John K. Hartman
Author of The USA Today Way books

USA Today pioneered ‘Cool ink'

By John K. Hartman


I was a USA Today fan before it was cool.

The national general interest daily newspaper was started amid great fanfare 25 years ago.

Journalists, journalism professors and journalism students, my core reference groups, almost unanimously panned the new newspaper for its clever headlines, shorter stories, color pictures, graphic displays and lighter approach to the news than traditional daily newspapers. They said it looked like a “pizza” and they dubbed it “McPaper” for being short on journalistic nutrition.

As a journalism professor, I wrote two books and several articles about USA Today and the critics thought I was crazy.

The only people who liked USA Today were the readers who were turned of by their local newspapers' blandness, excessive seriousness, boring-ness and arrogance.

After 11 years of financial losses exceeding $1 billion, USA Today turned a profit and has ever since. Its news coverage became more serious, but it never lost its freshness and sense of wonder.

In the early years USA Today covered the heck out of sports. Often the sports section was half of the contents of the entire newspaper. Each major league baseball game got a separate story and box score. Some folks would buy the newspaper, throw the other sections away and keep the sports section.

ESPN and the Web have stolen some of USA Today's sports luster, and I believe its Life (entertainment) section is now an equally big draw.

Ohio was a major selling ground for USA Today largely because Ohio's major daily newspapers such as The Blade, Cleveland Plain Dealer and Columbus Dispatch were blah. See four paragraphs above.
In the Buckeye State, USA Today achieved a penetration rate (percentage of households reading it) of 6 percent to 7 percent — three times its national average.

The Blade, Plain Dealer and Dispatch had to change their ways. And they did, with color pictures, attractive graphics, shorter to-the-point writing, more coverage of entertainment and sports and more balanced commentary.

USA Today made them better newspapers.

I was a fan of USA Today way back then and remain so today because I believe we should do all in our power to get the younger generation to read newspapers and be fully informed about what is going on in their communities and their world.

Boring them and turning them off with unattractive and uninteresting products was not doing the job.
To paraphrase the old New York Herald Tribune slogan (used against the gray, wordy New York Times): “A good newspaper does not have to be dull.”

USA Today also unwittingly pioneered a concept that brings you the Toledo Free Press today.
It's called “free.”

USA Today developed a program with the nation's motel operators that puts a free newspaper outside motel room doors. That and other free distribution programs account for half of USA Today's daily 5 million readers.

Because the Internet is free and because some folks, especially young adults, are not motivated enough to put two or three quarters in a newspaper box, wise newspaper entrepreneurs have discovered that a bigger audience can be obtained for their advertisers by just being free.

Dr. John K. “Jack” Hartman, 61, is a professor of journalism at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant and a 33-year resident of Bowling Green. He is the author of The USA TODAY Way (1992) and the The USA TODAY Way 2 The Future (2000).

John K. Hartman is a professor of journalism at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.  He is the author of two books, "The USA Today Way 2: The Future" (2000) and "The USA Today Way" (1992).  He has examined much of the research done on young adult newspaper readership and is a widely quoted source on the topic.  Jacqueline Hartman provided editing assistance to the author.

In August 2008 Dr. Hartman covered and blogged the Democratic National Convention for the Mount Pleasant, Mich., Morning Sun. In 2008 Dr. Hartman was named the Al-Jazirah Newspaper Chair for International Journalism at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and visited the kingdom to lecture, teach and give seminars. He is scheduled to return in 2009. To learn more about King Saud University, visit

Copyright © 2009, John K. Hartman.  All Rights Reserved.