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 AJR  The Beat

From AJR,   April 1999  issue

There From the Get-go   

USA Today gets a new editor.


By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      


Amid talk of cyber-age competition, the once-revolutionary-itself USA Today names Karen Jurgensen , the paper's editorial page editor, its new editor.
Jurgensen, who has been with USA Today since its 1982 founding, replaces the retiring David Mazzarella . She cites the problems produced by the growing numbers of media outlets when talking about the paper's future.
``The challenge we face is that technological changes, the alternatives to newspaper reading...especially in recent years with the growth of the Internet, pale in comparison to the changes we're going to see in the next decade," Jurgensen says. She hopes to publish a paper that's ``trustworthy and fair" in such an environment.
Tom Curley , USA Today's president and publisher, thinks Jurgensen's just the right person to preside over such a paper. He chose her because of her ``exceptional leadership skills, a demonstrated track record of success...in many departments," he says. ``I think she has the communication skills and expansive vision we need to consider what changes and updates are needed in the cyber age."
Before becoming editorial page editor in 1991, Jurgensen was senior editor/days. Her numerous USA Today jobs include Life section editor, managing editor/cover stories and senior editor/special projects. She joined the paper before it was a reality because, she says, ``I thought then--and I think now--that USA Today was the most exciting thing going on in journalism in the country."
Jurgensen's appointment takes effect May 1, though Mazzarella, 60, will remain with the paper until the end of the year as senior vice president for strategic projects. Mazzarella, who became editor in 1994, says he thought the time was right to get a new person in the position. Under the leadership of Curley and Mazzarella, USA Today, once widely mocked as a flashy but lightweight ``McPaper," beefed up its staff, strengthened its national report and sharply increased its output of ambitious reporting projects. The paper, which lost money in its early years, is now a major profit center for parent Gannett, and circulation (2 million plus) continues to grow.
Mazzarella, who says his approaching marriage played a part in his decision, adds that he's ``looking forward to a different kind of lifestyle." Running a national newspaper, he says, ``can be taxing."
Brian Gallagher , Jurgensen's deputy, will succeed her as editorial page editor. He describes his boss as a ``consensus builder and someone who likes to get ideas from the bottom up."
Naming Jurgensen is a noteworthy milestone for women: She's the first to head a large-circulation national newspaper. But her ascension seems simply ``a logical progression" to Jurgensen, who points out that there are many women in top positions at Gannett papers. Curley says he hadn't thought about the first-woman aspect in making his decision.
``People were saying, `Wow, a woman, a woman,' " says Barbara Geehan , the paper's human resources director, who has also been there since its launch. ``That wasn't my reaction." Geehan, who says most people at the paper know Jurgensen well, calls her ``a very thoughtful editor.... She allowed and encouraged individuality in the newsroom," she continues. ``She's very aware that USA Today can't rest on its laurels of success."
A North Carolina native and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill grad, Jurgensen says she's worked on newspapers since the eighth grade. She got her professional start at the Charlotte News in 1972 and also worked for the Miami News .
She's both ``thrilled and terrified" by her latest promotion, which came shortly after her 50th birthday. ``It's a wonderful group of people; it's a wonderful paper," Jurgensen says. ``It's also a big challenge."