At 25, ‘McPaper’ Is All Grown Up
This summer, a series of long, investigative articles explored why most American troops in Iraq still do not have vehicles that could protect them from explosives, though the vehicles were available years ago and the Iraqi military has them.
The series appeared in USA Today — yes, USA Today, the newspaper that pioneered vivid color and microarticles, favored the upbeat over the serious and sprinkled its pages with frivolous graphics (we sure do like tuna sandwiches for lunch, America). But no close reader would have been surprised to see tough reporting alongside the flash.
USA Today, which turned 25 on Saturday, still stands apart as a lighter and quicker read than most of its competitors. And, as many journalists feared it might, USA Today, once derided as “McPaper,” has made a lasting mark on American newspapers in general, prodding many drab dailies to print shorter articles, switch to color, devote more space to sports and use more pictures and graphics.
But at the same time, USA Today has gradually become more like other papers — more substantive, more serious, more likely to give ample space to at least a few big stories. The newspaper has grown up from a caricatured outsider to a respectable part of the establishment that competitors, government and business must take seriously.
“There’s still a wide spread between what other major newspapers look like and read like, and USA Today, but it’s not as wide as it was,” said Allen H. Neuharth, the former Gannett chairman and chief executive who created USA Today.
The paper, which lost something like $1 billion in its first decade, is now a money-maker with weekday circulation of 2.3 million, the largest of any American newspaper. But like the rest of the industry, it is facing the challenge of readers and advertisers fleeing to the Internet for news and information.
In some ways, USA Today seems well suited for the challenge. The paper was built to capitalize on a then-novel idea — American society was becoming more mobile — long before there was the Web, cellphones or Wi-Fi connections. The paper was designed to appeal to business travelers — half its copies are distributed through hotels — and to people who have relocated from one part of the country to another. For both groups, it offers a consistent, easy-to-read product with some news from back home, and a national perspective on news and sports that most local papers lack.
It also had features specifically targeted to those groups, like the full-page, colorful national weather map that was widely imitated almost immediately, comprehensive sports coverage and aggressive reporting on the airline industry.
USA Today’s graphic approach, its relatively young audience and its habit of encouraging reader feedback presaged some aspects of the Internet, though it remains to be seen whether its status as a popular innovator will carry into the online future. Since its Web site was overhauled early this year, readers have been able to post comments on all articles, look up every comment by a particular reader and start conversations among themselves.
The site offers a lot of Web-only content like video and blogs, some with avid followings, but an attempt last year to let readers personalize the site for the news they want fell flat, with few people taking advantage of it. Over all, USAToday.com attracts 9 to 10 million unique viewers each month, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, second only to The New York Times’s site among newspapers — but that number has been flat for a few years.
Twenty-five years ago, Mr. Neuharth had staked his career — and possibly Gannett’s future — on his vision of a national newspaper, created from scratch, despite near-universal skepticism and the need to bleed resources from other Gannett papers to pull it off. For years, most of the staff were young people drawn from other papers, usually as temporary “loaners,” with their home papers still paying their salaries. They were green, but were willing to accept USA Today’s constraints and endure the slights from colleagues and sources.
“None of us had the Washington pedigree, and we just felt lucky to be there,” said Bill Nichols, one of the original loaners when he was 25, who stayed and covered the White House and State Department. He left this year to become the managing editor at Politico, a Web site and newspaper devoted to politics.
The difference between USA Today and the rest of the industry was evident from the first day, Sept. 15, 1982.
On that day, most major newspapers had front-page articles on the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, president-elect of Lebanon. In USA Today, the assassination got a brief mention in a front-page news summary box, and a short article inside the paper. On the upper half of the page was a photograph of a jet crash in Spain, with a headline that, in keeping with Mr. Neuharth’s edict to focus on good news, said, “Miracle: 327 survive, 55 die.”
Dominating the page was another death — that of Princess Grace of Monaco, in a car crash. She was on a lot of other front pages that day, but less prominently.
“Oh my God, did the mainstream journalists and critics howl at that page — you would have thought we’d killed somebody,” said Anne Goodfriend, an editor and later a columnist at USA Today from its creation to 2001. “But it really helped create an us-against-the-world atmosphere.”
(Fifteen years later, when another princess died in a car wreck, it was taken for granted that nearly every newspaper would lead with Diana.)
USA Today quickly became known for its “snapshots,” illustrated, stand-alone charts that were parodied in Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip. There were as many briefs as full-fledged articles, and the articles were short — even a serious subject might get just eight column-inches. It paid scant attention to news overseas.
Lightweight articles were a staple, and the paper insisted on referring to Americans as “we” and “us.” Several former reporters and editors remember a 1983 headline as emblematic: “Men, Women: We’re Still Different.” A reporter told the Columbia Journalism Review, “The operative factor in whether a story runs is sometimes whether it has a color picture.”
“We get much more credit for starting things than we should, because we stole most of them from the tube,” said Mr. Neuharth, who acknowledges cheerfully that some of the experimentation went too far.
The initial reaction within the profession was harsh. Ben Bradlee, the revered Washington Post editor, was quoted as saying, “If USA Today is a good newspaper, then I’m in the wrong business.”
Mr. Neuharth and his staff embraced the derision. He replied that at least he and Mr. Bradlee agreed on one thing — “that he’s in the wrong business.” People in the newsroom adopted the “McPaper” label.
USA Today quickly won a large readership, more than 800,000 within a year, and men especially liked its comprehensive sports section. But it needed to offer advertisers an even bigger audience to overcome the conventional math for profitable newspapering.
Most papers rely heavily on Sunday ads, but USA Today has never published on weekends. It has no home market where it can appeal to local advertisers. To make itself available in nearly the entire country, it is printed in 35 locations, far more than the other national newspapers, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
Many advertisers place the highest value on readers with individual subscriptions, who account for more than 60 percent of circulation at The Journal and The Times, but less than 14 percent at USA Today.
Gannett does not break out figures for individual newspapers, but it has said that USA Today’s first year in the black was 1993, when circulation reached 1.6 million. Company executives say that it continues to make healthy profits, even though it does not have the 20 percent margins of many of their smaller papers.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, as its people became more experienced and the staff expanded, the paper became more serious. Official Washington and big business began to see it as a force to reckon with.
In the 1990s, Peter S. Prichard, the top editor, and David Mazzarella, who succeeded him, and then-publisher Tom Curley accelerated the push toward hard news. USA Today’s leaders said they found that increasing hard news drove up circulation. In a perverse sign of its growing stature, a journalistic scandal in 2003 and 2004 over fabrications by Jack Kelley, a star foreign correspondent, drew national attention.
But in many ways, USA Today remains different from its competitors, down to its location. It is headquartered not in a major city, but in a wooded patch of McLean, Va., a suburb of Washington. The news staff has grown to more than 500 people — among the nation’s biggest, but less than half that of The Times, and far smaller than those of The Journal, The Washington Post or The Los Angeles Times.
“The majority of our readers don’t read us every day, so there is no expectation of incremental coverage,” said Ken Paulson, editor since 2004. “We can pick our spots, and we don’t have to cover a story every step of the way.”
In fact, Mr. Paulson has explicitly told his staff to get away from one of the dutiful habits he says crept in over the last decade — matching big stories reported by competitors. “We want to run stories that nobody else has, where we’re driving the conversation,” he said.
But the chip on their collective shoulder is still there. “We have never won a Pulitzer Prize, which really doesn’t matter,” he said. “But it would be nice to get rid of that asterisk.”