressively. Because this company had been siloed before, our individual publications weren’t connected. We’re now all on the same CMS. But we’re not on a common communication system. For us to work as a network, right now, there are a lot of workarounds. Emails. Phone calls. There are a lot of separate Slack channels.

I brought in Jim Pensiero, who was at The Wall Street Journal with me. He helped connect all the Journal’s various organizations. He was the liaison for the tech side. He’s helping us do that. Our hope is that by the end of the calendar year, we’ll have a much smoother content budgeting and communication system that will make it more seamless for us to work together. We’re building it ourselves.

Wang: We’ve so far talked mostly about sharing editorial resources. What about these technological resources? I’m imagining when the virtual reality news show launches and needs to frequently pull in local content, some of the tiniest newsrooms don’t have any VR capabilities and won’t be able to keep up.

Lipman: That’s not true. In the fall, we distributed 50 or 60 virtual reality cameras and trained up people from the local markets.

Everybody in the industry that’s working in virtual reality, it’s still new to them. But we’ve got equipment out there. We had a virtual reality summit back in January or February, where we brought in videographers and photographers from around the network, gave them equipment, and spent a couple of days working with them on how to use it.

I have a content lead on my team who’s based in Phoenix. Until recently she was an editor at the Arizona Republic. I hired her onto my chief content officer team, heading up innovation.

I’ve always worked for large national news organizations. What I realized coming here is that the talent is spread out throughout the country. When I put together my team, I thought I’d have to go external to hire top roles. But our head of social media came over from the sports group. Our head of data analytics came from Michigan, where we have the Free Press. Our head of operations, Mizell Stewart, was running Journal Media Group out in the midwest. They live outside the media bubble.

Wang: Tell me about the blind spots, geographic and technological, that you guys currently are facing and want to expand into.

Lipman: Sure, if you look at a map, you’ll see some blank spots, and if you look at Tribune Company, you’ll see they’ll fill in some blank spots.

[We both laugh awkwardly at this.]

usatoday-app-localWe have some geographic areas we don’t cover. Our CEO Bob Dickey has been pretty transparent about the fact that he wants to grow our footprint. But part of it is, if you think about it, one of the things we’re doing with the network is, we want to make it easier for our properties to grab an article, photograph, or video from the network than it is for them to grab something from the AP. We’ve already been able to reduce our reliance on AP, because we have so much local content.

Technology itself is changing so quickly. Before I got here, three or four years ago, we redid the website. But it’s time for us to look at that again. Three years — that’s an eternity in technology time frame. We’ve already been working on redoing the app. USA Today and a number of local markets now are testing the app. On the app, you can choose up to three local markets. I’m in Virginia, but I grew up in New Jersey, and the hometown paper happens to be a Gannett paper. On my USA Today app, I get my USA Today news, and below that, stories from East Brunswick, so I can keep up with my hometown.

usatoday-vrYou’re going to be able to watch virtual reality on the app. We’re pushing ahead, but technology moves so quickly. Technology is a challenge for every media organization. Then the piece I was talking about, with the communications and budgeting tool, that’s a technological advancement for us also.

Wang: So the goal hypothetically is for the USA Today network to be in every single city? I could go into the app and be able to select from literally every city or town where there could feasibly be a news outlet? What is the scope of the ambition?

Lipman: I’ll answer that this way. At a time when the media industry is so under pressure, the network’s allowed us to think about a new way to use the reporting strength we already have.

The ambition is to be able to cover the country and the world in a comprehensive way and to have the best journalism out there. To be known for investigative work. We just hired a head of investigative, to work on improving the quality of the investigative journalism that we do.

All media companies are looking for the right model. The model that we’ve created here is a very compelling one. It gives us scale. We’d like to be the primary and best news source for people, and this strategy feels right. We’re just scratching the surface of where we can go from here.

Joanne Lipman headshot courtesy of Gannett. Photo of Gannett headquarters in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, by Bill Couch, used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 19, 2016, 9:33 a.m.
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