USA Today at 40

“Tell Us What You Think,” cover of USA Today survey cards sent with prototypes of the newspaper, 1981, Box 132, Allen Neuharth Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“Tell Us What You Think,” cover of USA Today survey cards sent with prototypes of the newspaper, 1981. Box 132, Allen Neuharth Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Forty years ago today, on September 15, 1982, in a ceremony overlooking the Capitol and the Washington Monument and attended by President Ronald Reagan, Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, and Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, USA Today published its first issue, “flanked by the nation’s two greatest monuments, surrounded by the nation’s highest leaders, all of it wrapped up in red, white, and blue,” noted former USA Today staffer Peter Pritchard.[1]

Over the past four decades, the landscape of American media has changed dramatically. The 1980s and 1990s witnessed the rise of cable news which later ceded ground to the Internet’s blogosphere and the attendant social media onslaught that followed. From the late 1990s to our current moment, print media endured a grueling transition, shedding staff, readers and influence simultaneously.

Today, of the top four U.S. newspapers, three have been around for more than 100 years: New York Times (1851), Washington Post (1877), and Wall Street Journal (1889).  The fourth, USA Today, emerged in 1982 amidst the turbulent changes described above behind the leadership of Gannett Newspapers chairman Allen “Al” Neuharth.

Dubbed “McPaper” by its critics, a term later adopted by employees as a badge of honor, USA Today’s story can be explored in the Allen Neuharth Papers, which are divided between the Manuscript and Serial & Government Publications divisions. The collection provides a window into the forces driving newspapers during the 1980s and documents USA Today’s innovative, if somewhat controversial, vision of the news media’s future.

Born at the year-ending Gannett board meeting in 1979, USA Today took over two years and a million dollars just to get started.[2] By 1981, a team drawn from various Gannett outlets working secretly under the auspices of “NN”, had produced two prototypes, Prototype I and Prototype II, which they sent out to thousands of media professionals, publishers, and readers for feedback. Included in each survey mailing, was a card featuring two boxes for respondents to check, one reading “I hope you start publishing USA TODAY regularly” and the other, “I hope you forget about the idea.”

Responses to the prototypes serve as barometer for the industry’s proverbial 1981 temperature but also as a crystal ball for peering into the media’s future.

Use of color, enhanced weather coverage, and a national sports page were only three innovations adopted by USA Today and soon imitated by its competitors and, in many cases, lauded by survey respondents. The “Money” section, which appeared in Prototype II, also drew support. Dean of the Missouri School of Journalism Roy M. Fisher argued the paper should expand the section to compete with the Wall Street Journal by adopting a “consumer” perspective: “Consumers have an interest not only in how much a new car rattles, but also who makes it, how it is made, and why, and what influence government policies – ranging from import quotas to air bag restraints – will have on that new automobile.”[3]

USA Today, “Tells Us What You Think,” interior of survey card sent along with the prototypes of the newspaper, 1981, Box 132, Allen Neuharth Papers, Manuscript Division Library of Congress.

USA Today, “Tells Us What You Think,” interior of survey card sent along with the prototypes of the newspaper, 1981. Box 132, Allen Neuharth Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

For some correspondents, however, the newspaper’s overall style fizzled rather than dazzled. Montana editor Patrick Sheehy described the endeavor as “faceless, heartless,” serving only to promote a “corporate point of view.” “It reminds me of Time magazine. I don’t like Time magazine,” he wrote. A real newspaper, he continued has a “heart and you can hear it beating while you’re reading it … A great metro paper has a national perspective because it is big enough to carry it off.”[4] Charles Utter, editor and copublisher of the Connecticut newspaper, The Sun, concurred, “Personally, I hope this nation is not ready for a national newspaper to feed the same sop to all its citizens.”[5]

Though incorrect about USA Today’s ultimate success, these skeptics were not wrong about the paper’s perceived weakness. President Ronald Reagan joked at its fifth anniversary in 1987, “I even understand that the Pulitzer board may change its award criteria because of USA Today and recognize the most creative news paragraph.”[6]  The short, terse reporting style that tended to accentuate the positive aspects of a story rather than focus on the negative, the “journalism of hope,” as some described it, drew ambivalence and even hostility from some readers.

Yet other respondents welcomed the approach. Edward W. Barrett, founder of the Columbia Journalism Review, hailed the prototypes for their “Savvy, interesting editing (with an alert eye for conversation pieces: Washington the shrink city, Nice girls aren’t asked, Seattle Gay Disco Church).”[7]

The costs of building an enterprise such as USA Today were immense. Financial news editor Michael Clowes made this point to Neuharth in 1981. Clowes had started at Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper, The Australian, soon after its establishment in 1964. Despite that paper’s adeptness at covering foreign affairs and national politics, it had struggled financially and had “only recently begun to make a little money.”[8] USA Today endured a financial bloodletting as well, racking-up over 1 billion in losses, before its first year in the black, 1993. By its 25th anniversary, however, it had become “a money maker with a weekday circulation of 2.3 million,” at the time, the largest of any newspaper in the country.[9]

Many of the respondents pegged USA Today’s success to two factors, the first, an ability to poach readers from regions and cities where newspaper coverage was weak. “If you can penetrate markets with inferior newspapers – and there are lots of such markets – USA TODAY would sell well,” wrote a skeptical George Beebe, associate editor of the Miami Herald.[10] Not an easy task however. Asking readers to digest a second newspaper was “like offering us Bananas Foster after we’ve just finished waffles and butterscotch syrup,” wrote Kansas editor John Marshall.[11] President and publisher of the Philadelphia Bulletin, N. S. Hayden shared a similar skepticism. “In Philadelphia that fickle public has a daily choice of four local newspapers plus the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal … and in some Center City locations, you can add the Courier-Post.”[12]

The second factor respondents identified as critical to USA Today’s success was mobility – the paper had to capitalize on business and vacation travel. In 1980, 850,000 people travelled on airlines daily and 1.75 million people a day stayed in hotels or motels.[13] USA Today should make “extra-circulation efforts in vacation areas,” wrote one editor.[14] Twenty-five years later, the point held, half of the newspaper’s copies were “distributed through hotels.”[15]

In some instances, responses to the prototypes provided glimpses of the media’s future. USA Today skeptic Luke P. Carroll, a former New York Herald managing and assistant executive editor, offered several prescient suggestions such as expanding its media coverage by devoting “as much space and energy to TV news as our newspapers today devote to sports,” providing a celebrities column that meshed aspects of the “New York Times People column and the Washington Star ‘Ear’ column,” and an increased focus on “Travel, Food, Life Style, Health and Science.”[16] All of these ideas emerged as dominant media themes in the twenty-first century.

George Bush to Allen Neuharth, July 15, 1982. Box 133, Allen Neuharth Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Despite predictions of its demise in 2019 and the deleterious effects from the COVID-19 pandemic which drastically reduced travel, the newspaper’s print edition remains “a profitable product,” noted USA Today publisher Maribel Perez Wadsworth in May 2022. Like most newspapers, it has transitioned to a predominantly “digital business,” but in some ways, the rise of social media and cable news has nationalized life, with local events often serving as national referendums. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, among other social media outlets, have flattened regionality. Sports coverage of athletes starts as early as junior high, thus when John Faber, wrote to Neuharth in 1981, hailing the prototypes’ sports coverage and advocating for “a sports daily,” he basically envisioned media outlets such as The Athletic and The Ringer. For this reason and others, forty years later USA Today remains a media staple.

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[1] Peter Pritchard, The Making of McPaper: The Inside Story of USA Today (New York: Universal Press, 1987), 3.

[2] Allen Neuharth, Confessions of an S.O.B. (New York: Double Day, 1989), 115.

[3] Roy M. Fisher to Ron Martin, June 29, 1981, Box 133, Allen Neuharth Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[4] Patrick Sheehy to Allen Neuharth, July 30, 1981, Box 133, Allen Neuharth Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[5] Charles W. Utter to Allen Neuharth, June 26, 1981, Box 133, Allen Neuharth Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[6] David Colton, “McPaper Grows UP,” Washingtonian, September 2007, Box 117, Allen Neuharth Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[7] Edward W. Barrett to Allen Neuharth, July 9, 1981, Box 133, Allen Neuharth Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[8] Michael Clowes to Allen Neuharth, July 10, 1980, Box 133, Allen Neuharth Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[9] Richard Pérez-Peña, “At 25, ‘McPaper’ is all grown up,” New York Times, September 17, 2007, Box 117, Allen Neuharth Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[10] George Beebe, letter to Allen Neuharth, July 6, 1981, Box 133, Allen Neuharth Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[11] John Marshall to Allen Neuharth, July 3, 1981, Box 133, Allen Neuharth Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[12] N. S. Hayden to Allen Neuharth, June 29, 1981, Box 133, Allen Neuharth Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[13] Pritchard, The Making of McPaper, 100.

[14] Edward Somers to Allen Neuharth, July 1, 1981, Box 133, Allen Neuharth Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[15] Richard Pérez-Peña, “At 25, ‘McPaper’ is all grown up,” New York Times, September 17, 2007, Box 117, Allen Neuharth Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[16] Luke P. Carroll to Allen Neuharth, July 28, 1981, Box 133, Allen Neuharth Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

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