The Right Note? USA Today's Music-Loving New Editor Could Be What the Beleaguered Paper Needs

By Smolkin, Rachel | American Journalism Review, June-July 2004 | Go to article overview

The Right Note? USA Today's Music-Loving New Editor Could Be What the Beleaguered Paper Needs


Smolkin, Rachel, American Journalism Review


On his second day as editor of USA Today, Ken Paulson walked around his desk and dragged a chair over to face a visitor, setting the scene for a cozy chat and unwittingly drawing a striking contrast with his predecessor.

Only weeks before, in that office, former Editor Karen Jurgensen had talked with the same visitor. She was courteous but reserved, and stayed behind the desk.

Former bosses describe Paulson as a "people person," the kind of newsroom executive who has an open door policy--except he's the one stepping through the door, stopping to chat with reporters about stories and meeting regularly with staff.

As executive editor of Gannett papers in New York's Westchester County, he liked to end meetings by asking to hear the rumor of the month, which he would then dispel or explain. "He's a real straight shooter," says Gary Sherlock, president and publisher of the Journal News. "All the cards are on the table with Kenny."

Paulson will need such communication prowess to heal the nation's top-selling paper. His appointment, announced April 29, followed a devastating report by an independent panel that revealed not only long-running fabrications and plagiarism by Jack Kelley, the paper's former star foreign correspondent, but also ineffective leadership, lax editing, a "virus of fear" in the news section and "broken" internal lines of communication. Jurgensen resigned two days before the report was made public on April 22; Hal Ritter, the managing editor for News, resigned that day.

"In recent weeks, we've had this black eye," Paulson says. "And people in the newsroom are troubled about what has happened and concerned about our future. Job one is to listen and learn while making sure that we stay on that path of progress" the paper has charted in recent years with a greater commitment to enterprise and investigative work.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

To move the beleaguered paper forward, Publisher Craig Moon tapped Paulson, 50, a senior vice president of the Freedom Forum and executive director of its First Amendment Center in Nashville. He had worked briefly for USA Today at its inception in 1982 and later served as chief of staff to then-Gannett Chairman Allen H. Neuharth, USA Today's founder.

Paulson's resume includes stints as editor of Gannett papers in Westchester County; Brevard County, Florida; and Green Bay, Wisconsin. In 1997, he moved to the Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan foundation launched by Neuharth that is not affiliated with Gannett. Paulson also served as an adjunct law professor at Vanderbilt University.

After finishing law school at the University of Illinois in 1978, he opted for low pay in newspapers over low pay in the public defender's office because journalism seemed more fun. He'll "always be grateful the public defender's office didn't pay more," Paulson says.

Paulson's new paper is far larger than any he has edited before, and Gannett's financial commitment to expanding its resources remains unclear. Staffers have complained that the lean staff and the paper's limited space for news and enterprise place them at a competitive disadvantage. Still, Paulson optimistically describes his new assignment as "the best job in American journalism."

Asked about "3G," Jurgensen's slogan signifying the paper's effort in its third generation to return to its reader-friendly roots while maintaining a higher level of sophistication and enterprise, Paulson avoided corporate jargon.

"There's nothing mutually exclusive about being reader friendly and publishing articles of depth and meaning," he says. "USA Today has made significant strides in both enterprise and investigative work, and we will build upon that. In addition, we don't want to lose sight of all those elements of USA Today that have made it a truly unique paper."

Paulson plans to hold monthly staff meetings and is talking to Moon about bolstering the paper's international coverage. …

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