Happy Birthday, USA TODAY!
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.