USA Today transformed the media world for good. What’s its legacy now?

USA Today transformed the media world for good. What’s its legacy now?

It was snappy and colorful. It was new and different.

And much of the rest of the newspaper industry seemed to hate it.

USA Today left critics aghast when it debuted 42 years ago. Rival editors sneered at its bite-sized news stories and its relentlessly cheerful tone. (Headline on a plane crash story in the first edition: “Miracle: 327 survive, 58 die”) The reporting was often so brief and superficial that even insiders joked that their work would win awards for “best investigative paragraph.” It was quickly dubbed “McPaper,” the news equivalent of junk food.

The joke was on the critics. USA Today turned out to be one of the most influential media creations of the past half century. “McPaper” now looks like the prototype for news on the internet, circa 2024.

But what about USA Today itself?

Once so ubiquitous — from its distinctive newspaper boxes and copies landing at hotel room doors nationwide — USA Today has lost much of its visibility while contending with the same economic pressures challenging all media outlets, such as a shrinking readership and an evaporating ad base.

Last week, USA Today’s top editor, Terence Samuel, abruptly resigned after just a year. He was the paper’s fifth editor in chief in 15 years and the first Black journalist to hold the job. Neither he nor parent company Gannett Co. offered an explanation.

In an interview, Samuel — previously the executive editor at NPR and a senior editor at The Washington Post — said he helped expand USA Today’s digital audience during his brief tenure. He said he encouraged his newsroom to “take more chances and be more brave” in the wake of a series of 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 precipitated his resignation. Gannett handed Monica R. Richardson, a senior vice president, direct supervision of USA Today’s newsroom, thus diminishing Samuel’s authority.

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

A Gannett spokesperson declined to comment.

Samuel, 62, is the third editor of a leading newspaper to leave this year, a reflection of the turbulence besetting the business. The others include Kevin Merida of the Los Angeles Times, who resigned in January, and Sally Buzbee at The Washington Post, who stepped down last month after new publisher Will Lewis offered her a lesser position.

From its beginning, USA Today was an expensive gamble on an untested premise: that Americans wanted a national newspaper, one that would be a “second read” to their local paper.

Gannett’s late chairman, Al Neuharth, believed that millions of daily business travelers and vacationers could form the core readership of such a publication. He stood by his brainchild even as it racked up an estimated $400 million in losses during its first five years, a sum equal to about $1.15 billion today.

Neuharth tapped the then-bountiful profits of Gannett’s chain of local newspapers to underwrite his project. He also tapped into the labor of those smaller papers’ journalists to form his new national paper’s early newsroom, paying to house them in tiny apartments — “stay-free minipads,” some joked — near its then-headquarters in Rosslyn, a Virginia neighborhood just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.

(Gannett is now headquartered in New York. USA Today pulled up stakes from Rosslyn several years ago and in February closed its longtime newsroom in McLean, Va. Its remaining Beltway-area employees now work remotely or from its downtown Washington bureau.)

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

Gannett harnessed satellite technology and fashioned an expensive network of printing plants and truck fleets to get the paper out each day. Copies were sold from more than 100,000 distinctively designed street-corner boxes — said to resemble television sets — and purchased in bulk by hotels and airlines, which gave them away to guests and passengers.

Christine Brennan, USA Today’s longtime sports columnist, remembers writing a column in a hotel room in Omaha late one night in 2008. A few hours later, she heard the plop of a newspaper hitting her doorstep. She opened her door to find the latest edition of USA Today, her column published within.

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

While USA Today retains a print edition, print is now an afterthought, as it is at many legacy newspapers.

Print circulation has plummeted at all newspapers. But USA Today, which once could boast that it was the most-read general interest newspaper in the country, with 2.3 million daily copies, is now just the fifth, with 113,228 at the end of last year.

As print sales dwindled, Gannett cut back on printing facilities and pushed its newsroom deadlines back so that papers could be printed earlier and trucked longer distances from fewer plants. One of USA Today’s early selling points — that it carried late scores in its well-regarded sports section — is now a thing of the printed past.

The 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 chirpy tone that gave birth to such early headlines as “USA is eating its vegetables” and “Men, Women: We’re still different.”

The digital presentation is straightforward and conventional, as is the writing and news judgment. The lead stories on Friday — Hurricane Beryl, the monthly jobs report, President Biden’s political future — were the same as those leading other mainstream news sites.

The remodeling of the paper into a digital operation has been relatively successful, at least from a readership standpoint. The site attracted 64.1 million unique visitors in May, according to Comscore, ranking it among the leading news organizations.

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, such as the New York Times, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. That means it’s dependent on advertising, which is often sold at steeply discounted prices on the internet. Gannett doesn’t disclose revenue and profit figures for USA Today, but it’s unlikely that its flagship paper is profitable.

Gannett’s own financial challenges, meanwhile, have dangled like a sword over USA Today for a number of years. The company is the creation of a 2019 buyout of the venerable Gannett Co. (founded 1906) by the parent of GateHouse Media, another newspaper chain.

The deal saddled the combined company with about $1.8 billion in debt, leading to endless rounds of cost-cutting and asset sales. Gannett now has fewer employees as a merged company than it had before the buyout.

One round of cuts announced in late 2022 included a hiring freeze, five days of unpaid leave for most employees, job losses and a pause in the company’s contributions to employees’ 401(k) accounts.

While USA Today has hired a few journalists in the past year, the general uncertainty about its parent company has induced a kind of reflexive paranoia, said a former USA Today journalist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid workplace repercussions.

The ex-staffer described the “freak out” among employees whenever editors called a staff meeting: Even if the meeting was routine, the assumption was that more bad news was going to be announced, the former employee said.

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

In September, sportswriter Kenny Jacoby broke news of allegations of sexual harassment against Michigan State football coach Mel Tucker, a disclosure that led to Tucker’s firing. Staffer Nick Penzenstadler has done enterprising reporting on gun crimes and gun-store sales; in May, he reported on leaked data showing the U.S. sources of guns used in crimes committed by Mexico’s drug cartels.

(The paper endured a mini-scandal in 2022, though, when it acknowledged that 23 articles written by a breaking-news writer, Gabriela Miranda, appeared to have used fabricated sources; the articles were removed and Miranda resigned).

USA Today’s staff has taken some hits amid Gannett’s austerity campaign and various reorganizations. Samuel supervised 241 journalists over the past year — about 20 more than the paper had at its launch in 1982. Carroll, though was in charge of 285 journalists when she left in 2023.

Both editors in chief have managed to keep the print newspaper looking relatively healthy and full of stories, thanks to USA Today’s ties to Gannett’s fleet of nearly 200 daily newspapers. Under an operation branded as the USA Today Network, the flagship paper taps into the reporting of newspapers across the country and vice versa.

This has led to collaboration on a number of major stories; USA Today, for example, drew on reporting by the Gannett-owned News Journal in Delaware for coverage of Hunter Biden, its Florida papers for reporting on former president Donald Trump, and the entire network for the eclipse in April.

In its 42 years, USA Today has never won a Pulitzer Prize, though in recent years its reporters have come close. Under Carroll, the paper contributed to Pulitzer-winning stories principally reported 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 Shafer pointed instead to its design.

“Its goal of being the place for a quick and airy take on the news became the template for many of the early [web] news portals and aggregators,” he said. Even the original USA Today street boxes, now mostly gone, resembled the computer monitors that would eventually supersede the newspaper as the place for quick and concise news and information, he said.

USA Today was an innovator, said Shafer. And its current fate is like that of all innovators:

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

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