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It’s tough times in travel media, and the latest round of layoffs at newspaper titan Gannett has led to USA Today firing the bulk of its travel section staff. And with that, one of the last U.S. newspapers providing quality consumer travel content is gone.
“We still have four staffers completely dedicated to travel,” wrote Chrissy Terrell, corporate communications and public relations director of USA Today, when contacted about the layoffs. “We also plan to use Network, Life and other staffers to help fuel travel coverage.”
It appears that Ben Mutzabaugh, editor of Today in the Sky, social media editor David Oliver, and Dawn Gilbertson, a travel reporter, are the only staffers to survive the cuts.
The change is already notable, with lifestyle writers penning travel clickbait stories. Gannett made the cuts to ostensibly fend off a takeover by hedge fund MNG Enterprises by reducing costs.
The fall of USA Today Travel as a premier destination for consumer travel information has taken place slowly over the last decade, compounded by Gannett’s shift in focus to driving traffic across its network at expense of unique, nuanced coverage.
For USA Today, distribution in U.S. hotels represents a huge swath of its overall circulation; in 2012 it was estimated that 52 percent of the paper’s overall distribution happened in hotels.
“Approximately 81 percent of net paid circulation volumes of USA TODAY are generated by single-copy sales at retail outlets, vending machines, or hotels that provide copies to their guests,” states Gannett’s 2018 annual report. “The remainder is generated by home and office delivery, mail, educational, and other sales.” That 81 percent has remained the same since 2015.
Flashing back a decade ago, before the Great Recession led to a long period of consolidation and desperation among marquee media outlets, USA Today had perhaps the most robust consumer travel section of any paper in the world.
The paper’s year-end circulation in 2007 was 2,289,872, its highest ever. USA Today’s 2019 rate card now lists its daily Monday to Friday circulation as 741,224, with the weekend edition coming in at 852,955. So USA Today is distributing one-third the number of newspapers it used to. USA Today Travel, though, was one of the first sections to become online-centric in the late 2000s, and found major success with its blogs oriented around specific travel sectors.
The company had a travel-centric arm, USA Today Travel Media Group, that attempted to build an ecosystem of related offerings to consumers. Sources characterized the section as financially successful well into this decade, making it immune to some of the earlier cuts imposed by Gannett as it retooled for the online era.
The first half of the 2010s was marked by a series of small acquisitions that failed to generate any traction in the marketplace. Gannett launched HotelMe, a hotel review platform, in 2012 to bring verified hotel reviews to the USA Today website. It bought a variety of content (including 10Best) from failing travel content network Travora Media in January 2013, and purchased Tripology, a struggling lead generation platform for travel agencies, a few months later. It also launched a cruise review site during this period.
“USA Today is always in the Top 10 most popular travel websites on the Internet and we are known for giving good advice to travelers,” USA Today Travel Media Group President John Peters told me in 2014. “We reach millions of consumers every month, so why not offer this service? Instead of saying, ‘Here is an article about cruising,’ we say, ‘Would you like to find out more about booking a cruise?’”
It also launched The Point, a network partnering with Hilton to bring news and information to TVs and Wi-Fi networks to further piggyback on its print presence in U.S. hotels.
USA Today Travel Media Group, though, was subsumed by USA Today in 2015. And it seems that transforming from a trusted source for travel information to a publication trying to sell things to readers didn’t work out. Tripology was shuttered in mid-2015, although 10Best is still around.
Something changed over the last year, as well. Gannett’s December 2017 investor update differs greatly from its 2018 edition; the 2017 version lists sections like USA Today Travel as the beneficiary of convergence between the company’s local and national readers, while the 2018 edition lists USA Today as one entity among Gannett’s other local and niche online publications.
Death by Platform
A major change to how Gannett operated USA Today and the dozens of regional and local newspapers it owns took place after Larry Kramer took over as publisher in 2012. USA Today Network was launched to turn the disparate publications into a single online platform. Its website was soon redesigned to provide a more cohesive experience across Gannett’s verticals and today’s version is pretty much the same as three years ago.
The friction between serving readers with unique, quality content and the challenge of driving site traffic is immense. Aggregation has become more important than unique content that takes time and effort to produce. Travel writing, with the costs it incurs and time it takes to produce, is antithetical to the new model embraced by online media.
The erosion of USA Today’s print edition also means less money is coming in from potentially lucrative travel ads. Why spend thousands of dollars to produce one story on a destination, for instance, when you can aggregate stories about airplane horror stories or celebrity travel habits.
The dysfunction at Gannett speaks to the wider inability of travel media to adapt to the digital age. Consumers read trashy clickbait stories every day but only go on vacation once or twice a year. If the goal is to drive digital traffic, and sell ads against a juicy millennial demographic as it matures (Gannett claims it is the most popular media site for millennials on the entire internet in its latest investor deck), then the path forward becomes clear.
Consumers get recommendations on where to go from Facebook and Instagram while heading to TripAdvisor for reviews. Travel media has become less relevant than before because consumers don’t need travel advice from the publications they turn to for political updates and entertainment news. And the last of the trusted experts are losing their jobs to face an uncertain future.