Joanne Lipman has become a big fan of trains since she became the editor in chief of USA Today and chief content officer of its parent company Gannett in December 2015. While she still calls New York home, she divides her time between USA Today’s headquarters in Tysons Corner, Va., and the New York bureau in Midtown Manhattan, where she typically works from on Fridays. (That is, when she’s not traveling to one of Gannett’s 109 regional newspapers that, since 2015, are part of the national USA Today Network and overseen by Lipman.)
Lipman began her career climbing the ranks at The Wall Street Journal, eventually becoming deputy managing editor of the newspaper. In 2005, she jumped to Condé Nast to start the flashy but ill-fated Portfolio, which shuttered in 2009 during the Great Recession. Lipman has coauthored a book about music while a forthcoming one about closing the gender divide, based on a piece she wrote for The Wall Street Journal, will come out this winter.
WWD met her on a sunny Friday morning at the paper’s New York office. Wearing a short-sleeved shift dress with a subtle leopard print, Lipman spoke about the benefits of local, boots-on-the-ground reporting, the challenges facing the industry and her role as a woman in a leadership position.
WWD: What are the benefits of combining Gannett’s local newspapers into a national news network?
Joanne Lipman: So historically, Gannett had been a holding company that owned USA Today and dozens and dozens of local newspapers and also television stations. Two years ago, when it split in two our chief executive officer Bob Dickey had a really visionary idea, which was that instead of running individually, let’s create the USA Today network with USA Today as the flagship paper. Every paper still owns its local market, but we work cooperatively on big stories. What that does is it goes from 110 resource-constrained newsrooms to a news organization that has almost 3,000 journalists and record visitors to the web site and page views. We can tap into the expertise of our local markets and work together. We have boots on the ground across the country. We are not parachuting in to tell stories. We’re there.
WWD: What was the biggest surprise since you started at Gannett?
J.L.: I’ve been based in New York for my career. And New York really does have a media bubble. You kind of get lulled into this thought that you know everybody. And it’s totally BS. It’s just wrong. So getting out of that and meeting these incredibly talented people from all over the country has been the most incredible part of my job. We have so many talented people who would be super stars at any publication, but for whatever reason, they want to live in Arizona or Montana or Palm Springs.
WWD: USA Today is based in Tysons, Va., and you live in New York. How’s the commute?
J.L.: They know me in Penn Station. I usually go down Monday morning and come back Thursday night, and I work in the New York office on Friday. It has worked out far better than I would have anticipated. First and foremost, I have two kids, but we are now empty nesters. I think it would have been very difficult if not impossible to do this while my kids were living at home. My husband and I are essentially nerdy workaholics. So we work really hard during the weeks and it actually works out. When I started, I was doing a lot of shuttles. But then I realized the shuttle is just such a pain. The flight is always delayed. So I realized that the train is three hours, and it’s three uninterrupted hours. It’s awesome. I love my train rides — I catch up on e-mails, I get time to think.
WWD: You are one of the few women in a leadership position at a newspaper industry. What are the challenges of that?
J.L.: I would like to see more women in leadership positions, obviously. I came up with some of the most talented women, and men, that I have ever met and it’s disconcerting that there aren’t more women. Because I know there are women I came up with who could lead any national news organization. It’s frustrating to see that there aren’t more. However, on the plus side, Gannett is a company that has had diversity since before it was a catchphrase. So that is part of the company’s DNA, and it is definitely the most diverse media organization I have ever been associated with. But I would love to see the rest of the industry step up a little more.
I actually have a book coming out in January based on a piece I wrote for The Wall Street Journal before I joined Gannett about how women talk with one another about these issues we face, but we don’t necessarily talk to men. That has two side effects. One is that we unintentionally demonize men. The other is that the men are pretty clueless because we are not letting them in on the conversation. So the point of the article — and the book — is that we need to bring men into the conversation because we are never going to close the gender gap otherwise. We have to de-politicize it. It’s not a political issue, it’s a human issue.
WWD: How has the idea of a national newspaper changed since USA Today first started in 1982?
J.L.: Our industry is constantly transforming and our company is in the midst of this digital transformation. When USA Today was created in 1982, it was revolutionary. It was smart but accessible, it was highly visual, it explained the world and it was fun. We pioneered the infographic. Every one of those qualities is just as important today. So for us, the challenge and the opportunity is how do we reinvent all those qualities for 2017 and beyond.
One of the issues that a lot of media companies have is that so many people’s main source of news is Facebook. I get a lot of news out of Facebook, too. But, of course, the issue with that is that you don’t necessarily remember the sources. There’s just not a recognition of the brand of the publication. Facebook created this journalism project, so I’m part of a group of editors who they consult with on some of these issues. One of the things that has come out of that is that they are now putting at least the logo of the publication so that there’s a visual reminder. But it remains a real challenge with Facebook, in particular, but it’s also true of Google and Apple News. And it’s also a challenge to monetize when you are off-platform. They make money, but we make less money. It’s a challenge that we are all going to have to work through.
WWD: You worked at Condé Nast. How do you think the challenges facing newspapers and magazines compare?
J.L.: I think all media faces challenges these days. It took longer for the magazine world to face the same challenges as the newspaper world, because magazines are sort of this visceral experience, and particularly Condé Nast, which is a company that I still love. It was such a visceral experience to page through the glossy paper. I think that it took a little longer for the industry transformation to catch up to magazines. But yeah, it’s caught up.
WWD: So does that mean that magazines are where newspapers were a few years ago?
J.L.: I think everyone is in the same place right now. We are all in the midst of this transformative process, and we are all moving toward what will become a new business mode. But none of us have figured out what that model is yet.
WWD: In terms of election coverage and Trump coverage, how did you approach that and stay nonpartisan?
J.L.: Our audience is half red and half blue, and our properties are in half red and half blue states, so we’ve really kept in touch with voters on all sides of the political spectrum to understand the political pulse. Leading up to the election was our first partial year as a network, and we did a lot of local reporting that we gave a national platform to with USA Today. We did really good reporting at the local level and we saw the strength of Trump, but like a lot of other publications, we also saw the polls that said there was no way he was going to win. The lesson I think we all took away from that is that we’ve got really superb reporters who are really plugged into their communities and it’s really important to understand what people are saying.
WWD: How do you deal with the rise of “fake news” and a presidential administration that is adversarial to journalism?
J.L.: People do trust their local news organizations. That’s really important. They are in the community. They are parents together at school or they see each other at the grocery store. There’s a trust there. At the national level, we really want to elevate the voices and the stories of the people who feel that they’ve been overlooked. I think that’s given us credibility because unlike a lot of other publications, we do have an audience that goes across the political spectrum. We’ve had very aggressive coverage of the Trump administration. We also own several properties in Tennessee, where we are deeply embedded in Trump country. So we have coverage of the issues there, and their frustration in the coverage of Donald Trump because they are true believers in his message. But also one of the things we have to be really aware of is what is meaningful to the audience. And we don’t want to crowd out coverage of things that really matter to them. People care about their jobs, they care about their health care. The things people care about on a daily basis are not necessarily whatever Trump tweeted today.
WWD: What’s your media diet?
J.L.: I am a voracious consumer of news. I get a lot of newsletters every morning, so that takes me to many different sources. I subscribe to many publications: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Post. I read a lot of Women’s Wear Daily — I used to work at Condé Nast, so that got me hooked. I get The New Yorker, The Economist, The Week.
WWD: It seems impossible to read all of that.
J.L.: It is hard to keep up with everything. And, of course, I’m online a lot.
WWD: Who do you feel like is your competition?
J.L.: I don’t think in terms of competition for our coverage, because it’s really important for us to establish our own identity. And by the way, I’ve felt that anywhere I’ve ever worked. A media company has to have its special identity, you have to know who your audience is. And you want to serve your audience well with the things they want, but you also want to be able to create new things that they didn’t realize they wanted.