Twenty-five years after USA Today zigged while everyone else zagged, it averages the biggest paid weekday circulation in the country, nearly 2.3 million and growing. The industry has learned to imitate its earliest editorial priorities -- color, brevity, sports, pop and dialogue with readers -- alongside bold business plays such as the front-page ads that started in 1999.
The paper may have looked even further ahead than its founders, including the dynamic Al Neuharth, could know. "USA Today did not invent the national newspaper," said Editor Ken Paulson, who worked on the launch as a loaner from the Bridgewater Courier-News in New Jersey. "We invented the web page."
With newspapers now buckling before real websites, however, the dynamic seems to have reversed polarity. USA Today is benefiting from the serious journalism it has introduced along the way while many newspapers thin their newsrooms with budget cuts.
'Recipe for disaster'
"Newspapers around the country are moving more and more in the direction that local TV news took a long time ago, which is devoting fewer resources to serious things and more to sports, wrecks and other fare that doesn't cost as much to report and doesn't cause as many problems," said Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard. "But that is a sure recipe for disaster."
"The lesson of USA Today is that style and trying to cater to people's interest in distraction will only take you so far," added Mr. Jones, who covered the paper as a media reporter for The New York Times from 1983 to 1992. "The thing that has made USA Today a success is making it a serious news organization but in a form and a style that is appealing."
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Neither were advertisers, who were reluctant to buy into a paper so widely derided. "Every day we had to find those ads," recalled Cathie Black, USA Today's former president and publisher, now president of Hearst Magazines. "We were on an airplane every single day."
As the paper gradually found traction with readers and then marketers, however, its ambitions grew. "It was a little light to begin with," Ms. Black said. "Over time USA Today became much more confident about its own ability to do much stronger news coverage."
Substance still counts
Most recently, the paper's reporting on a lack of armored vehicles for U.S. troops in Iraq got the attention of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who said he learned of the shortage from USA Today. That sort of work has overshadowed episodes such as the discovery in 2004 that reporter Jack Kelley had faked big portions of major stories. Late sports scores and slick graphics help drive newsstand sales, but substance helps anchor the paper's place in the industry.
But strong journalism doesn't seem sufficient to protect USA Today from digital media, audience fragmentation and the other forces peeling Americans away from newsprint. Ad revenue grew from 2003 to 2006 but fell 5.4% last year, a $43.9 million drop, according to estimates from TNS Media Intelligence. First-half revenue looks likely to fall short of last year's, Mr. Moon said. Last November the paper cut about 45 newsroom jobs, or 9% of its roughly 500 employees. The paper remains lucrative, but its owners at Gannett Co. answer to Wall Street. Shares in Gannett, whose portfolio includes 85 other dailies and 23 TV stations, have fallen 62% in the past five years.
Despite all that, Mr. Moon doesn't come off like your typical old-media executive displaying bravery in the face of digital. It helps that USA Today never had the classified ads that are so important to other newspapers and are now flowing to the web.
For another thing, he said he figures advertisers don't know how to handle the shifting landscape any better than anyone else. "I can't remember really sitting down with an agency or with a client and talking about [how] they're absolutely sure how to build brands today," said Mr. Moon, 58, during a talk on his office patio at USA Today headquarters in McClean, Va.
"They just don't quite know how to do it. So if we're smart enough to show them how we fit into that puzzle, regardless of whether it's print or digital or mobile ... we ought to be the recipient of advertising exposure."
It's not that USA Today's website could supplant print without a hitch. "I can't foresee a day that the dot-com's revenues could possibly match the revenues that we produce now out of the print edition," Mr. Moon said. But the brand is adding tributaries, sometimes as innovative as the original product in 1982, at a rapid clip. "Knowing that nine out of 10 new businesses fail, you're going to have to have a lot of new businesses in the pipeline to get some winners."
The paper itself, meanwhile, continues to try balancing what readers like and what editors judge important. Mr. Moon and Mr. Paulson agree that the paper has a duty to serve the republic with watchdog journalism -- but it can't live on that alone.
"We care deeply about American foreign policy and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, a million, more than a million each year in Iraq and around the globe," Mr. Paulson said. "But as committed as we are to covering American foreign policy, we're comparably -- well, not comparably -- we're also deeply committed to covering 'American Idol.'"
Why your paper may smell fruityUSA Today has launched several initiatives beyond its daily in an effort to find new revenue.
Its Open Air magazine, about active living, already has recruited advertisers such as Odwalla that weren't using the core paper. And while USA Today hasn't yet found takers on newspaper ads using glow-in-the-dark or scented ink, Omni Hotels did pay for its guest copies to come with berry-scented labels in a breakfast promotion last year.
Jeff Webber, senior VP-advertising for USA Today and publisher of USAToday.com, has other ideas, too, such as letting sponsors place their brand mascots among the avatars that web surfers can pick to represent themselves on the website. "It's just a question of the right ad application for the advertiser," Mr. Webber said.
Then there are efforts to leverage the brand. Seven USA Today Travel Zone stores are coming to airports, starting this fall with New York's LaGuardia. The stores will be designed with colors representing sections of the paper: blue for News, green for Money, red for Sports and purple for Life.