We picked a somewhat awkward time yesterday to arrive at the McLean, Virginia headquarters of USA Today. The five Back in the Newsroom fellows and I all agreed that the campus sure looked nice. But it seemed quiet and a bit somber, and that might have been because this was the final day for some recently laid-off employees.
But we were met by an upbeat Brent Jones, the standards and ethics editor at the company, and quickly led to an impressive-looking newsroom that was buzzing with activity. It’s clear that the company is truly a digital operation. Top editors were seated in a circle for a morning meeting that included the social media and engagement team, who were intently monitoring their audience numbers on Chartbeat. A few feet away was Andrew Scott, deputy director of multimedia for USA Today, who was turning on lights to prepare the three-camera television set for a later broadcast.
“We call it the USA Today Network, because the closest thing it is to something is a television network,” said David Callaway, USA Today’s Editor in Chief.
The staff was coming off a recent coup. They had just completed an investigative piece on security concerns surrounding bio labs in the United States and had the story and its digital components ready to go when news broke that live anthrax specimens had been mistakenly shipped to two dozen labs in the U.S. Executive Editor Beryl Love said that as many as 40 outlets in the USA Today network participated in the reporting and localized the content when the story broke Thursday.
“In the past that story would have dropped like a thud in the local markets and they may or may not have picked it up,” Love said. “And by the way, it’s digitally optimized, interactive and lets you search by state and find out where the closest bio lab is to your house.”
We completed our day with tours of NPR and later The Washington Post. NPR didn’t allow many photos inside and also didn’t want our meeting with producers on the record, a strange philosophy for a media organization with “public” in its name. Oh well.
At the Post we met with top social media editors Michael Gold and Jessica Stahl, who gave us a concise view of how content at the company is optimized for digital platforms. While they lead the way, reporters are being asked to do a lot of their own engagement, such as posting regularly on Twitter and coming up with clickable headlines for all their digital content. They emphasized that the company’s social media strategy is to be as forward-thinking as they can, so they are looking not to where the audience is today, but anticipating where it might be down the road. Currently generating excitement among Post editors and reporters is Twitch and Periscope.
I know where we will be in the future: Heading off to our respective fellowships. We parted ways Friday evening to travel to different cities in anticipation of our fellowships that begin on Monday, when the real fun begins.
Here is where we are going:
Milbert Brown: ProPublica, BuzzFeed and WNYC
Michael Fairwell: The Wall Street Journal
Milton Kent: The Washington Post
Russell Motley: USA Today
Saul Rubin: Los Angeles Times
Marie Villa: Univision