Today' As 25th Anniversary Approaches
By John K.
September 06, 2007
12: 15 PM ET
September 15 marks the 25th anniversary of the founding of USA Today. Midway
through its third decade, USA Today has reached a crossroads in print and
While it is the
best read daily newspaper with a daily audience of 5 million, USA Today’s
readership, advertising revenue and profitability have stagnated. It is
suffering from the same secular slump plaguing the print side and it is as yet
unable to grow significant revenue on the online side.
While the competition has remained stable in recent years with the Wall Street
Journal and the New York Times, the other two national daily newspapers, that is
about to change.
Rupert Murdoch, soon to take over the Wall Street Journal, is known to have had
his eyes on USA Today several years ago and reportedly offered $1 billion for
Murdoch will soon have the presses, staff, distribution system and office
functions to challenge USA Today either by changing the Journal to directly
compete for general interest news or by creating a second publication to take on
USA Today and the Times.
Or Murdoch might try to purchase or merge the Journal with one of the other two
competing publications because the cost savings by eliminating duplication would
The Sulzberger family that controls the Times would have little interest in
dealings with Murdoch, but Gannett Co., owner of USA Today, is a more likely
target because it does not have a controlling family so its board would have to
listen to any proposal that might be in the best interests of its stockholders.
Gannett’s stock has fallen from a high of $90 a share four years ago to the high
$40s though Gannett’s stock has held up better than most newspaper companies,
some of whom are selling for one-third or one-forth of their previous highs.
USA Today, founded on Sept. 15, 1982, has come a long way from its controversial
beginnings. It was dogged by losing money the first 11 years -- its parent
Gannett Co. had to put $1 billion in to keep the paper going -- and by criticism
by journalists that it was superficial in its coverage and that its front page
design looked like a “pizza.”
The second decade, from 1992-2002, was highly positive as the paper achieved
profitability in 1993 and its use of color, short articles and heavy coverage of
sports and entertainment was accepted and copied, if not emulated, by other
USA Today at age 25, is now mainstream and no longer revolutionary as the print
newspaper industry scrambles to reverse readership and advertising declines.
I wrote in 1992 in my book "The USA Today Way" that USA Today’s prime audiences
were Baby Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964), travelers, sports fans and
single people. They still are but the newspaper has added entertainment fans as
a fifth group through the coverage of its expanded Life section.
USA Today’s model of four sections -- News, Money, Sports and Life – remains
intact 25 years later. The page one and front section page model of a large
color picture above the fold with a cover story continued to the next page
surrounded by shorter articles, small pictures and graphic displays remains the
The original premise of founder Al Neuharth of a “journalism of hope” (emphasis
on good news) has been modified but not abandoned and the policy of giving both
sides on the editorial page still is followed most of the time.
In the early years people would say they "liked" USA Today, adding that many
people respect their local and regional newspapers, but few say they “like”
Another aspect of USA Today that has not changed is its popularity with younger
adults. While newspapers have largely given up on reaching under 45-year-olds
with their print products, USA Today’s average age of readership has crept up
toward 50 but remains about 10 years younger than the typical newspaper.
Sports sold half or more of the copies of USA Today in the early years and the
sports section used to take up half of the news hole, but the availability of
round-the-clock sports news on cable television and online through ESPN and
others has taken its toll on USA Today’s sports section readership. It no longer
takes half the space in the paper and individual stories on all baseball games
are no longer carried.
The founder of the national daily, Al Neuharth, has gone from being the high
profile CEO of Gannett Co. to the high profile head of the Freedom Forum (a
foundation formerly known as the Gannett Foundation) to being best known as the
Friday op-ed columnist in USA Today.
Neuharth courted then President Ronald Reagan with favorable “good news about
the home team” coverage in the early years of USA Today and got Reagan to attend
both the launch of the newspaper in 1982 and its fifth anniversary celebration
In recent years as a columnist, Neuharth has changed his tune about unabashedly
supporting the commander in chief. As reported by Editor & Publisher editor Greg
Mitchell, Neuharth was one of the first columnists in the country to criticize
President George W. Bush militarily occupying Iraq and has more than once called
for withdrawal of American troops. Neuharth writes his columns in the short,
almost staccato style that he once advocated for the entire newspaper.
Neuharth’s biggest allies in founding USA Today and making it successful were
brothers John and Tom Curley. John Curley was one of the early editors of USA
Today and succeeded Neuharth as Gannett CEO. Tom Curley helped do the early
research in Project NN (national newspaper) that led to the creation of the
newspaper and took over as publisher and president of USA Today at John Curley’s
and Neuharth’s behest in the mid-1980s and led the paper to eventual
Neither Curley is involved with the newspaper or Gannett any more. John Curley
keeps a low profile as a professor of journalism at Penn State University.
Recently PSU’s sports journalism program was named after him.
Tom Curley left USA Today and Gannett in 2003 to become CEO of the Associated
Press, overseeing wholesale changes and updating of the world’s largest
newsgathering organization and championing the cause of open government records.
Tom Curley was considered a candidate to become CEO of Gannett someday but
finance whiz and onetime opponent of Neuharth’s subsidizing of USA Today that
caused Neuharth to pass over him in favor of John Curley as Neuharth’s
successor, Doug McCorkindale, succeeded John Curley. Gannett television
executive Craig Dubow succeeded McCorkindale in 2005.
Ken Paulson, a Neuharth protégé and his chief of staff at Gannett from
1986-1988, took over as editor of USA Today in 2004 following a scandal in which
star reporter Jack Kelley was alleged to have committed ethical violations. For
the seven years previous, Paulson had been executive director of the Freedom
Forum First Amendment Center.
Paulson has succeeded in raising the standards and increasing the quality of USA
Today in an era of tight budgets while maintaining the paper’s populist appeal.
As news readership increasingly moves to the web, USA Today online may be better
positioned than its two national competitors and the other major online player,
the Washington Post, because of USA Today’s terse writing style and effective
use of pictures and graphic displays to tell stories. Online users are most apt
to be skimmers, wanting the quick skinny on news events, and jumping from site
to site, than print readers who tend to more leisurely peruse content. More
long-winded articles from the Journal, Times and Post are tougher to digest by
the digital skimmers.
Gannett and USA Today remain industry leaders in their commitment to diversity
hiring and news coverage that reflect diversity. In the early years of USA
Today, it was ordained by Al Neuharth that women and minorities would be
pictured above the fold on the front page every day. Ditto for other Gannett
newspapers. This policy has been relaxed but not eliminated, Hartman said.
Another policy relaxed but not eliminated was the expectation that other Gannett
newspapers would copy USA Today’s form and content.
Al Neuharth’s vision of USA Today remains largely in place a quarter of a
century later. It survived vilification from traditional journalists and a $1
billion drain on the corporate coffers. But can it survive the threat from
international media entrepreneur Rupert Murdoch?
John K. Hartman is a
University journalism professor and the author of "The USA Today Way" and "The
Today Way 2 The Future." He will be attending the USA Today 25th anniversary
speeches and panel discussions at American University in Washington, D.C., Sept.