Journalistic newcomers are elbowing for space in a tight market

Early this fall, people from Washington, D.C., to Troutdale, Ore., woke up and found their cities were overrun by what appeared to be hordes of television sets with legs.

These strange objects occupying downtown corners were in fact the modern, pedestal-mounted vending boxes of Gannett Company's new national newspaper, ''USA Today.'' The machines' shape may be apt.

Splashed with color, filled with weather, sports, and front-page stories such as ''Sassy kids: Product of the times?'', USA Today is imbued with the high-stepping rhythm of television. Critics call it well-packaged froth. Its editors say it's full of news that affects the average citizen in the United States - and Gannett says that the paper, after a month on the stands, had a circulation 10 percent higher than its original projections.

''We're trying to put together (the news) so the reader can find it faster, get through it faster, or choose to ignore it faster,'' says John J. Curley, USA Today's editor.

At least 165 US newspapers have folded or merged in the last 10 years. As TV networks and cable operators rush to pack the airwaves with news shows, founding a new newspaper could seem an act of whimsical nostalgia, analogous to opening a buggy factory at the dawn of the auto age.

The nation's capital, however, is experiencing a burst of print journalism ventures. Granted, the Washington Star, the capital's once-dominant evening newspaper, folded on Aug. 7, 1981. But the Washington Post, whose newspaper revenues were up 19 percent for the first nine months of 1982, plans to launch a national weekly edition in early 1983.

The Washington Times, owned by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, started printing in May.

Aimed at filling the vacuum left by the demise of the Washington Star, the Times takes an unabashedly conservative editorial stand. ''We know we're in for a relatively long haul,'' says publisher James Whelan, but the paper's owners will subsidize production ''as long as it takes to achieve viability.''

USA Today is far and away the most ambitious of the new undertakings. In small type, at the top of the blue-and-white logo, the paper states its goal: ''The nation's newspaper.'' By 1987, predicts Gannett, USA Today will be selling 2,350,000 copies a day, more than any other newspaper in the country.

The project is a riverboat gamble that will cost the Gannett chain $50 million in the next two years, newspaper analysts say.

USA Today has been available since Sept. 15 in Washington, Baltimore, Atlanta , Pittsburgh, and Minneapolis, but its employees are still getting accustomed to their sleek Virginia offices. Editor John Curley wears a name tag.

USA Today will contain ''news that affects you, being you, the citizen,'' says Mr. Curley. ''Reader involvement. That's our style.''

The front page often uses the words ''you'' and ''we,'' as in this recent headline: ''We're on the move - Westward.'' The lead story is sometimes a feature piece - ''soft,'' in journalistic parlance, as opposed to ''hard'' news that dominates Page 1 of elite US papers.

''We have no interest in what the (New York) Times and (Washington) Post do, '' says Curley.

Stories are short. Few are ''jumped'' - continued inside the paper. Each issue has a huge, multicolor weather map, brief news items from every states, and a surfeit of trivia and lists (''Where the singles are,'' ''How much we spend on charity.'')

Critics say this mix has produced the journalistic equivalent of fast food - bland, predictable, and easy to digest.

''It's attractive to look at, but it doesn't give me a lot of news,'' says one journalism professor.

Gannett says USA Today's daily paid circulation in the first two weeks of October averaged 221,978 - well over the company's original projection of 200, 000 for that period. The paper debuted in the Pacific Northwest on Nov. 8 and in northern California on Nov. 15, instead of next year.

But Gannett chairman Allen Neuharth and news analysts caution that other new publications have had initial bursts of success, only to watch circulation trail off later on.

''You can't make too much of the first few months,'' says Edward Atorino, an analyst for Smith Barney, Harris Upham & Co., who adds that he is now ''less skeptical'' about the paper's chances.

In any case, sheer circulation isn't the only requirement for a newspaper's financial success.

''Advertisers don't just look at the numbers. They want to know who your readers are,'' says John Morton, an analyst with the brokerage firm of Lynch, Jones, and Ryan. If USA Today attracts readers who are relatively well off, says Morton, the paper will have an easier time attracting lucrative national advertising.

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