Summary:

USA Today is taking advantage of Gannett’s custom built CMS system that will let it select and curate content for the growing number of readers who are reading news on mobile devices. The move may help the company reboot a tired brand for the digital age.

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Is there a future for a media brand best known for dropping free newspapers at America’s hotels? The brass at USA Today seems to think so and today launched a “next generation” iPad app to carry the brand into the digital future.

The app represents a big bet on technology by parent company Gannett which, like other newspaper chains, is on borrowed time as it tries to solve the digital dilemma before its traditional print ad earnings collapse once and for all.

The company’s gamble comes in the form of a bespoke content management system that lets editors tailor content specifically for a mobile audience rather than simply slinging content from the USA Today website. In practice, this means shorter and snappier headlines and choosing hard news stories in the morning and then more visual, feature-like fare for later in the day. The move coincides with a mass reader migration to smartphones and tablet devices.

“We’re starting to think of these as products that should be actively programmed rather than taking things that were produced for another medium,” said Gannett’s Chief Digital Officer, David Payne. He added the process gives USA Today editors more levers to pull in serving mobile content and interjects a new human element to the curation process.

As for the app itself, it’s attractive but hardly a knockout compared to the mobile sites of digital natives like The Verge or the Atlantic’s Quartz:

And then there is the revenue question.

The market for online display ads is suffering from a supply glut and collapsing prices, meaning publishers like USA Today must find other revenue sources and find them soon. Payne says video ads, which pay much better, will be a cornerstone of the site’s approach to expanding its ad offerings. Specifically, the plan is to intersperse more videos among USA Today‘s text and photo content — a plan that will be easier given Gannett’s multiple broadcast properties.

Finally, Gannett’s 80 or so regional newspapers will be plugged into the new content management system, meaning it will be easier to pluck and share content from across the USA Today and other sites. The regional papers are also part of a major paywall experiment in which Gannett is testing which paywall schemes work best in various places. These opportunities for scale and curation may let Gannett unlock other business opportunities.

Overall, Gannett came into the digital era with a weak hand. But sound management (the company is posting respectable numbers) and bold bets on tech like this one could help the USA Today enjoy a second act in coming years.

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