Happy Birth­day, USA TO­DAY!

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Erik Brady @ByErikBrady USA TO­DAY Sports

USA TO­DAY turns 35 to­day. Happy birth­day to us.

We wrote like that when the news­pa­per be­gan. Kept our sen­tences short. Our sto­ries, too.

And we said we — folksy, first-per­son plu­ral — more of­ten than was de­cent. But our mo­tive was good: It sig­naled to read­ers that we saw no dis­tance be­tween them and their new news­pa­per. We were a pa­per of the peo­ple.

The lead story in our first is­sue was the death of Princess Grace of Monaco. Some other news­pa­pers led in­stead with the as­sas­si­na­tion of Bashir Ge­mayel. But USA TO­DAY founder Al Neuharth fig­ured Amer­i­cans cared more about the for­mer Grace Kelly — Hol­ly­wood roy­alty re­made as real royal — than a Leba- nese leader they never knew.

The day’s other big story was an air­plane crash in Spain, prompt­ing Neuharth to bang out this head­line on his 1926 black Royal type­writer: “Mir­a­cle: 327 sur­vive, 55 die.” He called that ap­proach — find­ing good news amid bad — the jour­nal­ism of hope.

His staff ’s hope was that the pa­per would last. Wall Street gave it lit­tle chance. No large-cir­cu­la­tion daily had been born in the USA since World War II. More than 20 metro news­pa­pers had

merged or gone belly up in the months lead­ing up to the launch.

USA TO­DAY was birth amid death, good rea­son for jour­nal­ists to cheer. Still, many didn’t. Crit­ics branded us McPaper, de­rid­ing our pie charts and bite-size sto­ries as junk-food jour­nal­ism. If USA TO­DAY is a good pa­per, Wash­ing­ton Post edi­tor Ben Bradlee said, then “I’m in the wrong busi­ness.” (Neuharth glee­fully agreed Bradlee was in the wrong busi­ness.)

A staff guide ti­tled Writ­ing for

USA TO­DAY of­fered tips on how to tell sto­ries quickly and clearly. One pre­cept obeyed its own com­mand: “Don’t waste words.” Phil Mu­sick, our orig­i­nal colum­nist in Sports, liked to say he used an ad­jec­tive once a week, whether he needed it or not.

Staffers worked 12-hour days, ex­cept when we worked longer. Our task was reimag­in­ing news­pa­pers while si­mul­ta­ne­ously pro­duc­ing one. The news­room’s ur­gent vibe was all hands on deck. Well, make that be­low deck. “When Al wants to wa­ter ski, we all row a lit­tle harder,” quipped stats maven Bob Bar­brow.

Henry Free­man, the pa­per’s orig­i­nal man­ag­ing edi­tor for Sports, put to­gether a team (in­clud­ing Bar­brow) that re-en­gi­neered box scores and stand­ings. Th­ese ex­panded en­tries soon be­came the norm at other pa­pers. (Free­man was re­cently the re­cip­i­ent of the Red Smith Award for out­stand­ing con­tri­bu­tions to sports jour­nal­ism.)

“Men, Women: We’re still dif­fer­ent,” pro­claimed an early head­line. So­phis­ti­cates scoffed at such floss. We were self-aware enough to laugh, too. We’re still laugh­ing. When we in­tro­duced a new logo for our 30th an­niver­sary — a blue dot — Stephen Col­bert gibed, “Serendip­i­tously, this is also a pie chart show­ing the per­cent­age of peo­ple con­fused by USA TO­DAY’s new logo.”

Co­me­di­ans tell jokes about the widely fa­mil­iar. It didn’t take long for the news­pa­per that wasn’t sup­posed to make it to be­come a brand with enough na­tional aware­ness that comics could count on us.

Peter Prichard, who’d later be edi­tor of USA TO­DAY, told our story in The Mak­ing of McPaper, his 1987 book about the news­pa­per’s start-up and early years. He noted in 2007’s up­dated edi­tion that much of what peo­ple thought of as orig­i­nal to USA TO­DAY was re­ally stolen from TV, in­clud­ing color and weather and shorter, sharper sto­ries.

Our news­pa­per boxes even looked like TVs. At first, th­ese clunky blue-and-white boxes dis­pensed pa­pers for a quar­ter. At their peak, roughly 80,000 of them dot­ted the na­tion’s ur­ban land­scapes. To­day, few re­main — who car­ries eight quar­ters? — though you can find de­com­mis­sioned boxes in the back­yards of many who’ve worked for the na­tion’s news­pa­per.

The same edi­tors who mocked our ap­proach when we be­gan

The same edi­tors who mocked our ap­proach soon enough poached much of it for them­selves.

soon enough poached much of it for them­selves. Other news­pa­pers be­gan to look more like us — and, sure enough, we be­gan to look more like them. Our sto­ries got longer and more se­ri­ous. And we rec­og­nized that noth­ing sells news­pa­pers like news.

By the mid-1990s, edi­tor Dave Maz­zarella cham­pi­oned muck­rak­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions and deeply re­ported en­ter­prise. Neuharth, by then re­tired, com­plained that USA TO­DAY looked too much like its com­peti­tors. Bradlee of­fered mild praise. “I read news­pa­pers ev­ery­where I go,” he said in 2007, “and if I get the hell out of a big city, I am so glad for USA TO­DAY that I can’t stand it.”

His in­vo­ca­tion of travel was apt. USA TO­DAY has long been the pa­per of busi­ness trav­el­ers, ubiq­ui­tous for years at ho­tels. Neuharth’s orig­i­nal con­cept was that a news­pa­per with a na­tional per­spec­tive would ap­peal to a mo­bile na­tion. More than three decades on, the chal­lenge is to ap­peal on mo­bile de­vices.

The pa­per that in­vented short is made for the age of Twit­ter. Last month, USATODAY.com at­tracted more than 1 bil­lion pageviews: The pa­per of the peo­ple is the peo­ple’s web­site as well.

USATODAY.com launched in

1995 with the same can-do moxie that marked the pa­per’s start-up. News­pa­pers have sev­eral dead­lines a day; the web­site had rolling dead­lines around the clock.

The site was orig­i­nally struc­tured like the news­pa­per, and staffers were as­signed to dif­fer­ent sec­tions — though when news broke, sec­tions didn’t mat­ter. Sports staffers posted early re­ac­tion from around the world when Princess Diana of Wales died, echoes of Princess Grace.

Video was added to the site in

1999. It was sup­posed to take months of plan­ning; the ter­ror at the Columbine school shoot­ing changed that. Video went up that day, sev­eral months early. To­day, video is cru­cial to the site’s suc­cess and in­cludes vir­tual re­al­ity.

We worked with a view from our of­fice win­dows of smoke bil­low­ing from the Pen­tagon on Sept. 11, 2001. USATODAY.com al­tered the de­sign of our on­line “front page” on the fly — no time for the usual cod­ing and test­ing — to best tell the day’s ter­ri­ble, rapidly changing story.

To­day, the USA TO­DAY Net­work boasts roughly 3,000 jour­nal­ists at 110 news­pa­pers owned by Gan­nett, our par­ent com­pany. Joanne Lip­man, edi­tor in chief of USA TO­DAY and the Net­work, leads a ro­bust re­port where lo­cal sto­ries feed na­tional news and na­tional news res­onates with lo­cal rel­e­vance.

In­no­va­tion is what got us off the ground in 1982, again in 1995 — and what keeps us keep­ing on in 2017 and be­yond.

We’re not the new kid on the block any­more. But, rest as­sured, we’re still dif­fer­ent.


The first USA TO­DAY was pub­lished Sept. 15, 1982.


The news depart­ment meets in the na­tional edi­tor’s of­fice to dis­cuss the sto­ries for the pa­per of Sept. 15, 1982.


Coin racks are pre­pared for dis­tri­bu­tion be­fore the first is­sue, a bar­gain at a quar­ter.


USA TO­DAY staffers cover the pres­i­den­tial race on elec­tion night Nov. 8, 2016, at the pa­per’s head­quar­ters in McLean, Va.


Erik Brady then ... and now.

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