USA Today: Last of the great startups?

On September 14, USA Today turned 25 with a good deal of self-generated fanfare. And in many ways, congratulations are deserved.

On September 14, USA Today turned 25 with a good deal of self-generated fanfare. And in many ways, congratulations are deserved.

Derided at first as a dumbed-down product of an ego-driven mogul, the "Little Paper That Did" now boasts the largest circulation in America. But beyond all of the full-color photos, info boxes, and peppy graphics that it has bestowed on the industry, USA Today will be remembered for another, more enduring accomplishment: being the last successful large newspaper startup in American history.

When the paper was founded in 1982, the industry was in a relative heyday. Fresh on the heels of Ted Turner's maniacal (and ultimately genius) founding of the 24-hour news network CNN, Gannett CEO Al Neuharth decided that what the country needed was a truly "national" newspaper.

This need was not immediately apparent to anybody else. But Neuharth persisted, and USA Today forged its own niche, creating a demand on the doorsteps of hotel rooms across the country that nobody had previously imagined existed.

It's worthwhile to pause and reflect on what impact "McPaper" has had on the industry, and what it says about our own taste in media. Traditionally, journalism purists have criticized USA Today as fluffy, with stories that are too short, photos that are too big, graphics that are too asinine, and headlines that are too cheery.

These criticisms are far less true today than they were in 1982. But they're still true. They are also largely beside the point. Neuharth was most ahead of his time in his realization that a stodgy, traditional form of media (newspapers) could be melded with the most attractive qualities of a newer form of media (TV) to create a product to which consumers will respond. While this seemed like sacrilege in 1982 - then, after all, newspapers were minting money and didn't see any compelling audience-driven need to change - it seems prescient today.

If the 83-year-old Neuharth was a younger man, he would be in high demand as a consultant advising on how to pull the trick all over again, with the Internet replacing television in the pantheon of newspapers' competitors.

Of course, USA Today has its own business to worry about. Its Web site draws almost 11 million visitors a month, driven by a newsroom that integrated its print and online operations in 2005.

"It's a brand that translates well to the Web site," says Susan Lavington, USA Today's SVP of marketing. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and arguably a few other papers have deeper, more informative sites than USA Today, but the paper is second only to the Times in traffic, as readers are unlikely to feel any dissonance moving from a graphics-driven paper with punchy text to an online site offering the exact same thing.

Still, USA Today has a bit of a little-guy complex. At a media luncheon in New York celebrating its anniversary, editor Ken Paulson recalled how a New York Times spokesman remarked at USA Today's founding that the Times was different because it targeted the "top 1%" of the population.

"Ninety-nine to one sounds about right to us," Paulson said. "We take our journalism seriously, but we don't have to take our-selves so seriously. The motto is 'Hey, let's try that.'"

For his part, Neuharth has a rare sunny outlook on the future of the newspaper industry as a whole. He expressed quite a high opinion of the business savvy of executives like Arthur Sulzberger and Rupert Murdoch. He believes that the major newspaper companies will eventually navigate the murky waters of the Internet and learn how to continue making money, rather than go broke. He is even optimistic enough in his retirement to question the premise of USA Today's "last great newspaper startup" title.

"I don't want to say that," he says, waving his hand dismissively. "We're just the most recent."

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