USA Today

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USA Today

Debuting during an era when most newspapers saw sharp circulation declines, USA Today became the first successful national daily general-interest newspaper in the 1980s. Its stylish innovations, originally lampooned and mocked, were eventually adopted by most of the newspaper industry.

USA Today was the brainchild of Allen H. Neuharth, who became chairman of the Gannett newspaper chain during the 1970s. He began his publishing career in 1952 by starting a statewide sports newspaper in his native South Dakota, and joined Gannett in the 1960s by creating a statewide daily in Florida. He helped lead Gannett from its initial holdings in small upstate New York newspapers to a more national base. During his tenure at Gannett, the company bought the Louis Harris and Associates polling organization. Upon being named chairman of Gannett in 1978, he began developing the idea of a national daily newspaper; in December 1980, Gannett began a satellite information system, which would allow publishing plants on the East and West coasts to simultaneously publish the same information from one satellite. Neuharth insisted that there was also a growing market for a national newspaper—by the early 1980s, the rise of business travel meant that millions of people on business trips would tire of reading out-of-town newspapers, and want a standard newspaper from one city to another. A Neuharth associate said, "When (a traveler) wakes up in the morning his first thought is, 'What city am I in?'… The local newspaper doesn't mean a thing to him."

Neuharth oversaw the development of the newspaper, which was introduced in select markets on September 15, 1982 (it did not saturate the entire country until late 1983). USA Today's staff had a dilemma as the deadline for the first edition neared, when three breaking news stories jockeyed for top coverage—Lebanese president-elect Bashir Gemayel was assassinated, a plane crash in Spain killed 55, and Princess Grace of Monaco had died in an automobile accident at age 53. The newspaper's editors spent much of September 14 on the streets and in offices in suburban Washington, D.C., determining that the public was most interested in Princess Grace's death; as Grace Kelly, she had been a major American film star during the 1950s. As a result, USA Today's inaugural front page trumpeted the death of "America's Princess," relegating Gemayel's death to one paragraph on page one. Significantly, the coverage of the plane crash emphasized the "miracle" of 327 surviving passengers, not the 55 dead. The new paper was roundly castigated by media critics and competing newspapers for focusing on celebrity over international politics. In 1997, a subsequent USA Today editor, David Mazzarella, admitted that he would have led with the plane crash, featured a larger story on the assassination, and merely played Kelly's death as a small page one feature.

Criticism of USA Today began almost immediately. "A national daily newspaper seems like a way to lose a lot of money in a hurry," media analyst John Morton wrote upon USA Today's debut. Complaints started with the newspaper's very look. It was sold in vending machines designed to resemble television sets, leading critics to accuse the newspaper of coverage as shallow as television (unlike established newspapers, USA Today used flashy national commercials in its first years, with celebrities from Willard Scott to Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle promoting the newspaper). Many derisively compared USA Today to fast food, calling it "McPaper." The newspaper ran full-color photographs on the front pages of each of its four sections at a time when color photography was prohibitively expensive for many newspapers, and seen as too garish by many editors. The New York Times, for example, was known as "The Gray Lady" for its steadfast black-and-white pages. The back of the news section was a full-page, full-color weather map, while most of its rivals printed a small, black-and-white map of the weather on an inside page. Each section—"News," "Money," "Sports," and "Life"--had only one story jump from the first page to the inside. Neuharth and his editors made a conscious decision to replace long newspaper stories with shorter pieces, accompanied by sidebars, and a greater use of charts and tables, and the paper's motto became, "An economy of words. A wealth of information." Each section also published polls every day, and invariably referred to "America" in its news stories as "the USA."

In an editorial mission statement in USA Today's first issue, Neuharth wrote that he wanted his newspaper "to serve as a forum for better understanding and unity to help make the USA truly one nation." Each section of his paper was a deliberate attempt to fulfill this belief. The news section featured a state-by-state breakdown of top news stories, giving readers a cross-section of news events from across the country. The daily editorial was frequently accompanied by a differing viewpoint ("Another View") from a guest writer (in its early years, USA Today would include four editorials from various regional writers alongside its main editorial). The newspaper also developed a middle-of-the-road op-ed section, with regular national commentary from veteran journalists Richard Benedetto and Walter Shapiro. More politically pointed opinion makers (such as conservative writer Cal Thomas) tended to fare less successfully, as the newspaper adopted a populist, rather than elitist, approach. One 1998 editorial, published after the Modern Library's list of the top 100 American novels of the twentieth century, maintained that the truly great novels were the most commercially successful ones, not the most critically or intellectually acclaimed works.

USA Today's "Money" section (symbolized by a green title), introduced a regular feature, "Ad Watch," where popular television commercial campaigns were analyzed not by ad executives, but by focus groups of average American viewers. Eventually, USA Today ran "Ad Watch" features to judge commercials produced for the Super Bowl. The newspaper also began annual telephone public services during preparations for filing IRS (Internal Revenue Service) forms, as well as during college admissions and financial aid seasons, where money experts could provide free advice for readers.

USA Today's sports section had the most impact upon the newspaper industry. It published daily notes on all professional sports (during football season, for example, it ran daily notes on each National Football League team), and introduced a top 25 ranking for college sports (the Associated Press and UPI lists had previously gone only to 20), as well as top 25 lists for high school sports. Their major league baseball coverage featured expanded boxscores, offering play-by-play accounts on how every run in each major league baseball game was scored, and extensive, week-by-week, team-by-team statistical charts. The expanded sports coverage was welcomed by Rotisserie league team owners, who rated their teams on how the players they "owned" performed day by day. In 1991, USA Today introduced a successful weekly spin-off devoted to baseball. In both incarnations, USA Today successfully challenged The Sporting News, which since 1886 had provided weekly coverage of baseball and other major sports. Significantly, the only major national daily newspaper formed after USA Today's debut was a sports newspaper. The National, edited by former Sports Illustrated senior writer Frank Deford, debuted in 1989. Despite a roster of nationally-known columnists and a series of high-profile scoops, The National lost its investment and folded within two years.

The sports section also supplied USA Today with its greatest professional controversy. In 1992, USA Today sportswriters learned that tennis great/political activist Arthur Ashe was suffering from AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome)—the result of a tainted blood transfusion in 1988—a fact he had told only family and close friends. The reporters contacted Ashe and told him they were planning a story on his health. Ashe responded by holding an emotional press conference, where he made his AIDS status public. USA Today came under intense criticism from inside and outside the journalism community. Many observers felt that the newspaper had violated Ashe's privacy and had engaged in emotional blackmail, while others (such as Phil Mushnick) maintained that Ashe's health was a legitimate news story, and that by Ashe coming forward and admitting he had AIDS—rather than staying silent—he was able to raise both awareness and financial support for the disease, which he would die from in early 1993.

USA Today's "Life" section included a weekly column by radio and television talk show host Larry King, written much in the style of legendary gossip columnist Walter Winchell. King recommended movies and books, while also making occasional political commentary and noting events in his personal life, most memorably his heart surgery, frequent marriages, and the birth of his son in 1999, when King was 65. The Life section featured annual high school and collegiate "Academic All-Stars," honoring the brightest students in the nation. USA Today's television coverage included nightly listings for national cable channels, several years before more traditional newspapers acknowledged cable's growing presence. The newspaper initiated the weekly list of top ten films at the box office, which was widely imitated by other venues, and provided complete Nielsen ratings for all prime-time television series. The Life section also developed one of the most respected book review sections in the country, with lengthy book reviews from freelancers and a bestseller list (eventually listing the top 150 books) drawn from national bookstore chains. This was in opposition to the New York Times bestseller list, which listed only the top 15 books, and kept its listing methodology secret.

Cynicism towards the press grew during the 1980s and 1990s, fueled by political scandals, perceived ideological and cultural bias, and paparazzi reporting tactics (including those implicated in Princess Diana's 1997 death). Neuharth saw his newspaper's role as helping to alleviate the cynicism. The idiosyncratic Neuharth—whose autobiography, Confessions of an S.O.B., included commentary from his two ex-wives—embarked on a cross-country "Bus Capade" during 1987, writing a regular column from each of the 50 states to celebrate the bicentennial of the Constitution. Neuharth celebrated the down-home common sense of average Americans from the heartland, as opposed to out-of-touch politicians and academics from the East and West Coasts. Some dismissed Neuharth's trek as a mere publicity stunt, but others appreciated his willingness to meet with his readers.

After a decade of losing money, USA Today finally turned a profit in 1993. The management spent their newfound prosperity on emphasizing its editorial content over its presentation. Executive editor Bob Dubill acknowledged that USA Today's editors were "following TV.… Now, we're trying to lead TV." Within a 15 month span in 1996-1997, USA Today added an additional 25 reporting and editing slots for an editorial staff of 440. Publisher Tom Curley added, with pride, that many seasoned editors had returned to reporting beats. "We've taken some from the back room and put them on the street." Having begun in 1982 with no international bureaus and only two domestic bureaus, by the late 1990s, USA Today was also starting four domestic bureaus and several foreign bureaus—coinciding with the closing of domestic and international news bureaus by the major television networks.

By the mid-1990s, much of the early criticism of USA Today had abated. Media critic Ben Bagdikian (author of The Media Monopoly), who in 1982 called USA Today a "mediocre piece of journalism (presenting) a flawed picture of the world every day," recanted 15 years later. "It has become a much more serious newspaper … I don't think it's a joke anymore." Veteran Washington reporter David Broder said, " USA Today has become a pretty damn good newspaper. They are spending money, and it is making a difference. And they are everywhere." John Morton, who had initially criticized Neuharth's venture, said in 1997, "There is no question that they are a success.… You are less likely to find a front page article on some silly topic than on more serious issues. They have made it a more serious vehicle than it ever has been." Thomas Frank of The Baffler, while attacking the daily's middlebrow mindset, readily conceded that " USA Today is arguably the nation's most carefully edited and highly polished newspaper," concluding that it "has charted the course that almost every paper in the country is presently following." In 1997, even The Gray Lady, the New York Times, began running color photographs in every section of its daily editions (The Washington Post followed suit two years later).

While the circulation of most daily newspapers declined in the 1980s and 1990s (as New York, Philadelphia, Dallas, and Los Angeles all lost papers), USA Today enjoyed the second highest circulation of any paper in the country, with 1.62 million readers as of March 31, 1997. Analysts hailed USA Today's strategies to keep its circulation base by appealing to common demographic interests. Some, however, lamented that USA Today simply pandered to its readership's pre-existing tastes, rather than helping its audience cultivate new ones; performance artist Jello Biafra dismissed the newspaper as providing "happy news for happy people with happy problems." Others maintained that USA Today treated its readers as consumers, not public citizens, and were upset that Neuharth denied any professional obligation, as a newspaper publisher, to call for sustained political and social change.

Neuharth retired from Gannett in 1989 upon his 65th birthday, and helped found the Freedom Forum, a media think-tank which produces a quarterly magazine—Media Studies Journal. Neuharth wrote that the Forum's principles were based upon "free press, free speech and free spirit." In 1996, the Forum opened the Newseum, directly across the street from USA Today's Arlington, Virginia, headquarters. The Newseum hosts seminars and is the backdrop for the Cable News Network (CNN) media analysis program "Reliable Sources," and features many interactive media displays, allowing visitors to generate their own news broadcast, or select from newspapers across the country. Among the Newseum's archival documents is one of only three surviving rough drafts of the Declaration of Independence, which includes Thomas Jefferson's meticulous editing marks. Over 800,000 visitors toured the Newseum within its first two years, and in 1999, the Newseum began a coast-to-coast tour which, like the Bus Capade, will visit each of America's 50 states.

—Andrew Milner

Further Reading:

Hartman, John K. The USA Today Way: A Candid Look at the National Newspaper's First Decade, 1982-1992. Mount Pleasant, Michigan, John K. Hartman, Department of Journalism, Central Michigan University, 1992.

Neuharth, Al. Confessions of an S.O.B. New York, Doubleday, 1989.

Prichard, Peter S. The Making of McPaper: The Inside Story of USA Today. New York, Andrews, McMeel & Parker, 1987.