AJR  Features
From AJR,   September 1997

USA Today Grows Up   

Long identified with short stories, infotainment, bright colors and its weather map, Gannett's national daily is quietly becoming a serious newspaper, with a heavy emphasis on enterprise reporting.

By James McCartney
James McCartney is a former Washington correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers.     

I T WAS REVILED AND RIDICULED, slandered and satirized. No one took it seriously. It was pretentiously called USA Today and it presented itself as the nation's first general interest national newspaper on the day of its birth, September 15, 1982. It was brash, multicolored, gimmicky, a paper created--its founders said--for the TV generation, an idea reflected in its distinctive coin box, designed to look like a television set. It was to be a quick read for a world in which nobody has much time.

In the days that followed, the Washington Post's Ben Bradlee said that if anyone considered USA Today one of the nation's better newspapers, ``then I'm in the wrong business." Edward Sears, then managing editor of the Atlanta Journal, said that reading it was ``like reading the phone book." No, said David Hall, then executive editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. It was ``like reading the radio." The paper's own editor, John Quinn, later joked that USA Today was ``the newspaper that brought new depth to the meaning of the word shallow."

If there was a consensus among working professionals and journalism educators about Al Neuharth's new brainchild for Gannett, it was that USA Today was flashy, with some clever ideas, but trivial. Most thought it wouldn't survive. Many thought it a journalistic joke.

They aren't laughing anymore. Now, 15 years and more than half a billion dollars later, USA Today has emerged as one of the largest selling newspapers in the country--with a five-day average circulation of roughly 2.2 million by its own method of counting, a figure rivaled seriously only by the Wall Street Journal. Moreover, its circulation continues to grow, while almost every other major newspaper in the country is shrinking. And it is making money, and has been for five years. Last year's profits: about $40 million.

Perhaps even more important, it is maturing. USA Today is getting perceptibly better all the time. It is building staff--with 25 new positions on the editorial staff in the last 15 months alone--and persistently improving the quality of its news coverage. It is striving for depth, for original reporting and for enterprise (See "Emphasizing Enterprise"). It is not just a success, it is rising to respectability. USA Today is coming of age.

And there is absolutely no doubt in the minds of USA Today's leadership about what has made the paper more successful. ``It has been the quality of journalism," says Tom Curley, USA Today's president and publisher. ``When the journalism improved, the advertising cascaded. It has been the improvement of the product that has brought in advertising."

There were plenty of reasons for the paper's cool reception by professionals at the launch. It was not a traditional newspaper. It was loaded with gimmicks--short stories; no jumps from page one, except for the cover story; graphics everywhere; a national weather map; a round-up of news items from each state, one paragraph each; an obsession with celebrity and a matching obsession with sports, with more detail on the latter than almost any other paper in the country. There was no foreign staff and little interest in the world outside the United States. And Neuharth insisted on referring to Americans in its pages as ``we"--as in ``we are not eating broccoli." It was quickly labeled ``McPaper"--junk-food journalism. It was not serious.

But Neuharth took it seriously, and so did Gannett. Both were convinced that there was a new market out there, and they backed their conviction with serious money. In ``A History of Gannett, 1906-1993," the company reported losses of more than $800 million by early 1993, the year USA Today was just beginning to turn a profit.

Neuharth's early predictions were that USA Today would turn a profit within a few years, but that proved overly optimistic. The breakthrough came in 1993, when profits amounted to about $5 million. The next year it made $10 million. Now the engine is running smoothly, according to top Gannett officials, with earnings running at about the prime rate, which is somewhat less profitable, percentage-wise, than many dailies, but a cash cow nevertheless for Gannett.

And it has become a critical success as well. Says David S. Broder of the Washington Post, ``USA Today has become a pretty damn good newspaper. They are spending money, and it is making a difference. And they are everywhere." Says Ann McFeatters, longtime White House correspondent for Scripps Howard: ``It is certainly taken seriously at the White House. USA Today is cut in on all the top-level, invitation-only briefings. Look, we went to Turkey and what did we find under the hotel room door? The New York Times? The Washington Post? Nope. There it was. USA Today. It's ubiquitous."

But USA Today's growing triumph has not been without pain. There is a considerable amount of blood on the newsroom floors of the tear-shaped silver skyscraper in Arlington, Virginia, towering over monumental Washington, D.C., where it is published. USA Today's drive to the top has come, at times, at a price, both financial and human. It is no stranger to either executive or reportorial burnout. In recent months the national reporting staff has been a squirrel cage of comings and goings.

Says one staff member who has watched with trepidation: ``The bosses are trying to improve the product, no question about that. But sometimes some innocents have been hurt."

Says another, a veteran who recently resigned: ``It has not been done politely.... There is a level of paranoia that makes it a difficult place to work. The editors are worried that what they are doing may not be up to [the top boss'] standard.... There have been pronouncements...in the newsroom that the bar is being raised, that expectations will be higher. It has not been a good place to work. I don't think it is a happy newsroom, period."

But some early critics are impressed by the results. Ben Bagdikian, a prominent media writer who was teaching journalism at the University of California at Berkeley when USA Today was born, described it then as ``a mediocre piece of journalism." If it succeeds, he said, ``it will be no gain for the reading public, which gets a flawed picture of the world each day."

Bagdikian says today: ``I would not write the same thing now that I did when it came out.... It is a very different paper today.... It has become a much more serious newspaper. They have abandoned the idea that every person who picks up the paper has an attention span of 30 seconds.... I don't think it's a joke anymore."

Nor is USA Today a joke at the counting table, defying early skeptics. John Morton, an AJR columnist and leading media analyst, wrote in 1982: ``The list of large-circulation daily newspapers successfully established since World War II is not just short--it is nonexistent.... A national daily newspaper seems like a way to lose a lot of money in a hurry."

Says Morton now: ``There is no question they are a success. They are taken seriously on Madison Avenue. They can compete [for advertising] with U.S. News [& World Report], Time and Newsweek.... They are one of the few newspapers with a growing circulation."

Morton says he was never critical of the editorial product because ``they did not set out to be a New York Times or a Washington Post.... I did regret some of their fluffier pieces. It was pretty lighthearted." But he says that editors today are focusing much more sharply on hard news. ``You are less likely to find a front page article on some silly topic than on more serious issues. They have made it a more serious vehicle than it ever has been."

None of this is an accident. The paper has changed and is still changing. Al Neuharth, the marketing genius who as CEO at Gannett conceived the idea of USA Today and who brought it into being, often against bitter resistance from other top executives, is, by choice, out of the picture. He retired from USA Today and as CEO of Gannett in 1989, when he turned 65, to head the Freedom Forum. He stepped down as the foundation's chairman this summer.

Neuharth's successors have deliberately abandoned some of his more trivial concepts. By 1991, under then-Editor Peter Prichard, a move toward hard news was discernible. But the big changes, the massive drive to upgrade the product, did not begin in earnest until the newsroom came fully under the control of Tom Curley as president and publisher in 1994.

Curley, a Gannett veteran who was present at the creation of USA Today, has long favored a greater emphasis on hard news. When he took command, he masterminded a restructuring that put Executive Editor Bob Dubill, a softspoken, much-loved professional, in charge of the daily product. ``It was the first time we had a real boss for the whole paper," Curley says.

Sharp changes followed. Three of the paper's four basic sections had hot new editors, but the biggest changes came after David Mazzarella, a USA Today veteran and Associated Press alumnus, became editor in 1995 (see "The Man at the Top"), and hard-driving Hal Ritter, one of the paper's founders, became managing editor for news. This team has mounted a major effort to build a better, more responsible, more serious, news-oriented product. And the circulation figures say that it is working at the box office.

There is a certain irony to the paper's new incarnation, for while USA Today has become a much stronger news product, its impact on other daily newspapers has been just the opposite. Many newspapers across the country have copied some of USA Today's less admirable innovations, cheapening their product with gimmicks and frills.

Aping USA Today's interest in celebrity and entertainment, for example, Knight-Ridder's Miami Herald went so far in January as to devote the top of page one to promoting the fact that it was printing a full page photo of a movie starlet inside. Copying USA Today's interest in sports, in July the Delaware State News devoted a big chunk of page one to launch a three-part series on golfing communities in Delaware. Even Al Neuharth thought this was a bit much.

But the real irony is that many of the papers that have borrowed USA Today's more trivial ideas are losing circulation, while the new USA Today is seeking solidity and respectability and also succeeding in the marketplace. Perhaps there is a lesson here.

U SA TODAY'S MISSION IS CLEAR: news, hard news, news in depth, news with perspective. The refrain echoes from the top. Says Curley, ``We are trying to combine exceptional coverage of major events" with emphasis on ``hard news and enterprise." Adds Mazzarella: ``In the beginning there was a concept that we would be a second paper to the local papers. We don't see it that way anymore.... We want to break news." Adds Ritter, ``My predecessors had built a capability for hard news.... It is now time to move to the next level. The next step is enterprise, to produce news that nobody else has.... And we want to go back two or three days later with details on a story that you can't do in one news cycle." Dubill explains that editors have a different concept of their central mission than they had in the early days. ``Early on we were pretty soft. To an extent we were following TV," he says. ``Now we're trying to lead TV."

Even a casual effort to compare recent front pages of USA Today with almost any of the nation's elite newspapers will show a similarity of judgment on top national and international stories and a serious effort to be competitive in substantive detail. On May 28, for example, when the expansion of NATO was a front page story for the nation's most prestigious papers, USA Today carried three stories with a total of 70 inches of copy. Only the New York Times ran more. And USA Today did a better and more detailed job on the NATO story than many regional papers. Such papers as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, for example, couldn't find space for NATO on page one.

On June 27, a big news day after the Supreme Court handed down major rulings on assisted suicide, indecency on the Internet and the line item veto, and the House okayed a substantial tax cut, USA Today's commitment to hard news was equally in evidence on page one, with two full pages of sidebars inside. Coverage was comparable to both the New York Times and the Washington Post.

This is a far cry from the nascent USA Today in 1982 when Neuharth, in making the calls for the paper's very first edition, chose to play the automobile death of former actress Grace Kelly as the lead because Kelly was ``America's princess." He played the Kelly story more prominently than coverage of the crash of an American-bound chartered jet in Spain in which 55 died, while 327 survived, and over a major Middle East development, the assassination of Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel. Gemayel's death rated only a one-paragraph news brief on page one, with a story buried well inside. Kelly, of course, wasn't an ``American princess" at all. She was a onetime American movie star who had deserted her native land to become Monaco's princess through marriage.

Editor Mazzarella was asked how he would play those stories now. The lead today, he said, would be the plane crash. Princess Grace would be played as a feature strip near the top of page one. Gemayel's assassination would definitely rate a page one story as the off lead.

Yet USA Today's editors are not fooling themselves with the illusion that they have arrived. They believe that they are better than they were and that they are continuing to get better. And they believe that they have found formulas for long term success. But as Hal Ritter, who runs the newsroom, puts it: ``We're not ashamed to say we're not great. We are not there yet." Says Dubill, ``A couple of years ago we were a C plus. I think we've gotten to be a B minusÉ. But we want to be the best newspaper on God's green earth."

There's no doubt that the paper gets high marks for its ability to deliver timely news, thanks to its late deadlines. Take national election coverage, for example. Because of a remarkably sophisticated satellite communications system, with 36 printing plants worldwide, USA Today was able to provide almost final election results in the 1996 presidential election coast to coast in its late edition.

USA Today already has established an enviable, and deserved, reputation for an ability to provide late sports scores. In many parts of the country USA Today prints later sports scores--for evening baseball games, for example--than local or regional papers. In Western Michigan, 200 miles from Detroit, if you want to know how the Detroit Tigers made out the night before, you won't find out in the Detroit Free Press. You will in USA Today.

In their ambitious drive to improve, USA Today's editors are concentrating on trying to strengthen the staff, in both size and quality. Tom Curley says that about 25 slots have been added to the editorial staff during the last 15 months, and a major effort has been made to enlarge the roster of reporters. The paper's editorial staff now numbers about 440. ``We've taken some from the back room and put them on the street," he says--editors have been converted to reporters.

The paper's leadership believes that the paper became top-heavy with editors and that reporters were not encouraged to exercise initiative, with too many decisions being made in the office. Ritter says he is trying hard to change that. Today he wants reporters, he says, to function virtually as ``reporter-editors"--helping to conceive stories, to guide coverage. Says Ritter: ``You cannot find out what's going on sitting behind a desk in Arlington."

The paper has created the beginning of a foreign staff and is perhaps the only major news organization in the country attempting to increase its foreign coverage. USA Today now has three correspondents in Europe and one in Hong Kong, and plans to open bureaus soon in Moscow and the Middle East. Al Neuharth's paper, at birth, had none.

The paper also is adding domestic bureaus. Two years ago it had four--New York, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles. Bureaus have since been opened in Denver, Boston and San Francisco, and one will soon debut in Atlanta. Says Ritter, ``We want a bureau in every major city in the country." Dubill says that may mean as many as 15 or 20 domestic bureaus in the next few years. Ritter says: ``You don't hear about things unless you're there."

Significant changes have also been made on the national news staff. USA Today is going outside the Gannett organization to hire established newspaper talent. And editors are trying to weed out reporters and editors who they believe don't fit in or measure up. Nine reporters have been added to the national staff this year. Since Ritter became managing editor for news in February 1995, reporters have been hired from such organizations as the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Associated Press, Detroit News, Dallas Morning News, Newsday and U.S. News & World Report.

Ritter's first hire in October 1995 was Susan Page, a veteran White House reporter for Newsday. She had accepted a buyout after parent Times Mirror shut down New York Newsday and instituted numerous other cost-cutting measures in 1995. Page is a respected, established professional with a reputation for no-nonsense writing.

``I went there with some trepidation," Page says. ``I told them that I wanted to do longer pieces, to put things in perspective.... I did not want to do Chelsea's proms. They said they were committed to being journalistically better. They had achieved journalistic success, but they knew they had a way to go."

Page has gotten what she asked for. She has been given free rein on longer pieces and has broken new ground more than once. No one has asked her to cover Chelsea's proms.

``The paper," she says, ``has an unbelievable impact. It blows you away. You can reach any governor, any member of Congress. The White House is very responsive. I think it has a reputation for being a straight shooter.... They put a great premium on clarity. It is not a paper for long sentences or long words.... It is a paper that does not want to be pretentious."

It is clear that a number of those who have left the national staff were eased out. Some have returned to smaller Gannett papers. Some say working conditions were too hectic and bosses too uncertain about what they wanted. One woman who resigned recently says: ``It is a very high-stress, high-pressure kind of place, and there is a certain amount of energy that is generated by that pressure." She left voluntarily, she says, to take a less demanding job, observing, ``Maybe it's just the nature of the newspaper business."

A male reporter who resigned earlier this year, a Gannett veteran with an established reputation, says, ``There have been some changes and a new management came in with a new agenda, and I found myself working in a restructured newsroom and it wasn't a place I wanted to continue working.... I'm not bitter about it at this point. I've been in this business long enough to know that when there is a change in editors there is a change in philosophy and direction. At this stage of my career I decided I had had enough."

There is no question that there has been a substantial turnover at USA Today, particularly on the national staff, in the past two years. It is also true that turnover is endemic in Washington journalism, and it is difficult for an outsider to judge the degree to which USA Today editors have been fair. And often it's necessary to shake up a staff to improve a newspaper.

C ERTAINLY A MAJOR FACTOR in USA Today's success has been a brilliantly conceived formula, devised by Neuharth and modified by his successors. The idea was to present four sections, labeled News, Money, Life and Sports, and to emphasize a prescribed quantity of information, often capsulized, but news nonetheless. The paper's motto is: ``An economy of words. A wealth of information." A symbol is the sports department's description of how every run was scored in major league baseball games.

Page one is conceived as a bulletin board for what is inside. In its present incarnation USA Today continues to refuse to jump stories, except the so-called ``cover" pieces, but provides sidebars to major stories inside the paper, with refers on page one. The result is often as much or more information as other papers offer in a longer story that is jumped, but presented differently, at times more accessibly.

The formula also features a box for top sports news in the upper left corner of page one, a box for top entertainment news in the upper right corner, and a daily news summary running down the left side of the page. A casual reader can grasp the top news of the world on the top of USA Today's page one while viewing it in the coin box. ``We're trying to reach the whole person," Mazzarella says. The front page was designed to be that way in the beginning, and it clearly works. And USA Today works at it. There is a separate editor for page one. Makeup of the front page is vital to the paper's success because the vast majority of its customers are buying it either at one of 100,000 coin boxes or at newsstands.

The paper also strives to do things differently on its editorial pages. An immensely popular feature from the beginning was presenting a view opposite to the one expressed in the paper's main editorial. The main editorial is called ``Our View." Right under it most days is an editorial labeled ``Opposing View." This approach, says Editorial Page Editor Karen Jurgensen, has earned the paper a reputation for fairness. A new feature is a panel of guest columnists from around the country. Each weighs in once a month.

That the paper is connecting with readers is illustrated by the flow of letters to the editor. In the beginning, Jurgensen says, there was no established audience and few letters. Today the paper receives about 1,000 letters a week. Somebody out there is reading, and responding.

And who is it? USA Today editors have long had a clear concept of whom they are trying to reach. The paper was built from the beginning on the insight that in modern, mobile America so many people travel that a whole new market has been created. The paper's profile of a typical reader is a professional, usually a manager, about 40 years old, well-educated, with an income of about $60,000 a year. He or she is often a news and sports junkie. As one company official puts it, ``When he wakes up in the morning his first thought is: `What city am I in?'... The local newspaper doesn't mean a thing to him."

B UT WHERE IS USA TODAY GOING? And how far can it go?

An argument can be made that USA Today has already attained the largest circulation of any daily newspaper in America, but in fact it is difficult to compare USA Today's circulation with any other paper because there is nothing quite like USA Today. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC), USA Today is second in overall circulation, behind the Wall Street Journal but well ahead of the New York Times. In the ABC's latest report, for the six-month period ending March 31, the Wall Street Journal was credited with a circulation of 1,837,194, USA Today with 1,622,060 and the New York Times with 1,107,168.

But the ABC only counts Monday through Thursday circulation for USA Today in its reports, while USA Today's biggest sales day is in its weekend edition, published on Friday. Furthermore, the ABC does not count bulk discounted circulation. USA Today has arranged historically to sell the paper at a discount to airlines, hotels and automobile rental companies, which in turn sell or give away the paper. Typically, the purchasers of bulk papers pay 30 cents a copy, as opposed to the 50 cents newsstand and coin box price.

According to USA Today figures its actual five-day circulation in 1997 has topped the 2 million mark, which would put it clearly in first place. According to Larry Lindquist, senior vice president for circulation, that figure roughly breaks down this way: 1,400,000 single-copy sales; 350,000 subscriptions; 400,000 in discounted sales, and about 30,000 to schools.

USA Today is also one of the few large American newspapers whose circulation is growing. Only three others among the nation's top 20 showed increases for the period ending March 31: the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the New York Post. The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune all recorded losses.

And Lindquist believes that USA Today is only getting started. Asked what he believed the potential circulation might be for USA Today, he responded, ``How many print sites will you give me?" With the present number of print sites--33 in the United States and three abroad--he believes USA Today can attain a circulation of 3 million, an unprecedented figure far beyond Al Neuharth's original dream.

The company does plan to develop additional print sites. Lindquist says the long-range potential circulation should be about 5 million. And Lindquist has no doubt about what USA Today's hook is: ``News. News is what sells this newspaper."

USA Today, after 15 years of experimentation and tons of money, has changed the landscape of American journalism, and not just because it has introduced color weather maps and widespread use of graphics. It has added a voice, a national voice, that wasn't there before. The New York Times is edited for the nation's intellectual elite, its thinkers and policy makers. The Wall Street Journal, already truly national, is edited for business leaders. USA Today is edited for what has been called Middle America--young, well-educated Americans who are on the move and care about what is going on.

Not surprisingly, Al Neuharth is proud of his baby's progress. ``It is the most widely read newspaper in the country, and it has made it," he says. ``And I think there are two reasons it has made it. It was the right formula for reinventing newspapers at the time and, equally important, the present editors have vastly improved it from the time that I left in 1989.... I have no doubt and no question that the overall product of the paper has improved tremendously since I left."

But even Neuharth is somewhat disturbed by the influence that USA Today has had on other papers, including some of Gannett's. ``It has had a tremendous impact on newspapers for better or for worse, and in some cases it has been for worse," he says. ``There are some things some papers have been foolish to adopt." For example, Neuharth points out, it makes sense for USA Today to run a national weather map because the paper has a national audience. ``But why would you run a national weather map in Fort Myers, Florida? What they want is a local weather map." He says he'd rather not discuss in detail some of his other thoughts about USA Today's legacy because he doesn't want to be misunderstood.

As for the future, the truth is that even the editors and managers of USA Today don't know exactly where they might be going or how far they might be able to go. But it is already clear that Al Neuharth's baby has matured, is continuing to develop, and just may become what Neuharth wanted in the first place: A truly national newspaper.

Do critics in the business understand what USA Today is trying to do, how it has changed? Is USA Today getting the kind of recognition its editors believe it deserves? President and Publisher Tom Curley smiles at the question and responds: ``I'm still laughed at in some places," then adds, somewhat belligerently: ``I don't care about the profession at all on that score." Editor David Mazzarella puts it differently: ``Only from people who read it."