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From AJR,   October/November 2007  issue

Against All Odds   

Left for dead by the pundits, USA Today celebrates its 25th birthday.

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

A number of themes come to mind on the 25th birthday of Al Neuharth's improbable Technicolor brainchild.

One is the power of vision. At a time before "outside the box" was a cliché, the notion that there was room in the marketplace for a national newspaper featuring short stories, bright hues, info boxes, sports and pop culture was as against the grain as it gets.

But go figure. Twenty-five years later, USA Today has not only survived but thrived. It is the nation's highest circulation newspaper and a cash cow for parent Gannett. It's impossible to imagine the media landscape without it.

Turns out there was a place for a national paper in this transient, travel-crazed nation of ours, particularly one that attempted to come to terms with our increasingly visual, TV-driven zeitgeist.

What's more, its influence on the look and feel of USA's newspapers--not always in a good way--is incalculable.

The second is the importance of perseverance. In addition to being widely and wildly mocked, USA Today was a big-time money loser for years. In this instant-gratification world of ours, there's always immense pressure to pull the plug. But Gannett didn't.

It often takes time for a new product, particularly one so innovative, to establish itself. So you need patience, not to mention deep pockets, to allow it to flourish. In this case, the payoff for that patience has been enormous. Those critics who already have consigned Condé Nast's expensive new Portfolio magazine (see "A New Portfolio," April/May 2007) to the dustbin of history might want to keep that in mind.

But all the time in the world wouldn't have helped if USA Today hadn't matured and improved. Because the critics were right about one key thing: While the early USA Today was a bold new venture, it was also a pretty shallow one. The emphasis was on the packaging, not the substance. Weather maps and color graphics and folksiness could only take it so far.

It was in the 1990s, under Publisher Tom Curley and Editor David Mazzarella, that the paper added the steak to the sizzle. It significantly upgraded its commitment to hard news, to important national and international events. It became a serious newspaper. In a 1997 AJR piece titled "USA Today Grows Up," longtime Knight Ridder Washington correspondent James McCartney concluded the paper was "persistently improving the quality of its news coverage" and "striving for depth, for original reporting and for enterprise." USA Today, he declared, "is coming of age." In late 1999 and 2000 the paper lured five staffers away from the Washington Post in eight months--something that would have been unthinkable years before.

The USA Today odyssey also is a reminder of the dangers of investing too heavily in the conventional wisdom. When the paper was launched, hardly anyone gave it a chance to make it. I know I was among the scoffers. After all, when was the last time someone had successfully launched a national daily? But make it USA Today did.

Obviously, if you were forced to bet, "against" would have been the way to go. But maybe it's a good idea for we instant pundits to be a little more open-minded about the possibility that something groundbreaking can endure. That's particularly critical in the current fast-evolving media climate, with its drumbeat of innovative technological breakthrough.

So USA Today elevated its game, although it's disheartening how many people who haven't looked at it in years continue to parrot the outdated putdowns.

But in 2004, the paper confronted a major crisis. Jack Kelley, its marquee globetrotting reporter, was found to be a fraud, a serial fabricator and plagiarist (see "Who Knows Jack?" April/May 2004). Coming on the heels of the New York Times' Jayson Blair debacle, it was a devastating blow both for the newspaper and journalism itself. The paper was profoundly shaken.

Sadly, such episodes are going to happen. The challenge is how you respond to them.

USA Today brought in new Editor Ken Paulson, a former Gannett editor who was running the First Amendment Center in Nashville, to clean up the mess. By all accounts Paulson has righted the ship, restoring the newsroom's equilibrium and rebuilding the paper's credibility (see "USA Tomorrow," August/September 2005), although some in the newsroom chafe under his strict sourcing guidelines. (Full disclosure: Paulson is a friend and a fellow music buff.) He has placed strong emphasis on gracing the front page with exclusive enterprise stories rather chasing the New York Times and the Washington Post. But there's little doubt that the paper's overall excellence is handicapped by its tight A-section newshole.

So happy birthday, USA Today. We'll watch the next 25 with, as they say, great interest.