A research project by Kyle Gootkin, Western Washington University, JOUR 340
“The next time you run a picture of a nice, clean-cut All-American girl in a tight sweater, get her tits above the fold!” – USA Today founder Al Neuharth to news editors shortly after the newspaper’s first edition
(for footnotes, see “Notes” at the bottom of this page)
Since the Gannett Company published the first edition of USA Today on September 15, 1982 (see below), the newspaper has been both reviled and revered among journalists and consumers alike. The same can be said of its founder, Al Neuharth, whose vision of the first daily national newspaper in the U.S. was made possible by his (in)famous market-oriented mindset as an editor. This research project will look at the initial impact USA Today had on American journalism itself, asking,
How did the arrival of USA Today in 1982 affect the newspaper industry?
Much ink has been spent considering the newspaper’s lasting impact (2012 will mark its 30th anniversary), and so this project focuses on the first edition, exploring several elements of particular importance to the modern journalistic landscape.
Today: The Predecessor
In 1965, Al Neuharth was determined to capitalize on the international space race and launch a newspaper near Cape Canaveral, Florida. He bought the Cocoa Tribune in Cocoa Beach for $1.9 million with the idea that he could create an entirely new kind of newspaper for the area, anticipating a massive population boom around NASA’s famed launch site (1). Neuharth, who was working for Knight Newspapers at the time, completely revamped the ailing paper in a move that was indicative of the kind of paper USA Today would be in the future; he renamed the paper Today, gave the front page a thin news index on the left-hand side, and divided the paper into three simple sections: news, business, and sports. “Florida’s Space Age Newspaper” launched on March 21, 1966, featuring “exhaustive weather coverage” and stressing a unified voice whereby Cocoa Beach residents would speak through the paper (2). About 16 years later, USA Today would carry the same ethic and style.
Color, color, color
Perhaps the most striking feature of the first USA Today front page was its audacious and innovative colorization, which included the subtle use of red, white, and blue. Market research showed that color was a must if Gannett wanted USA Today to rise to the national level, because its major competition came from the new 24-hour cable news channels rather than other newspapers.(3) The goal was to grab readers’ attention with flashy photos and technicolor infographics; this was also a major factor in the paper’s industry nickname, “McPaper,” as many editors considered this unapologetic color patronizing to readers. Considering that the New York Times did not print a color photograph on its front page until 1996, however, USA Today was well ahead of its time (4).
In developing USA Today, Neuharth utilized what he called “intrapeneurship” (5). This meant that rather than hiring a completely new staff, the newspaper could pull talent from Gannett publications around the country in a kind of loaner program that kept everything in-house. This also meant that Neuharth had a pool of about 4,000 reporters to choose from. The “intrapeneurship” business model caught on quickly and was adopted by many of the major media companies within the decade.(6)
Give ’em what they want
From the very start, the relationship between USA Today and its readership was very different from other newspapers. Neuharth’s editorial focus was to meet the readers where they were at rather than set news trends, another factor in the “McPaper” monicker. Market research prior to the paper’s debut was essential in its formulation — it showed that 28 million people traveled by air in 1979, 1.5 million people stayed in hotels each day, and 100 million people had moved in the past decade. With that in mind, Neuharth designed USA Today as a secondary paper rather than compete with local dailies. It could be “a little piece of home on the road” (7). News briefs were printed from all 50 states, with the geographical entirety of the country appearing often, but most predominantly in the full-color weather section.
Many of the first USA Today articles were written in first-person plural (i.e. what “we” are doing) as a not-so-subtle nod to readers. The writing featured short sentences, bullet points, and a whole mess of alliteration. The editorial page was only concerned with pro and con stances. USA Today was unabashedly vying to be the “peoples’ paper” in the TV era, right down to the news racks, which were consciously shaped like television sets with the coin slot installed where the TV dial would normally be. The new racks also tilted the paper up to avoid glare, which placed new emphasis on the “above-the-fold” section of the front page.
In 1988, the New York Times noted that few of the country’s 1,700 dailies had avoided copying at least some of the USA Today style (7). By considering market research in the newspaper’s formation so heavily, Neuharth brought some fresh ideas to the print news industry in the face of 24-hour cable news. Above all, the colorization, business model, and reader-centric style were met with praise from its audience at the same time the paper was scolded as “McNews.” Readership for the paper hit 1 million less than one year after its debut, and with that most of the newspaper industry followed suit. The lasting impact of these elements is almost self-evident, given how readers often take color front pages for granted now, for example. Future research might include how these factors evolved over time, both within Gannett and in the industry at large, and how these factors have changed, or are anticipated to change over time.
Bibliography / Additional Reading
Bagdikian, Ben H. “Fast-Food News: A Week’s Diet.” Columbia Journalism Review 21.6 (1983): 32-33. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web.
Higgins, Kevin. “USA Today Nears Million Reader Mark. (Cover Story).” Marketing News 17.8 (1983): 1-5. Business Source Complete. Web.
McNichol, Tom, and Margaret Carlson. “Al Neuharth’s Technicolor Baby, Part II.” Columbia Journalism Review 24.1 (1985): 44-48. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web.
“Mcpaper Extends Its Franchise.” Time 121.6 (1983): 53. Academic Search Complete. Web.
Neuharth, Allen. Confessions of an S.o.b. New York: Doubleday, 1989. Print.
Oswalt, Phillip and Peyser, Mitchell J. “Gannet Company Inc.: USA Today.” New Product Success Stories: Lessons from Leading Innovators. Thomas, Robert J. New York: John Wiley, 1995. (130-143) Print.
Seelye, Katharine. “Al Neuharth’s Technicolor Baby.” Columbia Journalism Review 21.6 (1983): 27-35. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web.
Sylvie, George, and Patricia D. Witherspoon. “People at USA Today.” Time, Change and the American Newspaper. Mahwah, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002. (111-134) Print.
Wallace, Aurora. “National News and the Nation.” Newspapers and the Making of Modern America: A History. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2005. (155-188) Print.
(1) Neuharth, p.60
(2) Wallace, p. 155
(3) Thomas, p. 130
(4) Wallace, p. 180
(5) Neuharth, p. 131-132
(6) Wallace, p. 182
(7) Thomas, p. 131