The Next Generation  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   April/May 2004

The Next Generation   

USA Today shed its lightweight “McPaper” persona in the 1990s, becoming a serious national paper and luring topflight talent from places like the Washington Post. Its next challenge is to step up its enterprise reporting and achieve the consistency of the nation’s best papers. But does it have the commitment, resources and newsroom culture to pull it off?

By Rachel Smolkin
     

Related reading:
   » Who Knows Jack?

Three G. It's a phrase as snappy as the newspaper it describes.

Born to derision in 1982, USA Today saucily called itself "The Nation's Newspaper" and shocked journalists with its bold color, its big weather map, its late sports scores. And, oh, those stories. So short, so fluffy. "USA is eating its vegetables," declared one chipper front-page headline. Another proved the paper's perspicacity: "MEN, WOMEN: We're still different."

The mocking media, no slouches at cleverness themselves, dubbed the upstart "McPaper" and its product "junk-food journalism."

So went the first generation.

Then the jokes began to fade. After hemorrhaging nearly $1 billion by early 1993, the paper turned its first profit that year and reached the 2 million mark in circulation. Tom Curley, president and publisher from 1991 to 2003, and David Mazzarella, editor from late 1994 to 1999, pushed for more serious journalism and more enterprise. Stories got a bit longer. Editors recruited respected reporters from prestigious publications. (See "USA Today Grows Up," September 1997.)

By the end of the second generation, USA Today had shed its reputation as a journalistic punch line.

The nation's largest newspaper is now 21 and a half. In human years, it's barely old enough to drink legally. And as the young adult learns to compete journalistically with its more decorated elders, its leaders want the paper to remain committed to its reader-friendly roots. Hence the third generation, or, as Editor Karen Jurgensen calls it, "3G," a concept that aims to combine the first generation's emphasis on accessible news and visual elements with the second generation's focus on enterprise and sophistication.

"You want an absolutely consistent, authoritative newspaper that is enterprising and breaks stories every day," says Jurgensen, who has been at USA Today since its launch and became editor in 1999. "We put a great deal of emphasis on graphics, on photos, on the way pages are designed, as well as on the quality of the stories and the quality of the scoops and the expertise of our reporters."

The third generation also will test USA Today's journalistic ambition and leadership. Over the next few years, the paper will answer questions about whether it can keep the reporters and editors it has worked hard to recruit, how well it uses their talents and how effectively it melds their skills with the paper's distinctive mission. As an investigation led by three respected editors continues to probe the work of former star reporter Jack Kelley and the paper's culture, the coming months also will challenge USA Today's ability to learn from its first major embarrassment. (See "Who Knows Jack?".)

Interviews with more than 40 current and former staffers portray a paper that earnestly wants to improve and has matured greatly since its inception. Journalists speak of the paper and its reader-oriented mission with nearly universal affection. But many lament that the lean staff and limited space for news and enterprise place them at a competitive disadvantage. Some say a heavy-handed, corporate approach to personnel matters makes staff jittery. Journalists describe pressures to produce splashy stories and, somewhat paradoxically, an "institutional insecurity" that can suppress aggressive, authoritative reporting.

Although it long ago bucked its McPaper image, the challenges USA Today faces bear some resemblance to those of the fast-food giant. Like McDonald's, USA Today is a known product, beloved and purchased by millions of Americans. And like the Big Mac, it must sell itself every day. The paper circulates to 2.15 million people Monday through Thursday, and 2.6 million readers buy its weekend edition, published each Friday. But less than 15 percent of those sales are home subscriptions.

USA Today is a traveler's newspaper, purchased at newsstands, convenience stores, hotels and airports. Far more than its competitors, it must grab readers with its front-page appeal inside a coin box. "We have to have something that's going to catch someone's eye at 7-Eleven or at the newsstand," says cover story editor Linda Mathews. Because the front page must sell the newspaper, "we work harder, argue more about leads, about headlines and about photos." The decisions are particularly crucial because USA Today puts three or four stories out front each day, compared with seven or eight on the front pages of other major papers.

Mathews plans the feature that will be in the coveted cover spot--the one that jumps inside the paper. She looks for enterprise, trends, profiles and variety: a piece about Janet Jackson's flash dance at the Super Bowl; a profile of the police chief in Fallujah, Iraq; an examination of hip-hopper Snoop Dogg's efforts to go mainstream.

Executive Editor Brian Gallagher quotes a former editor, John C. Quinn, in describing USA Today as a "readers' paper," where the editing is tight and the pace fast, entrepreneurial and intensely detail-oriented. "Context, impact and uniqueness" are 3G tenets, and staff members have attended mandatory workshops that reinforced the 3G philosophy. "This is a place people come to work to invent the future," Gallagher says. "The third generation is evolutionary. It resolves the conflicts of the first two generations."

But each generation brings its own conflicts, and the current one has been marked in part by administrative and personnel upheaval. Staffers talk of a "corporate mentality," and some describe fears in the news department of being "targeted" or "forced out."

In 2001, USA Today relocated to a suburban 25-acre complex in Northern Virginia's Tysons Corner. The move eased cramped conditions at its former home in Rosslyn, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., where the burgeoning staff had worked since USA Today's birth, and it gave reporters a bit more privacy. The glass structure housing USA Today and owner Gannett's headquarters is both impressive and vaguely Orwellian. I was escorted to and from each interview. (I was permitted to eat lunch by myself in the shiny cafeteria after I promised not to wander off.) A sculpture on red panels in the marble lobby reads, "WORDS IN THEIR BEST ORDER." The campus is designed to give staffers everything they need without having to leave, including a softball field, tennis courts and a fitness center.

Because the new building is not near a subway stop and is isolated from downtown Washington, reporters who focus on federal agencies now work in a D.C. bureau. Three-quarters of the paper's 429 editorial staffers are at Tysons; the rest are based in Washington, New York and other offices.

Richard Curtis, managing editor for graphics and photography, served as the newsroom liaison with the architects and says the new quarters are "uplifting. It contributes to creativity. It contributes to the community. The staff is proud. It was built for them."

But some staffers are less enthusiastic. Patrick O'Driscoll, a reporter in the Denver bureau, says it feels like a "cold, soulless, white, glassed-in fish bowl." Other descriptions included a "morgue" and a "death star," with one longtime staffer saying, "there's a certain deadliness to the place. There's no energy"--the staffer even suggested it may have "bad karma."

Boosters of the bad-karma theory could have perceived supporting evidence soon after the move. On December 3, 2001, sports staffers Karen Allen, Denise Tom and Cheryl Phillips were fired for writing in the dusty coating of a blue ball sculpture outside the office of Gannett Chairman and CEO Douglas H. McCorkindale (see Bylines, January/February 2002). Security cameras captured their actions. Although the women apologized and offered to pay for the damage, they were fired without severance pay.

The firings upset many journalists inside and outside USA Today. Several staffers interviewed for this article spoke of their shock at the "blue ball" episode and their fears that the company's response signals even longtime staffers can't expect loyalty.

"It was a really sad time for us, and I think it still has a place in people's hearts," says Sports Managing Editor Monte Lorell, who, citing personnel reasons, declined to discuss specifics. (Phillips has said Lorell initially told the women that their actions were "dumb" but he didn't think it was a "firing offense," then fired them four days later.)

Several staffers said unexplained departures by other respected journalists--who left without other jobs--also stirred anxieties about their own security. Projects Editor Doug Pardue, recruited in 2000 from a similar role at the Tampa Tribune, departed in July 2003. White House reporter Larry McQuillan, the senior White House correspondent at Reuters before his recruitment to USA Today in 1999, left last fall.

"There is some fear because of the way they handle personnel matters, which is in a very corporate, secret way," says Justice Department reporter Toni Locy, a veteran of the Washington Post and U.S. News & World Report who came to USA Today in 2000. After McQuillan and Pardue left, "there was no announcement from management," Locy says. "It was like they disappeared."

Locy notes all reporters are "drama queens, and everything gets blown completely out of proportion." But she adds, "when management doesn't say anything, that scares folks. I do rightly or wrongly attribute it to the corporate culture."

Another unsettling personnel change at USA Today was the departure of President and Publisher Curley, who is widely credited with bringing more substance to the paper and was one of USA Today founder Allen H. Neuharth's four "whiz kids" who helped figure out how to create the paper.

Curley left last May to become president and CEO of the Associated Press, and Gannett named Craig Moon, executive vice president of its newspaper division, as his replacement (see Bylines, June/July 2003). Moon, 54, rose in the industry's business side, joining Gannett as a vice president of advertising for the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1985. He later served as president and publisher of the News-Press in Fort Myers, Florida, the now-defunct Arkansas Gazette and the Tennessean in Nashville.

Curley is still deeply missed at the paper, and Moon remains a somewhat unknown figure. Moon says he does not get involved with daily news decisions and describes his role as to "really build the brand" of USA Today. But Moon notes he is an experienced publisher and says the only difference between his current and former roles is that USA Today is "just a hell of a lot bigger."

The "nation's newspaper" has made recruiting a hallmark in recent years, concentrating on reporters in the mid-1990s and then focusing increasingly on editors in the late 1990s. One of its star recruits, former Newsday White House reporter Susan Page, is now Washington bureau chief. Cover story editor Mathews is a veteran foreign and national editor from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and ABC's "World News Tonight."

But unlike the Tribune Co.-owned L.A. Times, where many top editors were hired directly from other prestigious papers, nearly all USA Today's leaders are longtime staffers and Gannett employees. Jurgensen was most recently editorial page editor before taking over as editor. Gallagher, her deputy and successor on the editorial page, became executive editor in June 2002.

"The Gannett culture rewards folks on results," Moon says. "They are going to be first in line for jobs." Gannett only would look outside, he adds, "if we weren't producing results within the company, and that isn't going to happen."

Jurgensen, 55, characterizes her style as collaborative. She and Gallagher launched a series of task forces to improve the paper, including a page-one task force and groups on accuracy, hiring practices and staff evaluations. "I don't have all the answers," she says. "No single editor could have all the answers. And I think you get much better results when you work with a group of people and have them come up with answers."

Jurgensen is well liked, and staffers frequently describe her as personable and as caring deeply about the paper. Several complimented her for occasionally inviting journalists to her office to drink tea and chat. But some say she is not widely perceived as a strong leader and does not frequently mingle in the newsroom.

That perception may exist in part because Jurgensen, at least early in her tenure, tried to approach the paper as a reader and leave the daily news direction to Gallagher. After years of expending "every drop of energy" on putting the paper out every day, she says, she wanted to step back and "take care of some of these larger issues that ultimately improve the daily journalism."

Gallagher, 55, is often described as reserved, even shy, and has frustrated some staffers with what they perceived as unnecessarily late intervention in stories. Gallagher says that has happened infrequently, adding that he needs to make sure stories are "up to standards" before they appear in the paper.

Each section has its own managing editor, and Hal Ritter, the ME for news, is a controversial figure. Ritter is responsible for hiring many of the paper's most respected journalists. He is an exacting editor, a stickler for proper grammar and punctuation and for banning jargon. But many characterize his manner as brusque and bruising, and say reporters and editors often are reluctant to question or contradict him because they fear retaliation. Ritter denies he would retaliate against a staffer for crossing him and says, "My door's always open. I love when people come in and yell at me."

The leadership team faced its most public personnel challenge earlier this year when foreign reporter Jack Kelley, one of two Pulitzer finalists in the paper's history, resigned after he misled editors during an investigation into the accuracy of his work. As the story unfolded in rival publications, USA Today foundered. Jurgensen initially told outside reporters and her own journalists that she could not discuss the details of what she termed a "personnel matter," infuriating many on her staff. She said the paper had no plans to retract or correct any of Kelley's stories or to continue the probe.

But as outside reporting intensified and the staff continued to raise questions, the paper's leaders changed their approach. Jurgensen released a lengthy statement describing the events that led Kelley to resign under threat of dismissal. On January 29, Moon announced that an independent panel of three veteran editors would oversee a review of Kelley's stories over his 21-year tenure and any related matters the committee chose to explore. The committee includes John Seigenthaler, the paper's founding editorial director and former editor and publisher of the Tennessean; Bill Kovach, chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists and former editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; and William Hilliard, former editor of the Oregonian in Portland.

The probe's findings were devastating. On March 19, the paper reported that its investigation had unearthed "strong evidence that Kelley fabricated substantial portions of at least eight major stories, lifted nearly two dozen quotes or other material from competing publications, lied in speeches he gave for the newspaper and conspired to mislead those investigating his work." The paper said USA Today reporters examined 720 of Kelley's stories between 1993 and 2003. They conducted interviews, reviewed Kelley's expense records and traveled to Cuba and the Middle East. Their investigation is continuing.

Cover story editor Mathews, a former national editor at the New York Times, says she believes the Kelley flap hurts USA Today more than the Times was damaged by the furor over Jayson Blair, who fabricated or plagiarized parts of more than three dozen articles during his tenure there (see "All About the Retrospect," June/July 2003). "We're starting from a lower place on the ladder," Mathews says. And Kelley "wasn't some one-year wonder. He was one of the founders of the paper.... It feels like this is a cloud that's going to hang over us longer."


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