USA Today changed the media world for good. What is his legacy now?


It was fast and colorful. It was new and different.

And most of the newspaper industry seemed to hate it.

USA Today surprised critics when it debuted 42 years ago. Rival editors scoffed at his bite-sized news stories and his overly cheerful tone. (The headline on the plane crash story in the first edition: “Miracle: 327 survive, 58 dead”) Reporting was often so brief and superficial that even insiders joked that their work was “the best investigative paragraph.” will receive an award for It was quickly dubbed “McPaper”, the news equivalent of junk food.

Critics were ridiculed. USA Today turned out to be one of the most influential media creations of the last half century. “McPaper” sounds like the prototype of news on the Internet now, circa 2024.

But what about USA Today itself?

Once so ubiquitous — from its dedicated newsstands and copies landing on hotel room doors across the country — USA Today has lost much of its visibility as it grapples with the economic pressures that challenge all media outlets. .

Last week, USA TODAY senior editor Terrence Samuel abruptly resigned after just one year. He was the paper’s fifth editor-in-chief in 15 years and the first black journalist to hold the position. Neither it nor parent company Gannett Co. offered an explanation.

In an interview, Samuels — formerly executive editor at NPR and senior editor at The Washington Post — said he helped grow USA Today’s digital audience during his short tenure. He said he had encouraged his newsroom to “take more chances and be more daring” in regards to staff cuts before his arrival.

Although he declined to discuss the circumstances of his departure, insiders say the arrival of a new executive in April prompted his resignation. Gannett gave Monica R. Richardson, a senior vice president, direct oversight of USA Today’s newsroom, thereby reducing Samuel’s authority.

Gannett appointed Karen Bohn, one of Samuel’s deputies, as his interim replacement. Bohn, a former White House reporter for Thomson Reuters who joined USA Today six years ago, said in a statement that he plans to focus on “first-rate coverage of big stories” such as the Olympics and the presidential election. intend to “Innovative storytelling techniques that have been a USA Today signature since the beginning.”

A spokesman for Gannett declined to comment.

Samuel, 62, is the third editor at a leading newspaper to leave this year, reflecting the turmoil that has engulfed the business. Others include Kevin Merida of the Los Angeles Times, who resigned in January, and Sally Busby at the Washington Post, who resigned last month after being offered a reduced position by new publisher Will Lewis. .

FFrom its inception, USA Today was an expensive gamble on an untested premise: that Americans wanted a national newspaper, a “second reading” to their local paper.

Al Newharth, the late chairman of Gannett, believed that millions of daily business travelers and vacationers could form the core readership of such a publication. He stuck with his brainchild even as it lost an estimated $400 million during its first five years, equivalent to about $1.15 billion today.

Newharth used the then enormous profits of the Gannett chain of local newspapers to underwrite his project. He also used the labor of these small paper journalists to build the initial newsroom of his new national paper, paying to house them in tiny apartments – “minipads without living space,” some joked –. near its headquarters in Rosslyn, Virginia. Just across the Potomac River from Washington DC

(Gannett is now headquartered in New York. USA Today spun off from Rosslyn in 2001 and closed its longtime newsroom in McLean, Va., in February. Its remaining Beltway-area employees now work remotely or from its downtown Washington bureau. work from.)

USA Today’s greatest historical achievement may have been its ability to print and distribute the newspaper from coast to coast, in big cities and small towns – and to do so with color photos and graphics, an innovation at the time.

Gannett used satellite technology and built an expensive network of printing plants and truck fleets to churn out paper each day. More than 100,000 copies were sold from specially designed street corner boxes – resembling television sets – and bought in bulk by hotels and airlines, which gave them to guests and passengers. .

Christine Brennan, a longtime sports columnist for USA Today, was writing a column late one night in an Omaha hotel room in 2008. He opened his door to find the latest edition of USA Today, in which his column had appeared.

The technology and resources that made it possible, he recalled last week, “felt like a miracle.”

USA Today maintains a print edition, but print is now an afterthought, as it is in many older newspapers.

The print circulation of all newspapers has decreased. But USA Today, which once boasted that it was the nation’s most widely read general-interest newspaper, with 2.3 million copies a day, now ranked only fifth with 113,228 at the end of last year. Is.

As print sales declined, Gannett downsized printing facilities and pushed back its newsroom deadlines so papers could be printed earlier and trucked farther from fewer plants. One of USA Today’s early selling points — that it scored late in its flagship sports section — is now a thing of the printed past.

TThe 21st century version of USA Today retains the name of the original paper but not much else.

Gone are many of the quirky stories and the chatty tone that spawned such early headlines as “USA is eating its vegetables” and “Men, women: We’re still different.”

Digital presentation is straightforward and traditional, as is writing and news judgment. The top stories on Friday — Hurricane Barrel, the monthly jobs report, President Biden’s political future — were the same as those on other mainstream news sites.

The redesign of paper into a digital operation has been relatively successful, at least from a reader’s perspective. The website attracted 64.1 million unique visitors in May, according to Comscore, which ranks it among the leading news outlets.

But “monetizing” those visitors is another issue. The paper has relatively few digital subscribers — just 142,212, according to its year-end report, far behind leading paywalled news sites like the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. This means it depends on advertising, which is often sold on the Internet at deeply discounted prices. Gannett does not disclose revenue and profit figures for USA Today, but its flagship paper is unlikely to be profitable.

Gannett’s own financial challenges, meanwhile, have hung like a sword over USA Today for years. The company is owned by the venerable Gannett Co., parent of Gatehouse Media, another newspaper chain. (founded in 1906) has a 2019 purchase.

The deal left the combined company nearly $1.8 billion in debt, prompting endless rounds of cost-cutting and asset sales. As a merged company, Gannett now has fewer employees than before the buyout.

A round of cuts announced in late 2022 included a hiring freeze, five days of unpaid leave for most employees, job cuts and a freeze on company contributions to employee 401(k) accounts.

USA Today has hired a few journalists in the past year, but the general uncertainty about its parent company has sparked a kind of reflexive sentiment, said one former USA Today reporter. who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid workplace repercussions.

The former staffer described the “paradox” among employees whenever editors called a staff meeting: Even if the meeting was routine, there was an assumption that more bad news was about to be announced, the former employee said.

Despite the unpredictable environment, USA Today has managed to produce some solid journalism under Samuel and her predecessor, Nicole Carroll.

In September, staff writer Kenny Jacoby broke the news of sexual harassment allegations against Michigan State football coach Mel Tucker, a revelation that led to Tucker’s firing. Staffer Nick Penzenstadler does business reporting on gun crime and gun store sales. In May, he reported on leaked data that showed US sources of guns used in crimes by Mexican drug cartels.

(The paper faced a minor scandal in 2022, however, when it admitted that 23 articles written by a breaking news writer, Gabriela Miranda, had used fabricated sources; the articles were removed and Miranda resigned).

The USA Today staff has had some success amid Gannett’s austerity drive and various restructurings. Samuel has overseen 241 journalists over the past year – about 20 more than when the paper was launched in 1982. Carroll, though, was in charge of 285 journalists when she left in 2023.

The two editors-in-chief managed to keep the print newspaper relatively healthy and full of stories, thanks to USA Today’s relationship with Gannett’s fleet of nearly 200 daily newspapers. Under an operation called the USA Today Network, the flagship paper taps into reporting from newspapers around the country and vice versa.

This has led to collaboration on several major stories. USA Today, for example, drew on coverage of Hunter Biden by a Gannett-owned news journal in Delaware, its Florida papers for reporting on the former president. Donald Trumpand the entire network for the eclipse in April.

USA Today has never won a Pulitzer Prize in its 42 years, though its reporters have come close in recent years. Under Carroll, the paper contributed Pulitzer-winning stories reported primarily by journalists at Gannett’s regional newspapers in Phoenix, Cincinnati and Louisville.

Asked for his assessment of USA Today’s contribution to journalism, longtime media critic Jack Shaffer pointed instead to its design.

“Its goal of being a place to get news fast and breezy became the template for many early adopters. [web] news portals and aggregators,” he said. Even the original USA TODAY streetbooks, now mostly gone, resembled computer monitors that eventually gave the newspaper instant and comprehensive news coverage. And will make room for information.

USA Today was an innovator, Schaefer said. And his present fate is like that of all innovators:

“What made it special,” he said, “became common as others imitated it.”



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