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USA Today -- big for a 3-year-old

By Barbara BradleyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 12, 1985

Rosslyn, Va.

HENRY Schmitt sits waiting for the Eastern Airlines flight from Boston to New York, reading the Sports section of USA Today. Moments later he boards the plane and leaves the paper on the seat beside him, one of many freebie USA Todays strewn around the boarding area.

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Mr. Schmitt embodies the success and the problems of the flashy TV-style newspaper as it approaches its third anniversary. He is the type of reader newspapers and advertisers covet. In his early 40s, he's at the prime buying age, and, as director of corporate relations of Consolidated Freightways Inc., presumably has the income to spend on the products advertised.

But like so many other USA Today readers, he sees the paper only occasionally. He rarely pays for it (since airlines and hotels often give it away) and thinks the new price of 50 cents is high.

On Sept. 15, 1982, with great fanfare and promises to change the face of journalism, Gannett Company rolled out the first issue of USA Today. It was filled with four-color photos, cartoonlike charts and ``fact boxes,'' and stories not much longer than what you've read so far. It was tailored for the Yuppie generation, a mobile, career-oriented, and affluent group weaned on television news and too busy working and traveling to spend much time on a second newspaper.

Immediately journalists dubbed it ``McPaper,'' a fast-food style of reporting; advertisers kept a wary distance; and the red ink began to rise.

The jury is still out as to whether USA Today can turn this generation into loyal subscribers, and whether it is worth the estimated $350 million Gannett will sink into it by the time it breaks even (if it does) in 1987.

But there are some encouraging signs for USA Today -- nearly double the amount of advertising revenue and number of ad pages in the last year, albeit beginning with a small base, and a circulation of 1.28 million. That makes it the third-largest paper in the United States, after the Wall Street Journal and the New York Daily News. That includes its bulk sales to airlines, hotels, etc., however, which most newspapers do not include in their circulation figures.

USA Today is altering the face, if not the soul, of journalism. It has forced other newspapers to take a hard look at their layouts. ``Almost every major local paper has been changed by USA Today,'' says Bruce Thorp, an analyst at John Morton Inc., which does research on the newspaper industry. ``They have more color and graphics. They can say, `We planned to do that anyway,' but USA Today probably had a lot of impact.''

But others say that impact is superficial. ``USA Today billed itself as a new and necessary style of journalism, with its brevity and feature treatment, but I don't think that's true,'' says Ben Bagdikian, author of ``Media Monopoly'' and dean of the graduate school of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. ``It's a misreading of what people want from a daily paper -- especially a second paper, which must have something special that goes beyond [spot news].''

If the paper has not revolutionized the newspaper business, it is nonetheless unique in its mission and style. One of the first things a reader notices about the paper is that the stories seem more upbeat than stories in other papers.

``They're wild about good news over there,'' says Michael McNamee, who was an economics writer for 21/2 years before moving to the Washington bureau of the Dallas Morning News in February. ``There's a deliberate and top-down effort to put a positive spin on a story.''

USA Today's editor, John Quinn, says that the paper's upbeat approach follows from its goals as a paper: to give a preview of the next 24 hours; to review the last 24 hours; and to give an overview of issues and people who have an impact on Americans.