Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Top Execs Assess 'USA Today' Impact after 25 Years

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Top Execs Assess 'USA Today' Impact after 25 Years

Article excerpt

Donald Graham still recalls the kickoff dinner he attended 25 years ago for USA Today, then the much-criticized brainchild of former Gannett CEO Al Neuharth. Just three years into his term as publisher of The Washington Post, Graham, now chairman of The Washington Post Company, remembers asking attendees at the dinner in suburban Virginia what they thought of the venture, and getting mostly negative responses.

"I think USA Today outperformed the estimates of everyone there, including the USA Today people," he told E&P two days before Saturday's 25th anniversary. "It established itself in a way I didn't think anyone was expecting -- an impressive business success."

Graham, who served as Post publisher from 1979 to 2001, is among several newspaper veterans who admit they wrongly assumed the paper would not do well.

Since it launched on Sept. 15, 1982, amid complaints that it lacked in-depth reporting and used too many snappy graphics and color photos in place of hard-hitting news, the national daily has taken position as a circulation leader, ranking at or near the top consistently.

In addition, the paper has transformed the way many dailies operate, from pushing shorter, quicker brief-style stories to leading the way in color photography long before others saw the need.

"The very first impact it had was that it made every other newspaper in the country look drab and poorly printed," said newspaper analyst John Morton of Morton Research Inc. in Silver Springs, Md. "It triggered a lot of investment in improving print quality and adding color. All of a sudden you had this colorful newspaper next to the hometown newspaper that was drab and muddy-looking."

Morton, at the time, made the now-famous predication that the paper "sounds like a good way to lose a lot of money in a hurry," he remembered. "That was true, until it turned a profit after a few years." He said it also proved innovative in its distribution, utilizing many existing Gannett newspaper printing presses and a broad national advertising appeal: "That was a very complicated endeavor, to make it available everywhere. And with very high print quality standards."

Veteran editors, such as Ben Bradlee, who led the Washington Post from 1965 to 1991, credited USA Today for improving its coverage in recent years and giving travelers a paper they can count on anywhere in the country. …

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