The upscale woman scans the news stand, considers the possibilities and chooses USA Today over the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune. Why? “It’s my favourite for catching up quickly, it’s lively, interesting, and doesn’t take much time to read.”
The dignified businessman has just finished solo lunch at a fashionable bistro and the table is spread with all the well-used sections of the USA Today he is just finishing. Read this paper often? “Yes, I do. I was a frequent business traveller for several years, and my hotels always delivered USA Today to my room. I got used to it, really like how well they condense the stories; I even like how much I learn from the pictures alone. The colourful national weather map on the back page is great for travellers, and I love the page devoted to news from all 50 states. I don’t have the time for those other papers. No one else does it like this.”
Therein lies the rub, the reach and the unlikely success of the second most circulated newspaper in the world (The Times of India is first). USA Today celebrates its 25th anniversary today, and it wasn’t supposed to succeed past its snickering first days in 1982 when it purposely set out to not cover news the way all the other dailies did, to reach people who didn’t necessarily like newspapers.
It was dubbed “McPaper” for its appeal as a quick-grab news product: “bite-size stories” enhanced by plenty of pictures, lots of sidebars and illustrations, and the splash of colour from front to back… that popular back page national weather map. But snickering sceptics saw people grabbing USA Today more than its closest broadsheet rivals, the very grey Wall Street Journal and “The Gray Lady” otherwise known as the New York Times – both rich and dense in reporting.
Market research expert Lou Harris told USA Today’s founder Al Neuharth, “The television generation is simply not going to fight its way through dull, grey newspapers no matter how good they are…But if you want to grab the television generation you’ve got to transfer from the tube to print a lot of the stuff that the TV generation likes on the tube. It’s pretty simple.”
Which is the appeal for its regular readers. They want it simple. And clear. Here’s both: Each edition comes in four sections: News, Money, Sports and Life. The stories are brief and almost never continue on another page. The News section devotes one entire page every day to news from every state. “Across the USA” devotes one paragraph to an Associated Press story from Alabama to Wyoming, and includes Hawaii and the US territory of Puerto Rico. From the beginning, the founder wanted it to be the nation’s newspaper.
It helped to be ubiquitous. USA Today grabbed the business traveller by snaring distribution through airlines, airports and hotels. It beckons in lounges and waiting rooms seemingly everywhere. A graduate student says his Ohio medical school provides three papers daily, “The New York Times, the local Toledo paper, and USA Today. I always grab USA Today. It’s the only one I read.” While other broadsheets suffer cutbacks and losses in advertising sales to the internet, USA Today has enjoyed an increase in ad revenues, up slightly over 3 percent in 2006.
The media market is all about how people get their information today, and the newspaper industry is frantically trying to figure out how to attract readers, or merely survive. The Chicago Tribune ran a business story on the paper’s 25th anniversary titled “McPaper still getting fat while its rivals suffer,” the Trib being one of those rivals. “What the future holds for a national newspaper at a time when all the nation’s newspapers are available on-line isn’t any more clear for USA Today than for anyone else,” said the Tribune. However, “the components that made USA Today successful, including reader interaction, are similar to web sites.” The paper has long been known for its reader polls, constantly taking the public pulse on questions of the day both soft and hard.
It’s the hard news coverage that competitors have the most advantage on, but even that’s neutralised by 24-hour cable news shows. The marketplace has assumed a sound bite mentality, and that suits USA Today just fine. The day after Gen. David Petraeus testified in marathon hearings before two key Congressional committees, the paper condensed massive amounts of information into a two-page spread, with room for advertising (in color) at bottom. A separate box on that page, September 12, 2007 edition, was simply headlined “Tough questions, frank replies”, and it highlighted some choice exchanges in the hearings as “sound bites”.
USA Today is an anomaly, a “lightweight” that is whopping the “Paper of Record” that somehow sits atop the ivory tower of America’s mainstream media. The New York Times tells readers what America thinks, USA Today asks. It takes every opportunity in its stories to use “USA” in place of references like “the nation”, “America”, “the country”, or even “U.S.” Referring to the “USA” in America in these politically charged and geopolitically tense times represents a unity that isn’t reflected in such a divided nation.
It’s a wonder that it has grown and remained so popular. But given the video and drive-through generation it serves, the wonder is probably not so much how USA Today has lasted these 25 years as it is how the other broadsheets still exist, and whether they will for long.
Sheila Gribben Liaugminas is an Emmy Award winning journalist who reported for Time magazine for more than 20 years. Until recently, she hosted the popular national radio shows The Right Questions and Issues and Answers on Relevant Radio. She blogs at InforumBlog.com.