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Could A Redesign Really Rescue USA Today?

With the help of Wolff Olins, USA Today makes its newspaper more like the web, while the website is more like an iPad app.

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"Gannett’s 78 newspapers spread over 30 states and two island territories are textbook examples of how to succeed financially in the newspaper business. Most are small, with the average circulation about 34,000, and almost all are extremely profitable." That’s Larry Kramer, now the president and publisher of USA Today, reporting for The Washington Post in 1979.

At the time, newspapers were facing new competition from the growth of television and radio as news media. Gannett’s collection of smaller papers, which delivered local news broadcasts left out, was a hit. But Gannett’s biggest hit came a few years later. When USA Today launched in 1982, it was disruptive. Unlike the standard newspaper of the day, it used heavy images and color. Its stories were small, consumable tidbits that rarely jumped to another page, and it mimicked the mass appeal of news broadcasts. Today, it’s the second-largest newspaper in the United States.

"[USA Today] was like the Internet before the Internet, because a lot of the tools making news successful on the Internet are the same tools," Kramer told Fast Company at a meeting in New York this week. Problem is, the company stopped innovating as the actual Internet appeared. Its profits have plunged as it attempts to transition revenue sources online. On its 30th anniversary, USA Today launched a huge redesign that symbolizes its attempt to catch up. It includes a redesigned website, newspaper, and library of apps. And to top it all off, it replaced USA Today’s static blue-box logo with a dynamic dot that changes depending on what’s happening in the news. When the leading story is about voting, editorial might fill it with a ballot box. On the sports page, the game-winning catch might fill the space, while it might show a celebrity in the Life section of the same edition.

The last dynamic logo we saw was also from a media company that was trying to reinvent itself. When AOL became lower-case and got a period in 2009, it put its logo against a variety of backdrops. This similarity might not be a coincidence. The same design firm, Wolff Olins, helped create both dynamic logos. "To have something static doesn’t seem appropriate for a news organization that changes every single second, so its brand needs to be adaptive in the same way," Wolff Olins design director Lisa Smith tells Fast Company. (Fantasy Interactive designed and developed the digital presence; more on that in a second.)

AOL’s approach to this idea didn’t go over so well with the design community. But Smith says USA Today’s version of the dynamic logo is a different concept. "I would say this is the first kind of activated identity that is specifically related to the content that the business creates," she says. "[AOL’s logo] is much more about art, this is much more specific to their content."

So does USA Today's new logo function better as a symbol of a media company’s promising new identity? Or a desperate attempt to appear relevant? The jury is still out, but its verdict will probably depend largely on whether the brand’s total redesign lives up to the "pulse of the nation" idea it promises.

The new website, created by Fantasy Interactive, looks like more like a tablet app, adding a luxury, full-page ad feel in hopes of attracting better ads. Kramer says about 2 million people see USA Today in print each day, compared to about 50 million people who visit Gannett’s websites each month, but print still brings in more revenue. The hope is that design can change that.

This summer, Gannett hired Kramer and Editor-in-Chief David Callaway to switch focus (if not necessarily add more resources) to digital products. Its redesigned newspaper now references the web with a list of web-only articles to follow, curated social media posts on current events, and QR codes that lead to Internet video.

Meanwhile, the brand’s ever-changing new logo attempts to make its static newspaper identity relevant to every day and every niche, like the Internet. USA Today has always tried to be everything to everybody. In 1982, that strategy earned it mocking nicknames like the "McPaper." Its latest redesign is just the 2012 version of that mission. But even in a new package, can the role of a general interest publication hold ground in a world where audiences can access niche publications on any topic from one device? "There are a lot of people who want to know what’s normal," Kramer offers. "People like to gauge what are people doing … reflecting what we as a society are doing, there aren’t a lot of places that do that."

The new website, which is purpose-designed for the iPad.

"I believe our balls are symbols of who we are and where we’re headed," wrote USA Today designer Sam Ward in a memo about the new logo titled "Cool Balls" that was sent to USA Today employees. "They are not stories, graphics, or illustrations. They are signposts, perhaps; reminders that offer inroads into America’s stream of consciousness."

We’ll see.