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Why the USA Today Network is getting into the consulting business

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Kevin Gentzel
Kevin Gentzel Credit: Alfred Maskeroni

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A zen koan for 2018: How, as a media company today, does one build both scale and trust? It might be easy to cultivate one, but it often comes at the expense of the other.

The USA Today Network has managed to do both. With 109 local papers scattered throughout the country, the media company has certainly cobbled together scale. And the journalists on the ground are putting the lie to the expression of "fake news," picking up three Pulitzers for the network this year alone, including for its work in exposing Larry Nassar, the serial child molester who was the USA Gymnastics team physician.

"We're this media company that's north and south, east and west, urban and rural, red and [blue]," says Kevin Gentzel, USA Today Network's chief revenue officer on this issue of the Ad Lib podcast. "We give accurate representation to all of the country. We give voice to America in many ways."

Still, news is a tough business. And local news is even tougher. USA Today Network has seen continued growth in digital revenue, but not enough to offset declines in traditional advertising. Gentzel and his team are tasked with solving that riddle. Part of the solution: Build a consulting and advertising business at—you guessed it—scale. Gentzel has recently returned from a road trip to the network's various newsrooms to get a sense of the local markets from Pensacola to Phoenix.

"As much as we believe local businesses are going to be increasingly digitally savvy, they're going to need expertise, they're going to need proprietary technology," he says. "We believe we can help local businesses be treated with more marketing solutions, with more agency-like capabilities through proprietary tech, smart acquisitions, through being able to see—through our nationwide scale—what's working in display creative so we can help inform them of best practices and treat them quite frankly like an agency would."

We also discuss where Gentzel believes programmatic goes from here. Over the past few years, he says, viewability drove yield. Going forward, he's bullish on enhanced targeting capabilities.

"Ultimately a client is investing in us, in the story that we're sharing with them, in the belief system it's going to perform," he says. He cites as an example brand safety around news context. "There are ways we can create technology that can help a business feel better about the environment in which their ad runs," through natural language processing to gauge sentiment.

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