USA Today Publisher Larry Kramer: We’re Not ‘Unique Enough’ to Charge for Web Access

Larry Kramer tells Washington Post CEO Don Graham that the opportunities for local coverage are huge for companies like USA Today

Larry Kramer is not opposed to following the lead of the New York Times and others by constructing a paywall around USA Today's website, he just doesn't think the national newspaper has done enough to differentiate itself from the digital herd.

"I don't want to charge for USA Today right now," Kramer said Wednesday at Business Insider's Ignition conference in New York City. "I don't think it's the right thing today to do."

Kramer (left) believes that USA Today is not "unique enough" yet to charge for access, but he is optimistic that it's getting there.

"There is so much national news out there,” Kramer said. “I think we would lose more than we would gain.”

Kramer, the founder of Market Watch, was named president and publisher of USA Today last spring. He took the reins of a brand that was losing ad revenue while instituting layoffs, but he said he has tried to inject a startup mindset into a decades-old newspaper staring at the barrel of a radically altered media landscape. That has required building up a technology team of 85 people to make the newspaper more digitally savvy and fundamentally altering the way that USA Today's editorial staff approaches the news cycle.

"I had to change the structure of the staff so they produced for digital first," he said.

Kramer shared his views with Washington Post CEO and Chairman Don Graham, who has broken with many of his fellow media moguls by remaining opposed to instituting a paywall at his family owned newspaper.

The format, with Graham doing much of the grilling, was an awkward one, because of the two media figures, the Post chief has been making more waves recently. The paper and Graham's niece, Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth, have been the focus of media scrutiny following the ouster of top editor Marcus Brauchli earlier this month and a blockbuster New York Times report about staff dissatisfaction with her leadership style. Yet those potentially headline making topics went unaddressed by Kramer and Graham.

Instead the focus moved from airing dirty laundry to a glass half-full emphasis on what is going right in the news space. In Kramer, Graham found someone who was widely simpatico with his newspaper's strategy.

Go local, was the message Kramer stressed during the 30-minute long confab.

"Local coverage is valuable mostly because there aren't a lot of people doing it," Kramer said.

For Graham, success will come not just from a relentless focus on community board meetings and neighborhood sewage issues, but by allowing readers to dictate how they consume the day's headlines. He said that papers like the Post and news startups should instead focus on allowing consumers to curate the news. Although, beyond citing master aggregators like political blogger and reporter Ezra Klein, he did not elaborate on how this could be accomplished.

"There’s an awful lot of news startups, it's raining startups, and the best of them are personalized," Graham said.