I am an enthusiast for newspapers’ attempts at innovation in the pre-internet age. They had a window and they made plenty of attempts, but they let that window close just before it led anywhere good. In recent years, the most innovative newspaper, coverage left off to the side, has probably been The New York Times, followed directly by The Washington Post. Often, attempts to innovate in newspapers end up like the Wikitorial — embarrassing for all involved, but thankfully forgotten quickly.
But in 1982, true innovation and success was to be found in the form of USA Today. It was easily the most experimental paper of its kind when it first came out, and that early experimentation paid off as Gannett’s daily newspaper became a mainstay of hotels and newspaper racks throughout the United States. The paper recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, a huge feat. I have heard complaints from many editors over the years about the paper’s writing style, but the fact of the matter is, it was hugely popular in its early days. But did you know it had its own CompuServe-like online service…just for sports? I learned this by literally buying a software package that appeared on my front door almost exactly on the paper’s 40th anniversary.
The number of daily readers USA Today counted in its audience in 1989, according to one estimate offered by the paper from the period. By comparison, the paper, which sold a Labor Day issue in 1989 with a circulation of 2.33 million, averages a paid daily circulation of around 150,000 today, according to a Poynter article in May. (The company’s traditional strong suit of free copies at hotels shrank significantly during the pandemic, though a bounce-back is expected.)
Why did USA Today create an online service only for sports fans?
In 2006, one of the most memorably bad ideas to emerge from Bristol, Connecticut came to life in the form of Mobile ESPN, a service that aimed to convince people to sign up for a specialized mobile phone service, at a time when it was hard to imagine subscribing to a mobile company dominated by one brand. At the time, most people already owned a phone, and they weren’t going to shell out extra for one that shouted sports scores at you.
It looked like a better idea in retrospect, but it was still a pretty shaky concept when it first launched — a dedicated service built around sports, with the assumption that sports fans would pay for dedicated coverage. It’s not that they were wrong, but the motivation that gets people to engage with sports content is not the same as what gets people to buy a cell phone.
Later on, it became clear that ESPN was onto something by putting energy into its digital presence, but its initial vessel for that idea? Not great.
I’m sure the same line of thinking was what drove USA Today’s owners, Gannett, to create a sports-centric online service for its readers.
At the time when they were making this, there was evidence that there might be a market for a broad niche in sports-driven content.