Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when mainstream journalistic standards were such that people thought the advent of USA Today threatened civilization.
Twenty years ago this month, Al Neuharth--then Gannett's chairman and chief executive--launched America's first general-interest national newspaper. It was a new kind of glitzy digest, brief, breezy and colorful and--with the exception of its weather page--almost universally derided by serious editors and reporters. It pandered, most analysts said, to nonreaders whose brains were being fried by overexposure to MTV, which was then a year old. USA Today was journalism's contribution to the fast-food culture--McPaper, candy for the glazed eyes of the sleep-deprived, overscheduled and attention-deficient.
The Vandals entered linguistic history after their sacking of Rome, and Neuharth, who held his glittering launch party in Washington D.C., might have won a similar niche. But the adjective used to denounce him already had been claimed by, among others, Attila the Hun.
USA Today lost $458 million during its first four years and $1 billion before it turned a profit. But, during the last decade, it has upgraded its staff, engaged occasionally in outbursts of original reporting and even opened a handful of foreign bureaus. With a daily circulation of 2.3 million, it is now the first successful mass readership daily created since World War II--a small, fixed point of generic reassurance to America's new class, the laptop-toting business travelers whose working lives are lived everywhere and nowhere, and whose notions of community usually involve e-mail and the corporate intranet.
Still, for many working journalists, there are few things quite so depressing as poking their heads out of a hotel room and finding USA Today hanging on the handle. On the other hand, so many things so much worse have happened to print and broadcast journalism over the intervening years--think Fox News--that it also is possible to talk about McPaper's contributions, which are real.
First among these was the quick read. Neuharth insisted that newspapers had to acknowledge that their readers lived in a media-saturated world, one where pictures moved and were in color, where connections were instantaneous, where time was short and attention spans were even shorter. That reality presented a problem for conventional newspapers. If the answers Gannett's team came up with weren't always satisfactory, the questions they asked were good ones.
Second, according to Orville Schell, dean of UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, "Neuharth showed true genius in his understanding and audacity in imagining that he could create a national newspaper. He accomplished something monumental--a global paper that ordinary people actually read."
Up to that point, the conventional wisdom was that America was too big and varied to support a national paper, as the Western European nations and Japan long had. (As the financial elite's bible, the Wall Street Journal was the great exception, of course.) But absent USA Today's example, it is hard to imagine that the New York Times, which is today America's de facto national newspaper of quality, would have pursued that role with the confidence it has.
And though many of USA Today's critics remain generally unimpressed, they also admire some of the traits that have allowed the paper to survive and prosper.
Former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee was one of USA Today's most public critics when it debuted, and he still uses an epithet to describe Neuharth. Many, in fact, credit Bradlee with coining the McPaper quip, though he said this week, "I don't think I did. I was quite critical, but I think the paper is much better than when it started, mostly because Neuharth retired. There are even times when you're stuck in a town where you can't get a good local paper--where they're truly awful--that it is a pleasure to have USA Today."
Bradlee also said that USA Today has "proved something about story lengths that I can only envy. A lot of newspapers, mine and the Los Angeles Times included, run these interminable stories that I'm absolutely convinced nobody reads. I think stories can be shorter and that you distort your paper when you don't discipline them to be shorter. They've handled that well." The former Post editor also credits USA today with doing a better job with foreign news and said, "their sports is pretty good."
Academic analysts are divided on USA Today's standing.
"In many ways they've been pioneers in things that have become commonplace throughout journalism," said Martin Kaplan, who directs the Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg School of Communications. "They pioneered front page stories with no jumps and even though they've abandoned that, they've kept their stories short. When Time and Newsweek redesigned their magazines, they moved totally in that direction. Everything they do now is USA Today-sized.
"Another of USA Today's contributions is their use of graphics, especially their charts and diagrams. Their weather page is consistently the best in print journalism. Finally, you have to credit them with pioneering the use of color for graphics and photographs. When they began doing it, serious journalists regarded color as a downscale commodity. By embracing it as enthusiastically as they did," Kaplan said, "the people at USA Today risked having their alleged betters look down their noses at them. They now have the satisfaction of seeing quality journalism following their lead."
But USA Today still reminds Schell of Mark Twain's remark about Wagner's music: "It's not as bad as it sounds." To the Berkeley dean, USA Today is "better than a really terrible paper. But it's still like a blind date with a woman you instantly know you don't ever want to see again. There's just something of the paper's soul that eludes me as a reader. It feels as if there's nobody quite there.
"If you were marooned on an island and it was all you could get, I guess it would be adequate in the same way a network newscast is. It's never surprising, which may be part of its genius. It doesn't shock, jolt, disturb or provide any of that interesting marginalia that is truly interesting to serious newspaper readers. Those readers are always looking for what you can't get anywhere else. With USA Today, it's all something you can get somewhere else."
So, have USA Today's 20 years helped make American journalism more accessible or more simple-minded?
A little of both.
"Overall, I think they've been a good thing," said Kaplan. "I'm not sure what a careful content analysis of their stories would reveal, but I think short equals dumb is not a blanket summary of what they're really like. The pressure to be interesting and engaging is not necessarily a vulgarizing thing for journalism. They've created a healthy, competitive environment for other papers. Visually, they attract the eye and inform people in a way that sets important new standards."
Bradlee remains unmoved. "I don't think it improved journalism a hell of a lot. They have put the news in a more lively and attractive package, which is a force for good. I guess what I'm trying to say is that they made a paper a lot of dumb people can read."