From AJR, September 1997 issue
By James McCartney
James McCartney is a former Washington correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers.
O N JULY 8 LAST YEAR at the top of page one, USA Today carried a green headline reading: ``Deadly Air Bags." A subhead said: ``Key finding: Two children could be killed for every one saved." There were two photographs, in color, of air bag victims, 3-year-old Jessica Patterson, who was black, and 9-year-old Nathan German, who was white.
Alongside that attention-grabbing headline, part of a five-column display, were four small arrows highlighting this list: ``Cover Story, 1B; List of victims, 2B; How policy makers are responding, 3B; What you can do to protect your kids, 3B." The ``Cover Story" on page 1B carried the subhead: ``How a government prescription for safety became a threat to children." jobs.
You will not find a better example of USA Today's drive in recent years to produce enterprising, groundbreaking stories. In all, the project occupied two-and-a-half pages with 19 photographs and a total of six sidebars.
And it had impact: The United States government and the automobile industry have radically changed the rules for the use of passenger-side airbags in automobiles when children are being transported. Some manufacturers are producing airbags that deploy at slower speeds to protect children from injury. And the nation, certainly, is paying far closer attention than before to potential air bag problems and air bag safety.
It is one example of how USA Today has gone into enterprise, in such disparate areas as the burning of black churches, President Clinton's fundraising methods, the nation's flagging war on cancer and the questionable role of the Red Cross as a ``silent witness" to the Holocaust during World War II.
In investigating reports of numerous black church burnings that appeared to be spreading throughout the South, suggesting the possibility of a massive conspiracy, the paper found none. In fact, it found that the burnings were coincidental. There was no evidence of a ``conspiracy to target black churches," the paper reported. Soon church burning stories began to die in other papers.
A story about the war on cancer pointed out that, although the government has spent $30 billion on cancer research over the last 26 years, death rates have not been substantially reduced. It suggested that perhaps more attention should be paid to prevention. Another USA Today special report focused on the growing problems of many native-born Americans in trying to deal with recent immigrants who do not speak English. It referred to the problem as ``verbal gridlock."
Much of this groundbreaking reporting has been done by a special enterprise unit, a separate department created by David Mazzarella after he became editor in 1994. The team has three full time writers, whose work is supplemented by staff reporters often assigned for a few weeks or several months, along with two full time editors. Its work can appear in any of the paper's four sections. It does longer pieces, sometimes occupying two or three full pages, as well as two- or three-part series.
USA Today's presentation of many of its investigative and enterprise stories is markedly different from most American newspapers. Stories are often advertised on page one, but played inside or as major displays on front pages of inside sections.
But regardless of the form, it's clear that USA Today, once almost solely the bastion of tight and bright, is striving mightily to compete with top national papers when it comes to ambitious enterprise reporting.
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