New USA Today Editor: Innovate Like Hell

With nearly 27 years at USA Today — dating back to its first issue — John Hillkirk has put in his time in order to become editor, a post he formally took on Tuesday.
But Hillkirk, who served most recently as executive editor under former newsroom boss Ken Paulson, says he sees few changes ahead, despite the fact that the newspaper industry is in its most uncertain time in decades.
“I think USA Today is in better shape than a lot of papers,” Hillkirk told E&P Wednesday. “I don’t see radical new changes.”
Since Paulson left in February, Hillkirk has served as top editor, but did not get the permanent title until this week. The paper also announced Tuesday the appointment of David Hunke, CEO of the Detroit Media Partnership, as USA Today publisher.
Hunke made news in Detroit earlier this year when he oversaw its radical change in home delivery, in which both the Detroit Free Press and JOA partner The Detroit News cutback to home delivery only three days a week. He couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday morning.
Hillkirk does not believe USA Today will see major changes like those in Detroit, noting the paper remains focused on enterprise and watchdog reporting: “We have a non-stop focus on unique content, you have to stand out. We try to go with unique enterprise in our lead story each day.”
He also pointed to the expansion online of the paper’s “Web communities,” which allow readers to find out about and discuss issues ranging from fantasy sports to video games. “We are definitely going to roll more of those out.”
Asked if major cuts or reorganization is likely given the economy, Hillkirk said not likely. “The economy is challenging for everybody, but things are starting to get a little better,” he stated. “We are not stopping, we are moving ahead and innovating.”
While USA Today remained the top daily circulation paper, at 2.1 million, when the most recent Audit Bureau of Circulations FAS-FAX came out Monday, it did suffer a 7.1% decline.
Still, Hillkirk declares the paper headed in the right direction and not in need of major shake-ups. “We are pretty pumped-up,” he adds. “We have been able to keep a lot of great people.” He called the recent Gannett-wide furloughs “complicated on the short-term,” but not a sign of any extended impact: “I don’t think it affects our strategy.”
Hillkirk adds that his style is to listen to journalists on the front lines: “I am very much on a team approach. I like to draw ideas from people who are closest to the work. We try not to do much top-down and innovate like hell.”