Picking up the Pieces  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns
From AJR,   June/July 2004

Picking up the Pieces   

USA Today's embarrassment is also a splendid opportunity.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


The House of Mean.

That's what they used to call the news department at USA Today.

The picture that emerged of that culture in Rachel Smolkin's excellent AJR takeout ("The Next Generation," April/May) and in the Three Wise Men's withering dissection of the Jack Kelley affair wasn't a pretty one.

It was a bastion of top-down management, a place where following orders was the only way to prosper, where raising questions was the ultimate bad career move.

Sounds a little like the New York Times during the Howell Raines era, doesn't it?

Both Raines and the USA Today leadership were taken down by scandal. Now Ken Paulson gets the call to put the pieces back together at the nation's most widely-read newspaper.

It's an inspired choice.

I've never worked with Paulson, who most recently served as executive director of the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center in Nashville and before that edited some Gannett dailies. But I know him--and people who know him--well enough to have the sense that he possesses traits desperately needed to repair the damage.

He's dynamic, high-energy, a communicator who doesn't take himself too seriously. He has high standards, and he has a passionate commitment to the First Amendment. And he's a rock 'n' roll guy.

But it's the interpersonal skills that will be critical, particularly in the early stages.

You would think by now that we could all stipulate to the notion that management by fear is not really the best way to turn out excellent journalism. But time after time would-be newsroom despots ignore that lesson. Sure, sometimes there are impressive short-term results. But ultimately, the fear factor just wears people down and drives them out. And regimes that traffic in intimidation tend to ultimately blow themselves up.

The USA Today report by John Seigenthaler, Bill Kovach and Bill Hilliard has a wonderful passage about the things that a climate of fear--like the one the authors had just encountered--doesn't do. "This is not a culture," it said, "that promotes the give-and-take that sharpens and refines thought, the collegiality that magnifies the impact of resources, the spirit that shares rewards and ameliorates distress, out of which great journalism arises."

Anyone who has spent five minutes in a newsroom knows that there are precious few that live up completely to that lovely image. But moving vigorously in that direction will pay big dividends for Paulson, his staff and his newspaper.

Speaking of direction, it will be interesting to see where Paulson takes the paper's content. One of the great journalism stories of the '90s was the emergence of USA Today as a serious newspaper, a development that years before would have been unimaginable. But the newspaper's lofty aspirations--and the talented reporters it attracted--were out in front of the editing capacity and newsroom culture.

Paulson says he wants to continue to upgrade USA Today's enterprise and investigative efforts, and to beef up its international reporting (see The Beat, June/July). But the sports and pop culture junkie stresses that he doesn't want to back off on coverage in these areas, which has helped make the paper distinctive.

That's wise. USA Today is never going to be the New York Times, nor should it try to be. It's great that we now have another big paper going hard after major national and international news. But that idiosyncratic, colorful, graphic-laden blend of hard and soft, serious and not so much, has created quite a niche in a relatively short period of time. It doesn't need to be reinvented so much as massaged as far as content is concerned.

It's reinventing the culture that's the critical challenge. USA Today's news operation was a peculiar hybrid: extremely editor driven, a second-guessing festival, yet oddly insecure at times, not sure a good story is a good story until it shows up in the New York Times. (Except, of course for those too-good-to-be-true Kelley stories that really were.)

It's time to create an atmosphere in which editors and reporters work together as professionals, rather than as parent and child, and to build a leadership structure confident enough to follow its instincts.

There's no doubt that the Jack Kelley debacle was a humiliation of vast proportions for USA Today. But it's also a major opportunity. Much like Jayson Blair at the New York Times, Kelley and his staggering deceptions brought to light some serious problems at the paper, problems that went far beyond one reporter's chicanery.

This would be a great time to fix them.


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