By: John K. Hartman
(Commentary) 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 online.
While it is the United States? 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 the paper.
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 be enormous.
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 dailies.
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 norm.
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? them.
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 1987.
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 profitability.
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 prot?g? 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?