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‘McPaper’ no more, ‘USA Today’ turns 25

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As it prepares to celebrate its 25th anniversary in September, Gannett Co.'s USA Today is bucking the downward trend in U.S. newspaper circulation and branching out online to offer the kind of user-generated content that has growing appeal for b-to-b marketers.

For years after it was launched in 1982, USA Today was derided as "McPaper." But in the last several years those comments have become dim memories, as many dailies have emulated USA Today's original formula of bold colors and snappy graphics.

USA Today has also has grown into the newspaper with the largest circulation in the country (2.3 million), ahead of The Wall Street Journal (1.9 million) and The New York Times (1.1 million).

While overall newspaper circulation in the U.S. fell 2.1% in the six-month period ended March 31, USA Today saw a 0.23% increase, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. It was one of just six of the top 25 newspapers that had paid circulation increases. Indeed, 11 of the last 13 ABC publisher's statements have shown USA Today's circulation growing.

An IntelliQuest business study released in the spring found that among daily newspapers, USA Today has the largest reach in terms of business technology influencers (5.2 million) and C-level executives (1.1 million).

"When you talk about the hard-to-reach business executive, we have the ability to do that through our relationships with hotels, airlines and airports," said Craig Moon, USA Today president-publisher.

Moon added that the paper is "always trying to create new adjacencies for advertisers." For example, in April 2006 it introduced "The Small Business Connection" in the "Money" section. The standing feature joined others with appeal to b-to-b marketers, such as "Executive Suite."

"I travel a lot, and every hotel I stay in a copy of USA Today is in front of almost every door; and the majority of occupants are there on business. That says something," said Nancy Wiese, VP-worldwide brand marketing and advertising at Xerox Corp., which has been advertising in USA Today for years.

Wiese said Xerox is currently running ads in USA Today's "Money" section next to "Advice From the Top CEO."

"It's got an incredible audience," Wiese said, adding that Xerox's spending in USA Today is holding steady. "It gets business decision-makers of all sizes, and that's one of the things Xerox is looking for—businesses from the high end to the low end."

Bill Courtney, director of marketing communications at Hewlett-Packard Co.'s b-to-b unit, said USA Today is "a very effective way to reach the SMB and the mobile professional." He said the ads the company runs in the front and "Money" sections of USA Today provide solid returns "in terms of both calls and clicks."

While Xerox, HP, Dell and FedEx Corp. have been mainstays in USA Today, the newspaper continues to attract additional b-to-b advertisers, such as Boeing Co., Cargill Inc. and Nucor Corp.

The newspaper is aiming to increase that ad base through brand extensions on- and offline. For example, USAToday.com in March introduced a comprehensive redesign that incorporates many Web 2.0 tools. The revamped site allows readers to scan other news sources directly; see how readers are reacting to stories; recommend stories and comments to other readers; and better communicate with USA Today editorial staff.

The newspaper has also partnered with Larstan Publishing to run a special section devoted to "Technology Breakthroughs." The content will run both in print and online during the holiday season.

USA Today is also developing a glossy magazine to distribute with the flagship newspaper starting in the first quarter of 2008, Moon said. (The Wall Street Journal is also in the process of developing a glossy publication, according to a person familiar with the situation.)

"There are a lot of reasons to buy USA Today," said Bryan Jackson, director of newspaper investment for ad agency OMD, who buys ad space on behalf of AT&T and Hilton Hotels. "You're getting a high-quality audience with above-average income and education, and it allows marketers to get their message out in a timely manner."

USA Today will be rolling out a new ad campaign to coincide with its 25th anniversary and will also have several celebratory events tied to Advertising Week Sept. 24-28 in New York.

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