'USA Today,' Yesterday and Tomorrow

Have I mentioned that I am old?

Never mind the grandchildren and reading glasses. I have polyps that are legal drinking age. So, yeah, I’ve been around.

For instance, this week USA Today celebrates its 30th anniversary, and I was there on Day One. I was the advertising and marketing columnist and in the debut edition had 700 words on the official sponsorships being sold for the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, at that point scheduled for two years hence. In those days official brandedness, like Kirsten Dunst and the Commodore 64, was still in its infancy. So the lead joke speculating about the Official Pasta of the 1984 Summer Olympics was still sort of funny.

As opposed to prescient.

This was all before personal computing of any significance, and well before the Internet, but what made USA Today possible was technology -- the now quaint technology of transmitting pages via satellite to a network of Gannett printing sites around the country. That, anyway, was one thing that made USA Today possible. The other thing was the vision of founder Al Neuharth, the egomaniacal genius whose ability to squeeze personal perks from the Gannett cash cow was exceeded only by his ability to squeeze operating synergies from the same Guernsey.



Only Neuharth could have pulled it off, because nobody else in his position had the necessary combination of assets: 1) the coast-to-coast printing infrastructure, 2) a board stacked with pals willing to lose a half billion bucks before making dollar one, and 3) the middlebrow sensibilities required to hit the sweet spot.

From the beginning, “The Nation’s Newspaper” was derided for the brevity of its stories, its un-gray-ladylike splashes of color and its embarrassing episodes of jingoism. Yet it quickly took hold with readers. They liked the four-color weather map. They liked the sports page. They liked the itsy bitsy little front-page stories, soon to be known as McNuggets, and the many factoid-filled charts.

They might also have liked its easy-to-read compactness, weighed down as it surely wasn’t by much bulky and annoying advertising. The big agencies in those days were extremely hesitant to buy USA Today pages for their clients, not even the spirits, cars and travel clients who -- by all logic -- would have been ideal. The mystery of why this should be so was solved for me one morning as I headed from Washington to New York on the Eastern Shuttle. Seated next to me was the principal of a New York agency with a very large liquor account. I asked him why the distiller wasn’t in USA Today.

“Oh, you know,“ he said. “I prefer the Times.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, it’s more in depth. And I find the color in USA Today distracting.”

You find it distracting. You personally don’t care for it.”

“Right,” he replied, utterly oblivious to the implications. “I prefer the Times.”

I had no further questions. I just stared at him, blinking like Barney Rubble, realizing that my livelihood was in the hands of a Madison Avenue fully capable of making foolish choices for unsupportable reasons. Luckily, I wound up making a living off of that structural stupidity for the next three decades, but at that moment my sphincter surely tightened.

It tightened still further about a month later, when, while flipping through the next day’s dummy, I saw that there was a full-page Campbell’s Soup ad running opposite my column. That was awkward, because my column happened to lambaste the new Campbell’s campaign for misrepresenting nutritional data. I suggested to the editors they might want to shuffle the ad pages a bit.

They had a better idea. They spiked my column.

When they lied to me about why (“We’re just not set up to do ad criticism”), I somehow believed them. The Wall Street Journal didn’t, however. They wrote a piece that made fools of the lot of us. Only later did I discover that the whole ugly episode took place at a moment when Neuharth and the board were on the verge of pulling the plug on the whole paper.

But they didn’t. They hung in there, got their half billion back and a few billions more. Neuharth had not only a big head, but a hard one. This was immortalized when he installed a 25:1 bronze version of it in the lobby of USA Today headquarters. Within a few years, the paper became so flush that Neuharth was able to globetrot with a handful of editorial personnel to interview world leaders. It was called JetCapade, and he was derided for that, too -- on the grounds of squandering millions so that he could meet foreign heads of state. That was a calumny and a lie. JetCapade squandered millions so that foreign heads of state could meet Al.

But God bless the man. His outsize ambition gave the world a successful paper that grew into a pretty good paper. Now, sadly, it is in the same desperate straits threatening all dailies. Circulation is down. Advertising has plummeted. The future is at best uncertain -- all owing, ironically enough, to technology, the very thing that brought USA Today to life.

There will be no 60th anniversary. There may well be no 40th.  So while I have the opportunity, permit me to thank Al Neuharth and his brainchild for the opportunity it gave me. Now I am old. Then I was 27 -- a featured national journalist, a mere five years into my career. Or, as I like to think about it:

The First Official Advertising and Marketing Columnist of the Nation’s Newspaper.









8 comments about "'USA Today,' Yesterday and Tomorrow".
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  1. Mary McCarty from M.Shanken Communications, September 10, 2012 at 11:27 a.m.

    USA today launched many careers, Lou Cona, CNP Corporate President, Cathy Black, past Hearst CEO to name a few. Yes, I think it's a great pub and I certainly hope it celebrates its 40th & 60th anniversaries. It was my favorite paper to read on my commute from DC to NYC, too.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, September 10, 2012 at 11:31 a.m.

    That sounds of who wants/needs color in newspaper resonated down to individual markets, too. Saber rattling got much louder when color charges went off the charts, not enough color positions (limited color presses) and many advertisers wanted color who could not afford it and did not like the positions in which many landed. Now.....the addition of more color presses is back to the old somewhere between slim and none and Slim just left town.

  3. David Cutler from EatMedia, September 10, 2012 at 12:26 p.m.

    Bob for President!

  4. George Sloan from Customer Strategy Consulting, September 10, 2012 at 4 p.m.

    Bob - Get over being old. If my arithmetic is correct you are 57. As long as you remain fit, there is no way that is old! Get over it!

  5. Nina Lentini from MediaPost Communications, September 10, 2012 at 5:18 p.m.

    Love reminiscing about the early newspapering days. Thanks, Bob, I remember it well.

  6. Anne Peterson from Idaho Public Televsion, September 10, 2012 at 5:31 p.m.

    Joining George Sloan here: By today's standards of aging, Bob, you are not even 40 yet. Do want to say that besides being at a local Gannett newspaper whose budget was cut into by USA TODAY, I did get to spend a summer working on the State Page as a loaner (4-month tour of duty at expense of home paper) -- loved the experience.

  7. Sheldon Senzon from JMS Media, Inc., September 10, 2012 at 8:52 p.m.

    Time sure flies when you're having fun. I look back to the start of USA Today and remember working with Valerie Salembier, a true legend in the business. In addition to being a real pro she and I shared a love for Doo-Wop music.
    Yes, it was far from easy for USA Today in the beginning. I remember the frustrations when they had difficulty getting the color right and were unable to satisfy the demanding Canon Camera and Copier clients I was handling at Dentsu.

  8. Rob Frydlewicz from DentsuAegis, September 11, 2012 at 5 p.m.

    Your tribute brings back memories for me as well. I had just begun working in the media dep't. at Y&R in 1981 when we were assigned a top-secret project from Gannett. One of my assignments was pulling together ad spending of various product categories to show potential revenue. Then 10 years later I was at NWAyer (RIP) when we won the account for the The National, a daily baseball newspaper. That paper lasted only a year or so. I believe one of its innovations was reporting temperature and wind speed for each game.

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