USA Today Publisher: Paid Web Content a Possibility

Fresh from implementing a major shake-up at Detroit’s two major dailies–which cutback home delivery under his watch–David Hunke is ready to make major changes at USA Today if need be.

Named president and publisher of the Gannett Co. flagship earlier this week, Hunke–former CEO of the Detroit Media Partnership–says some paid content could emerge on the USA Today Web site and he is not shy about making other innovations if they are required.

“I do have a little experience shaking things up, don’t I?” Hunke, 57, joked Thursday, two days after being named publisher. “We’ve got to take an immediate look at alignment, alignment of the circulation footprint creating an audience, content attracting and retaining audience, and selling advertising against that audience.”

Hunke drew both criticism and praise earlier this year when the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News, both JOA partners under the Media Partnership, pulled back home delivery to three days per week. He said such a change will not take place at USA Today.

“I did not come here to bring a Detroit delivery model to USA Today,” he said. “I can’t imagine USA Today would consider cutting days of delivery.”

But he said some paid online content could begin to appear: “there is paid digital content in some areas in the future for us and everyone else,” Hunke said. “There will always be an element of free access to some level of news and information.” He added, “we are all racing to give everything away for free and everyone is seeing the pricing model in digital begin to decline.”

Asked if USA Today might choose to pull back delivery in some areas or make other changes to its nationwide distribution model, Hunke said, “We may be looking at additions or adaptations to delivery. We have to make sure we are selling newspapers and retaining audience. That could cause us to make decisions on geographic distribution structures.”

Asked about the newspaper’s extensive hotel distribution, Hunke admitted the recent decision by Marriott Hotels to stop automatic free distribution of newspapers to guests was significant. But he said that would not impact the USA Today approach: “business travelers love USA Today in hotels.”

Hunke added that the print product remains strong and will continue to be a major part of the USA Today delivery: “There is a great future for newspapers that continue to be competitive and have unique content. USA Today in print will continue to be here for at least the next five years, but digital delivery will drive a ton of delivery decisions.”

He would not specify if Gannett officials came to him to replace former USA Today publisher Craig Moon when Moon announced his retirement in early March, or if he sought the job. He said only: “I have always had a dream to be at USA Today. When the opportunity presented itself, I took it.”