Gannett adopts the blue dot, emblematic of market-driven thinking, at its newspapers

Oh, my. Look at the dot. It’s blue. It’s representative of “one unified network,” says the chief marketing officer of Gannett, owner of the USA Today Network.

screen-shot-2017-07-13-at-4-36-08-pmThe blue dot — and accompanying typographic changes to logos — has begun to appear in the online identities of nine USA Today Network outlets. The remaining 110 news outlets will make the changes in the next several months, says Andy Yost, Gannett’s marketing chief. Even print edition front-page flags will receive typographic makeovers.

It’s just a damned blue dot. But it’s symbolic of ownership-driven “branding” that eliminates distinctive local audience and market identities among its member newspapers. All 110 USA Today Network newspaper logos will have that little blue dot and similar topography.

Inoffensive nationwide blandness has been Gannett’s modus operandi for decades. USA Today was created to be a national constant no matter where a reader consumed it. Hence its nickname — McPaper. A Big Mac tastes the same, no matter whether you eat it in Portland, Maine, or Portland, Oregon. USA Today, dropped before 6 a.m. at the door of your motel room, looks the same in Greenfield, California, as it does in Greenfield, Massachusetts. That kind of thinking pervades Gannett’s newspapers, because, as the logo says, they’re “part of the USA Today Network.”

A good newspaper contributes to and is reflective of a characteristic regional identity. Love it or hate it, readers know the values and traditions their local newspaper represents. Does a newspaper change what it looks like from time to time? Certainly. But its facelift isn’t designed to make it look like every other damned newspaper in the country.

What does Gannett hope this change to 110 blue dots provides? Revenue, presumably. USA Today Network is not just a chain of newspaper outlets — it’s a national ad network. A principal goal of the assimilation of 110 journalism identities into the “blue dot network” (kind of like the Borg, I suppose) is likely to better entice national advertisers to the network.

In a Poynter Institute story about the blue dot, Steve Dorsey, vice president of innovation and planning at the Austin American-Statesman, suggests uniformity makes sense with a national ad network. But, he says:

The typography of a newspaper is its DNA. Everything else changes every single day: the photos change, the words, but that typography is the one thing that’s unique to that publication. … Who knows. The more you take out that local flavor, the more challenging it is to uniquely connect with an audience.

Branding guru Yost says, in typical marketing vague-speak, the unification idea is a winner.

Focus groups of readers have shown a unanimous positive response to the new typeface. The reaction from the markets so far has been very positive and employees at these markets are very excited to see the changes. [emphasis added]

Nothing in the Poynter story discusses the impact of the blue dot unification on the quality of journalism provided by the USA Today Network. Nor does the story discuss how much this initiative will cost, what additional revenues are anticipated, and whether those additional revenues will be reinvested in reporting resources.

Layoffs at Gannett newspaper properties have become a year-long phenomenon. In May, Gannett canned employees at about three dozen of its newspapers. Like other news media organizations still dependent on the old print advertising business model, Gannett has suffered steep revenue declines not yet offset by gains in digital ad revenue.

So the blue dot becomes a symbol of Gannett’s family of newspapers. It will change the identity of newspapers readers have loved (and hated). But readership of print editions is declining. No doubt the brains behind the blue-dot branding — especially of online entities — were thinking of the behaviors of (hopefully) readers-to-be — millennials, whose inclination is to get everything online.

Screen Shot 2017-07-16 at 10.01.56 AMOr is that consumers, not readers? If those sought-after millennials are going become avid readers of Gannett’s journalism (and thus consuming accompanying ads), then the journalism will have to be damn good.

But at the moment, with a depleted corps of journalists, a poor revenue outlook, and this grasping-at-straws, blue-dot gamble, Gannett has bet big on branding — not on investment in the people who produce great journalism.