USA Today has chosen one of its own to lead its highest ranks. Maribel Perez Wadsworth, a two-decade veteran of the company, will take the paper’s reins as its new publisher. Up until now, Wadsworth was president of the entire USA Today network, in addition to overseeing its content strategy. She’ll continue leading those efforts in her new role.
Wadsworth joins USA Today’s newly appointed editor-in-chief, Nicole Carroll, in a move that puts women in three of the company’s top leadership positions, including executive editor Patty Michalski. The new publisher says she plans to focus on expanding the outlet’s digital growth and doubling down on investigative and enterprise journalism. Wadsworth began her career as a beat reporter for the Rockford Register Star, a role she said is still very much part of her DNA. “Once a reporter, always a reporter,” she says.
Wadsworth’s background at the USA Today network included building digital products and helping the company’s innovation efforts. “We’ve grown our consumer revenues pretty significantly,” she says. She plans to continue that with her new role as publisher. USA Today, she says, has been experimenting with many different revenue models. It has a few audio projects–including serialized podcasts–on the horizon, as well other skirmishes in video, mobile, and membership.
Exploring New Revenue Models
As I wrote a few months ago, membership and subscriptions have resurfaced as a promising revenue engine for the journalism business. Companies like the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times have shifted resources toward these offerings as a way to offset declines in advertising revenue. Wadsworth, too, is looking into this option. “We’re beginning to develop our plans for digital subscription models,” she tells me.
Many media companies have also been beleaguered by recent changes to Facebook’s algorithm, which have resulted in traffic declines. For Wadsworth, this predicament underscores a common strategic pitfall in which outlets come to rely too heavily on a single distribution channel. “We try very hard to not think or be driven by platforms specifically,” she says. “We want to make sure that what we’re doing is following our audience.
Another program Wadsworth finds promising is the ad-free option on USA Today’s app–as well as its push into franchised media programs. The newspaper’s video channel, Humankind, “has grown really nicely, to over a billion video video streams last year,” she says. Which is all to say that she believes that the national newspaper is building a stronger, less platform-dependent business model.
“We’re doing more and more experimentation,” she says.
Gannett, USA Today’s parent company, has been feeling squeezed by the pressures of the industry. Over the last few years, the company has reported sinking revenues as the print advertising market continues to plummet. “There’s no question that revenues overall have been under pressure over the last many years,” says Wadsworth. “At the same time,” she adds, “we’ve had a clear focus on revenue diversification.”
Digitally, USA Today says the past year has seen huge gains. Its network of sites hit a collective high of more than 125.3 million unique visitors last September. Wadsworth says the USA Today sites average around 98 million uniques every month, and digital advertising now represents about two-thirds of its entire advertising business. “We have, today, more readership than we have ever had in the history of our company,” she says.
Of course, as the last few years have shown, digital advertising revenue is anything but consistent, so the paper will surely have to rely on variety of revenue plays. And with print continuing to plummet, Wadsworth is tasked with steering a mammoth ship through a monsoon. Pew reported last year that daily newspaper circulations for both print and digital fell 8% in 2016. Ultimately, Wadsworth’s goal is to find where the audience is and try and cash in. “There are clear challenges with the mobile revenue models,” she says, “but we see clear opportunity also.”
When USA Today first launched in 1982, it was derided for being the first general-interest national newspaper. In the digital age, perhaps Wadsworth can use this nationally focused mandate to the paper’s advantage. But what’s most important, she says, is that it continue pushing out good work. “Journalism was always the thing for me,” Wadsworth says.