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USA TODAY’S Maribel Perez Wadsworth talks growth, innovation and taking on the industry’s biggest threat

April 13, 2018 | By Michelle Manafy, Editorial Director – DCN @michellemanafy

USA TODAY recently named Maribel Perez Wadsworth as its publisher, the second woman to hold the title. Wadsworth, a Cuban-American, is the first person of color to serve as publisher. She adds this title to her current role as President of USA TODAY NETWORK, which she has held since November 2017. Maribel oversees the company’s consumer business. She formerly served as the company’s Chief Transformation Officer (2016) and Chief Strategy Officer (2015).

Here she discusses her new role, her strategy for growth and innovation at USA TODAY, and the biggest threat to the success of our industry.

How will your new role allow you to better lead the media brands at Gannett?

MPW: I’m excited to lead USA TODAY as publisher, cementing the important relationship that exists between our flagship national brand and our 109 local news brands. As president of the USA TODAY Network, I’m responsible for content, strategy and operations for all our media brands. This allows us to truly take a holistic approach to how we best serve our audiences and our communities. It also enables us to identify and scale new ideas and best practices. In addition, as we continue to expand our portfolio of niche brands, such as our recent majority investment in Grateful Ventures, we are well-positioned to comprehensively serve the news and information needs of our audiences with high quality content and experiences.

You’ve made a recent round of hires. Tell me about the type of talent you’ve added and what you are looking for to succeed in the news business today: 

MPW: I’m proud of the team we are building at USA TODAY. First, because we have such a strong base of talent to start. My first move was to name Nicole Carroll as editor in chief. Nicole is an ideal partner — an exceptionally talented, award-winning journalist and a highly competitive individual with great ambition for our journalism. We’ve also just added Jeff Taylor, formerly VP of News at the Indianapolis Star, as Executive Editor. And we’re realigning and adding resources around two key areas — investigative and enterprise coverage and digital storytelling. So, you’ll be seeing those teams expand and our hiring focus will be there. But in a nutshell, what I’m looking for in talent is people of diverse backgrounds with an inherent passion for doing good and winning at it. Skills can be taught or bought. The culture we’re building, that’s what’s special.

Tell me about your philosophy on creating the best news experiences for readers: 

MPW: We have to be focused on relevance, distinction and quality. That means we have to deeply understand who we serve — what do they need, what are they interested in, what do they most deeply care about. It means we have to be keenly attuned to who we are — what are our strengths, what do we do better than anybody else. And it means we have to make choices. If we are to consistently deliver on the excellence our customers deserve, we must choose where to focus and prioritize so we can truly do fewer things better.

What are the most important investments that news media organizations need to make to continue to meet the needs of today’s readers?

MPW: Our most important investment is in our people. We must ensure we are hiring great journalists and supporting their development. It is also critically important to build a culture of experimentation to continue to push the boundaries of digital storytelling.

At the USA TODAY NETWORK, that experimentation has focused on a few key areas — virtual reality and 360-degree video, including from an expanding drone journalism program; voice and audio more broadly as we more and more develop content for listeners; and augmented reality. Take a look at our augmented reality app 321 Launch, built in partnership between USA TODAY and Florida Today ‘s expert space coverage. The app allows you to track a live rocket launch in AR from any flat surface as a hologram shows you what the rocket is doing in real-time. There is also a launch simulation you can do any time and learn from our space experts as they guide you through rocket assembly, blast off and re-entry. It’s very cool and I hope you’ll check it out.

What is the biggest threat or challenge for the news business today and what advice do you have for publishers seeking to address it? 

MPW: The biggest challenge our industry faces today comes from the rapid rise of unregulated megaplatforms such as Facebook and Google. And not just from the obvious place of taking digital, especially mobile, advertising spend. These platforms are also in no small way responsible for an assault on truth and trust. Their algorithms naturally optimize their business results but do little to help consumers discern between quality, premium journalism, and fake content from questionable sources. In our business, we must focus on being customer-led not platform-driven. Our business cannot be dependent on the whims of a third-party platform’s strategy. As many have seen, chasing the algorithm can lead to dramatically inconsistent and potentially perilous results. Instead, our focus must be on building a strong, direct relationship with our audiences and that starts with quality and trust.

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