It was 1970, after I was hired away from UPI, that I sat in Bernard’s Surf Restaurant in Cocoa Beach, Florida and listened to Al Neuharth’s ideas for the nation’s first satellite-delivered newspaper. It would be some time before USA Today was actually launched, but I was there when Neuharth outlined his original plans.
He sketched his ideas on a big pad. It would be the first truly national general-interest newspaper. It would be the first to use color widely in charts and photographs. Newstands would be modeled after TV sets. And, due to instant satellite delivery, it would be printed throughout the country at different printing plants and distributed nationally.
Within five years, USA Today became profitable and grew to one of the largest selling newspapers in the nation. Neuharth, who was chairman and CEO of Gannett, admitted where he got most of the ideas. “We stole most of them from the tube,” he said later.
As a Gannett reporter, I had mixed feelings about the newspaper and its dependance on the television culture. I felt it’s very short, simply written stories dumbed down journalism. I had just come from writing 2,000 word “think pieces” for newspapers at UPI. There was no “thinking” to be associated with USA Today. I was ambivalent as the newspaper grew.
Today, after 28 years, we read that USA Today is in trouble and retrenching. Yesterday, the newspaper announced the most extensive reorganization in its history. It will eliminate about 130 jobs, or nine percent of its work force.
Most radical, however, is the newspaper said it will shift its business model away from the print edition. More disturbing is that the current management failed to provide any details for this digital transition. It instantly became apparent they are clueless and are making up this transition as they go.
“We aren’t organized to adapt to the changing audience demands on all platforms,” the paper’s management told employees in a presentation last week. The publisher, David L. Hunke, declined to answer questions. A spokesman for USA Today, Ed Cassidy, said that the announcement was all that newspaper had to say on the matter, “and that pretty much closes the book on this for us.”
Actually, it pretty much closes the book on USA Today. The problem is the newspaper is rapidly bleeding subscribers and money. The Wall Street Journal has gained on it. Management is clearly lost about its future. Rather than fire the top people who don’t understand the digital future, management is firing the workers. Dumb move!
What’s worse is the newspaper’s recent track record of crossing the sacred line between news coverage and advertising. In July, the newspaper wrapped its front section in an advertisement for Jeep that obscured the entire front page. In an earlier era, that would have been considered a huge conflict of interest. The newspaper called it “a new way of doing business that aligns sales efforts with the content we produce.”
That’s total bull, of course. The outrageous ad even prompted Al Neuharth, now 86 and retired, to complain in a letter to the publisher that if he were still at Gannett, “I would have led the entire news staff walking out in protest.
“If such a stupid decision is ever made again, I hope that will be the result,” Neuharth wrote.“That would leave those who apparently don’t understand what a newspaper is to try to put one out without a news staff.”
Go Al! Back in the 1970s, when I worked for him, Neuharth was a tough boss and, as a lowly reporter, I didn’t always agree with his decisions. No newspaper is perfect, I long ago learned. However, when it came to the separation of advertising and news, and the need for good journalistic practices, Neuharth was usually on the side of the staff.
However, today’s generation of news management is so bad it is a major embarrassment to anyone who understands the workings of good journalism. Sadly, the management of USA Today has said everything necessary to assess it’s chance of a future. It’s finished and better off dead. We can only hope something better will replace it.
RIP, USA Today.