When the Gannett Company launched USA Today, the committee that bestows Pulitzer prizes created a new award category: Best Investigative Paragraph.
That joke circulated widely in the Washington press corps, which I had recently joined, when USA Today made its newsstand debut on Sept. 15, 1982. There may not have been a single journalist in town, outside of those who worked in USA Today’s then state-of-the-art newsroom in suburban Virginia, who thought highly of the new venture.
The rest of us wrote serious articles on serious topics, like fiscal policy and the Cold War and the Agriculture Department’s latest forecast for the U.S. apple harvest. The headline for USA Today’s first-ever lead story was “America’s Princess Grace dies in Monaco.” We snickered over that headline’s implication that America had royalty (she was Monaco’s Princess Grace, the American-born actress Grace Kelly). Many of us failed to notice that, while we were snickering, our audience clamored for every detail it could get about the princess and her untimely death in a car accident.
We not only wrote serious articles; we wrote long articles. If 500 words were good, 1,000 words were twice as good. Even better: a multi-part series! By the time we were done writing our long, serious articles, some of us were convinced that we knew more about our serious topics than the sources we had interviewed, and that we certainly knew more than our readers, with the possible exception of those who managed to stagger through the long, serious articles we wrote.
USA Today had an ironclad rule that no more than one front-page story could “jump” to an inside page. Everything else had to fit on the new paper’s cover, alongside the “Newsline” summary, an index, at least one big color photo, and other graphics. You had to write copy for that paper as though you were writing news for a radio station - and not one that played something serious like classical music when it wasn’t broadcasting news.
All of this was by design, specifically the design of one man: Gannett Chairman Al Neuharth. Neuharth wanted to create a national paper for the MTV generation, an audience whose attention span was presumed to be limited to the length of a typical music video. His new paper featured sports and weather (which even its critics acknowledged USA Today covered better than anyone else), lifestyle topics, genuinely balanced commentary that reflected the paper’s appeal to a broad swath of the public and, above all, graphics.
We serious journalists were, by and large, masters of the keyboard. We let our fingers do the talking. A few of us ventured onto the radio or appeared as talking heads on TV. But our employers had art departments, with a few wizards who specialized in turning our words into pictures that helped tell the story. USA Today was far ahead of its time in asking journalists to actually think about the fastest, most powerful way to communicate. If you could do it in two sentences, great. If you could do it in a single chart, fantastic! USA Today invested in color printing long before any other daily attempted it on a similar scale, and used color far more effectively in 1982 than some of its rivals do today.
Serious journalists never liked Neuharth and, for the most part, they never liked Gannett, which he headed from 1973 to 1989. Gannett operated “countinghouse newspapers,” in the parlance of journalism professors - papers where generating profits seemed to take priority over covering the news. Gannett maintained ruthless control over newsgathering and production costs, and it reported steady profit growth through the pre-digital era. This alone made its motives and values suspect in the eyes of serious journalists. Even worse, the company’s papers - the flagship of which was USA Today - insisted on giving readers stories they wanted, rather than stories that journalists and other serious people thought were important.
Many of the news organizations that employed serious journalists in 1982 are no longer around. Of those that remain, many are now owned by Gannett.
USA Today far surpasses The New York Times in daily circulation, and rivals The Wall Street Journal. The Times and The Journal continue to epitomize serious journalism. Having been a serious journalist myself, and being a current serious consumer of journalism, they are the papers to which I still subscribe.
But am happy to give USA Today its due. Though it is not yet clear what it means to be a national newspaper in the Internet era, Neuharth’s paper has proved adept at capturing the essence of American life in trend stories that often boil down to little more than a graphic and a few paragraphs. And today’s young journalists, or at least the good ones, define their craft not as writing stories, but as conveying information with all the tools at their disposal - articles, blogs, tweets, pictures, video, graphics and more. These skills should mesh well with USA Today’s philosophy of telling the story as efficiently as possible.
Even journalists of the MTV generation are, in many cases, struggling to keep up. This makes it all the more remarkable to me that Neuharth, who served in World War II, saw it all coming and embodied the future in that first issue of USA Today.
Al Neuharth died a few weeks ago, still scorned by many serious journalists who never gave him credit. I want to acknowledge his contributions. And now I’ll stop writing, because I’m sure Neuharth would say this column is far too long already.