In another bit of bad news for USA Today, which was once ubiquitous outside hotel-room doorways, Choice Hotels says it's chosen the Wall Street Journal as the "preferred newspaper" to offer at its 3,700 properties in North America. Choice's brands include Clarion, Cambria Suites, Comfort, Quality Inn, MainStay Suites, and Sleep Inn.
According to a statement from Dow Jones, the Journal will be delivered free to Choice Hotels guests starting New Year's Day. There was no mention of the financial arrangements or any barter deals Dow Jones might have made with Choice to get the newspapers into that pipeline, but Dow Jones has been expanding distribution of the Journal at domestic hotels over the last two years.
For decades, USA Today has been the standard free newspaper at hotels. But slippage became apparent in April 2009, when Marriott decided to stop distributing USA Today (almost always offered for free) at 2,600 Marriott-brand hotels in North America. This came after Marriott's chairman, Bill Marriott, decided that way too many of the brightly colored newspapers were being left untouched outside room doors, littering the corridors.
USA Today's parent company, Gannett, responded by claiming that only a small percentage of its circulation would be affected, like 1 percent. The media of course swallowed that.
By the way, I have nothing against Gannett's golden child USA Today, though I do still feel a slight residual pain from way back, when I was the editor in charge of investigative reporting at what was at the time a very aggressive Gannett newspaper. Aggressive, that is, until the then-fledgling USA Today began draining resources from all of the local Gannett newspapers, which were ordered to pay up and shut up.
I presciently resigned from that job after one glorious year (a few days, in fact, after Gannett had swopped down one night and fired the executive editor and the publisher, for spending too much money covering news).
OK, so a little professional residual resentment about USA Today, though I will concede that the paper aggressively covers travel-industry and travel consumer news, as well as sports. Anyway, I've always had some knowledge and a lot of interest in what I regard as the wild circulation claims that have always been made by USA Today. For one thing, I know no one who actually buys the paper, which claims to have a circulation of about 1.9 million on the five days a week on which it is published. I have always got it for free, usually from a hotel.
The gaudy founder of USA Today is a media buccaneer named Al Neuharth, who molded the Gannett company into a model of cost-efficiency, while at the same time ruining the journalistic reputations of more than a few regionally important local newspapers that had the misfortune of being acquired by Gannett. Neuharth is also the godfather of the much-hyped "Newseum" in Washington, which is positioned as a museum of journalism but which actually strikes me as a very pretty, essentially vacuous space near the Capitol, one noticable function of which seems to be serving as a venue for fancy cocktail parties tossed by media panjandra who rent the joint for regular celebrations of one another.
Neuharth, by the way, was also the cunning genius who got the whole newspaper industry to go along with his scheme to allow newspapers that are not sold at or near the cover price to be counted as paid circulation. As a result, even newspapers whose circulation claims are bolstered by a vast number of so-called bulk-sales copies that are essentially given away free (or as part of promotional barter deals with hotels and airlines) can make inflated claims about their circulation, which claims are always swallowed whole by media writers. (In the case of the Journal, which also counts a lot of bulk sales but with nowhere the egregiousness of USA Today, the rules also allow paid online subscribers to be counted as circulation.)
Since the days of Hearst and Pulitzer's battles, there have been, of course, many creative ways to hype circulation claims, by the way. For example, my local newspaper in Tucson amazes me each morning by proclaiming, on the top of its front page, that it has "238,700 readers weekdays." It escapes my comprehension how that remarkably precise number is arrived at, especially since the newspaper actually sells a mere 70,000 or so copies a day, and does not, to my knowledge, have any free circulation in the few hotels in town. I suspect this weird kind of arithmetic is still another legacy of Al Neuharth.
But I digress. The interesting news, to repeat, is that Choice Hotels has affirmed a commitment to a print newspaper, and chosen the Wall Street Journal to do so.