Why Brevity and Pretty, Pretty Colors Still Work

Media Reviews for Media People: USA Today

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Gaze with me, if you will, deep into the future, to a time when the 13th-century conceit of a printed newspaper no longer exists. To an era when only those individuals with access to a computer, cellphone,TV, radio (terrestrial, satellite or ham), motormouthed coworker or news-trawling robot can manage to stay reliably informed. To an age in which computer-illiterate scavengers can no longer sell their Pogs and tray tables because classified ads have vanished into the online ether. To a dark place where ink-stained wretches wander the streets holding "will utter sarcastic asides about the moral fitness of the city council's corresponding secretary for vending-machine food" signs.
USA Today has done a bang-up job of cramming gobs of material into a lean package since the early '80s.
USA Today has done a bang-up job of cramming gobs of material into a lean package since the early '80s.

Yeah, 2011 is gonna be pretty hairy. I have every confidence, though, that USA Today will crawl out of the post-apocalypse media rubble with a wide grin on its brightly hued face, reporting glowingly on Carrie Underwood's new project.

What America wants
Why? Because -- and see if you can stay with me here -- USA Today prints stuff that mainstream Americans want to read and that business travelers don't mind having shoved beneath their hotel-room doors. They want weather and USA Today indulges them with a map as comprehensive as it is colorful. They want health and USA Today dutifully reports on flu outbreaks and wonder drugs awaiting FDA approval. They want factoids and USA Today serves up pie-charty "Snapshots" about our crouton preferences and Christmas-tree-disposal tactics.

Those who self-identify as intellectuals might not have much use for USA Today because its news and cultural coverage doesn't delve deep. I personally might not have much use for USA Today because I can get my box scores online in real time. But for a great majority of Americans, for the plumbing Joes and meat-processing Janes who don't spend 17 hours a day listening to NPR or attached to the internet, USA Today delivers the day's must-have information in a pleasing array of colors. There's value in this.

For all the talk about the trend towards information synthesis, USA Today has done a bang-up job of cramming gobs of material into a lean package since the early '80s. The paper hasn't changed much over the years, sticking with the same organizational and graphic scheme (blue for news, green for money, red for sports, purple for life). It publishes a magazine supplement (Open Air) every so often, as well as bonus sections around events like the NCAA hoops tourney, but otherwise today's USA Today is barely distinguishable from yesteryear's.

Some things stay the same
That's why all the deep-thinking revisionist takes on USA Today -- the ones in which the paper is lauded for the breadth of its reporting and its ahead-of-the-curve embrace of color, photos and really small words -- don't exactly ring true.

The news and business sections (which, really, are interchangeable in these unfortunate times) hew to their traditional "here's how this issue affects you, the working-class hero" bent. Expected bits on holiday travel and military jobs mix easily, if ponderously, with ones on smoke-free hotels and primary-care doctors. The sports section kicks off with a duh-really feature ("Annika Sorenstam is good at golf," "College jocks gravitate towards dummyhead majors which leave them unprepared to hold jobs that don't involve kicking things") before diving into game recaps. The "Life" section traffics in gift ideas, linear profiles and quick-hit reviews. The way USA Today goes about its business may resonate with a lot of readers, but that doesn't mean it should start courting the Pulitzer committee just yet.

To its credit, the paper has taken steps towards narrowing its knowledge void, poaching content from other Gannett-owned titles. This week, for instance, the news section has borrowed stories on the proposed auto-industry bailout from the Detroit Free Press. The paper should tap into the Gannett cache more often.

Web evolution
Where USA Today has evolved significantly (and where it receives almost no recognition for having done so) is in its online presence. You can skip past the paper's official site, which comes across as a lobotomized CNN.com. Several of its 20 or so blogs, on the other hand, display the personality and passion the print product lacks. I dig "Pop Candy" owing to its sunny hostess Whitney Matheson, one of the few entertainment bloggers who seems to enjoy what she does for a living. Matheson doesn't get caught in the irritating anoint-Next-Big-Thing/immediately-tear-it-down cycle; if she doesn't dig an episode of "Lost," she simply explains why, rather than issuing a 2,750-word rant on how the show's creators have lost their way and thus should be exiled to an invisible magical super-island of their own.

Marketers will find a different audience online -- more pop-culture punks and cruise enthusiasts -- than they will in the print product, which hones in on business travelers. Nearly every hotel chain claims some real estate in the print edition, as do traveler-friendly brands like Avis, Garmin and Sprint. USA Today deserves props for its use of space, especially the unobtrusive ads that run along the bottom of the front page and the record ads couched within the music charts.

Our safest bet?
There are many theories, discussed to the point of exhaustion here and elsewhere, why newspapers may go the way of the dodo bird before too long (ain't it ironic that, as the papers themselves have done for Britney Spears and John Wooden, we're pre-writing the obituaries?). But owing to its brevity and its pretty, pretty colors, USA Today will survive the purge with its modest sense of mission intact. For readers and marketers, it remains the safest bet in American journalism.

If I'm ever comatose for an extended period of time -- not an unlikely scenario, given my recent encounters with undercooked shellfish -- USA Today will be the first news source I reach for when I regain consciousness. That's a compliment. ... I think.
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