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American Journalism Review
The Right Note?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  The Beat
From AJR,   June/July 2004

The Right Note?   

USA Today's music-loving new editor could be what the beleaguered paper needs.

By Rachel Smolkin

On his second day as editor of USA Today, Ken Paulson walked around his desk and dragged a chair over to face a visitor, setting the scene for a cozy chat and unwittingly drawing a striking contrast with his predecessor.

Only weeks before, in that office, former Editor Karen Jurgensen had talked with the same visitor. She was courteous but reserved, and stayed behind the desk.

Former bosses describe Paulson as a "people person," the kind of newsroom executive who has an open door policy--except he's the one stepping through the door, stopping to chat with reporters about stories and meeting regularly with staff.

As executive editor of Gannett papers in New York's Westchester County, he liked to end meetings by asking to hear the rumor of the month, which he would then dispel or explain. "He's a real straight shooter," says Gary Sherlock, president and publisher of the Journal News. "All the cards are on the table with Kenny."

Paulson will need such communication prowess to heal the nation's top-selling paper. His appointment, announced April 29, followed a devastating report by an independent panel that revealed not only long-running fabrications and plagiarism by Jack Kelley, the paper's former star foreign correspondent, but also ineffective leadership, lax editing, a "virus of fear" in the news section and "broken" internal lines of communication. Jurgensen resigned two days before the report was made public on April 22; Hal Ritter, the managing editor for News, resigned that day.

"In recent weeks, we've had this black eye," Paulson says. "And people in the newsroom are troubled about what has happened and concerned about our future. Job one is to listen and learn while making sure that we stay on that path of progress" the paper has charted in recent years with a greater commitment to enterprise and investigative work.

To move the beleaguered paper forward, Publisher Craig Moon tapped Paulson, 50, a senior vice president of the Freedom Forum and executive director of its First Amendment Center in Nashville. He had worked briefly for USA Today at its inception in 1982 and later served as chief of staff to then-Gannett Chairman Allen H. Neuharth, USA Today's founder.

Paulson's résumé includes stints as editor of Gannett papers in Westchester County; Brevard County, Florida; and Green Bay, Wisconsin. In 1997, he moved to the Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan foundation launched by Neuharth that is not affiliated with Gannett. Paulson also served as an adjunct law professor at Vanderbilt University.

After finishing law school at the University of Illinois in 1978, he opted for low pay in newspapers over low pay in the public defender's office because journalism seemed more fun. He'll "always be grateful the public defender's office didn't pay more," Paulson says.

Paulson's new paper is far larger than any he has edited before, and Gannett's financial commitment to expanding its resources remains unclear. Staffers have complained that the lean staff and the paper's limited space for news and enterprise place them at a competitive disadvantage. Still, Paulson optimistically describes his new assignment as "the best job in American journalism."

Asked about "3G," Jurgensen's slogan signifying the paper's effort in its third generation to return to its reader-friendly roots while maintaining a higher level of sophistication and enterprise, Paulson avoided corporate jargon.

"There's nothing mutually exclusive about being reader friendly and publishing articles of depth and meaning," he says. "USA Today has made significant strides in both enterprise and investigative work, and we will build upon that. In addition, we don't want to lose sight of all those elements of USA Today that have made it a truly unique paper."

Paulson plans to hold monthly staff meetings and is talking to Moon about bolstering the paper's international coverage. "We're taking a hard look at additional resources in Jerusalem and Baghdad" and at supplementing the network of foreign correspondents with stringers--a departure from the days of Jack Kelley, who built his daredevil reputation parachuting into hot spots during major events.

During the interview, Paulson plunged into a passionate discussion of the First Amendment and the responsibilities of journalism. He's spent the last seven years talking to journalists about the role of a free press in a free society, and "too many have forgotten the key role American journalism plays in preserving and protecting our democracy." He spoke of how American newspapers were first created to score political points, of the slowness of "our voices" to challenge McCarthyism and the internment of Japanese Americans, of high points including the publication of the Pentagon Papers and the reporting on Watergate.

He talked enthusiastically about Freedom Sings, the touring rock, folk and hip-hop revue he started as head of the First Amendment Center. To draw attention to the First Amendment, guest artists play music that had been banned or censored through the years while Paulson narrates.

Paulson loves music, particularly Bruce Springsteen and the Kinks, and named his daughter after the Hollies hit "Carrie Anne" (although she spells it "Ann"). He adds, lest he look anachronistic, that his last two music purchases were Outkast and Fountains of Wayne. At 16, he discovered he could sell music articles to a Chicago-area magazine for $1 per inch, prompting the "longest existing analysis" of Don McLean's "American Pie."

Charles Overby, chairman of the Freedom Forum, claims Paulson also holds the Illinois high school record for the 220-yard run, but that if asked, he'll deny it. He did deny it, forcefully, but admitted to attending the University of Missouri as an undergraduate on a track scholarship.

"I love popular culture," says Paulson, who was on the championship campus trivia team at Illinois. "I love sports. I can't think of a newspaper in America that better reflects the things I care about. I'm a news junkie, but I also care passionately about whether the Chicago White Sox will win or lose. My point being that we can do a lot of serious journalism without turning our back on the elements that made this newspaper successful in the first place."

Moon called Paulson about a week before offering him the job after asking several people if there was anybody he wasn't considering but should. Keith Moyer, publisher of the Star-Tribune in Minneapolis, suggested Paulson during a brainstorming session.

Moon, who knew Paulson slightly from his Gannett days, then called John Seigenthaler, head of the panel investigating Kelley and founder of the First Amendment Center. He asked, "Is there some reason you haven't mentioned Ken Paulson to me?" Seigenthaler recounts. "I don't blush easily, but I laughed." Seigenthaler said he didn't want to lose Paulson and it hadn't occurred to him Moon would consider someone who'd been away from daily editing.

"I heartily endorsed him and felt a little embarrassed that I didn't think of him first," Seigenthaler says, laughing still. "I think my recommendation of him was as strong as it could be."

Speaking in his office in early May, Paulson exhibited none of the "institutional insecurity" that staffers say afflicted the paper in the past. He sprang from his chair and began pacing behind it.

"I've been asked a hundred times since I took the job, 'Can you compete with the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal?' " he exclaimed. "I hope somebody's asking the editor of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal whether they can compete with us. We do things that they can't touch."

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