By: Joe Strupp
Donald Graham still recalls the kickoff dinner he attended 25 years ago for USA Today, then the much-criticized brainchild of former Gannett CEO Al Neuharth. Just three years into his term as publisher of The Washington Post, Graham, now chairman of The Washington Post Company, remembers asking attendees at the dinner in suburban Virginia what they thought of the venture, and getting mostly negative responses.
?I think USA Today outperformed the estimates of everyone there, including the USA Today people,? he told E&P two days before Saturday’s 25th anniversary. ?It established itself in a way I didn?t think anyone was expecting — an impressive business success.?
Graham, who served as Post publisher from 1979 to 2001, is among several newspaper veterans who admit they wrongly assumed the paper would not do well.
Since it launched on Sept. 15, 1982, amid complaints that it lacked in-depth reporting and used too many snappy graphics and color photos in place of hard-hitting news, the national daily has taken position as a circulation leader, ranking at or near the top consistently.
In addition, the paper has transformed the way many dailies operate, from pushing shorter, quicker brief-style stories to leading the way in color photography long before others saw the need.
?The very first impact it had was that it made every other newspaper in the country look drab and poorly printed,? said newspaper analyst John Morton of Morton Research Inc. in Silver Springs, Md. ?It triggered a lot of investment in improving print quality and adding color. All of a sudden you had this colorful newspaper next to the hometown newspaper that was drab and muddy-looking.?
Morton, at the time, made the now-famous predication that the paper ?sounds like a good way to lose a lot of money in a hurry,? he remembered. ?That was true, until it turned a profit after a few years.? He said it also proved innovative in its distribution, utilizing many existing Gannett newspaper printing presses and a broad national advertising appeal: ?That was a very complicated endeavor, to make it available everywhere. And with very high print quality standards.?
Veteran editors, such as Ben Bradlee, who led the Washington Post from 1965 to 1991, credited USA Today for improving its coverage in recent years and giving travelers a paper they can count on anywhere in the country. ?For what it does, it is pretty damn good,? Bradlee said. ?It is not The New York Times, it is not the Washington Post. But when I travel around the country and I?ve got to have a newspaper, USA Today looks awfully good.?
Graham agreed, saying it has improved news coverage: ?The concept of the paper has changed in many ways, it has gotten newsier.?
Still, the shorter stories, few jumps and lack of in-depth reports, at least in the beginning, drew numerous criticisms. ?At the time, it was more shocking than what we seen now,? said Gilbert Bailon, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and editor and publisher of Al Dia in Dallas, Tex. ?There are major dailies now that have almost all teasers on the front. They were way ahead of the idea that people need to read the paper differently and they still do a lot of in-depth reporting.?
Bailon said the paper?s design approach alone has had as much influence on the newspaper industry as anything else in the past 25 years. ?They began the trend toward more coverage and presentation of the news to travelers and commuters who had less time to read way before we focused on them,? he explained. ?Their strategy to become as big as they have is innovative.?
The paper?s editorial side has had its ups and downs, from major scoops such as revealing that former tennis star Arthur Ashe had AIDS to the scandal over reporter Jack Kelley?s numerous false and plagiarized stories which led to his departure and the resignation of former editor Karen Jurgensen.
Bailon noted that the push to provide quick, snappier reads has led some local papers to shift away from local in-depth reporting: ?In some cases, a metro paper, for instance, can go overboard. For people who want local news, you need to have that in-depth approach.?
Karen Magnuson, president of Associated Press Managing Editors, and editor of Gannett?s Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle, called USA Today ?a great example of taking risks.?
?It was the first paper that developed reporting based on what readers want,? she said. ?They developed a strategy to report on the news that the American people felt was important to them. But they have done a balance and are digging deeper.?