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

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.

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.

``If you look ahead, most stories have an up angle to them,'' says Mr. Quinn.

Its intense focus on how events affect the USA reader also influences the papers style. This has led to quirks that drive some writers and readers batty -- like using the adjective ``USA'' rather than ``American'' or ``US'' (which some executives do even in conversation), or the ``we-us'' syndrome, the classic case being a headline about a survey of societal attitudes that read, ``Men, Women: We're still different.''

If USA Today sometimes edges on myopia about reader concerns, it does cover those concerns well. Mr. McNamee of the Dallas Morning News recalls a five-part series on tax reform, nearly a year in the making and a very expensive project. The paper hired Data Resources Inc., an econometric research firm, to run some economic models on how the various proposals would affect incomes in America. With the money it spent on DRI's services, ``we could have hired a reporter for six months,'' says McNamee.

There is more to USA Today than colorful graphics, writers there say. In its three years, it has sharpened its focus andTODAYTODAY found its niche.

The Sports and Money sections were strong from Day 1, most agree. That contributed to the paper's strong male readership, says Quinn, but left women out. While the News section is still a bit unfocused, writers and editors concede, they are trying to ``harden'' the section by playing up breaking world events. The Life section, most say, has improved a great deal, since it began focusing on television and Hollywood.

Gene Grant, assistant program manager at WBZ radio in Boston, says that USA Today may be the most popular paper in the radio business. ``USA Today is like a printed man on the street,'' he says. ``It taps into what people like and don't like, into life-style issues. It's full of armchair psychology.'' And to a disc jockey, that's manna from heaven. ``During a break, a DJ only has 15 to 20 seconds,'' says Mr. Grant. ``He can't get through a whole [Boston] Globe or New York Times article, but he can get t hrough a USA Today fact box or story.'' On its third birthday, USA Today is at a financial crossroads. It may have trouble increasing its circulation, and will probably lose 10 percent of its paid readership because it raised its price from 35 cents, earlier this month, Mr. Thorp says. But it's unlikely to raise its price again anytime soon, he says. So ``the future growth and profit will come from ad revenues,'' and USA Today still has some proving to do on Madison Avenue.

To do so, Gannett hired Cathleen Black, now publisher. When she was with Rupert Murdoch's New York magazine, Ms. Black boosted ad revenues 75 percent in three years before she was hired by Allen Neuharth.

USA Today hired some other big guns to sing (literally) the paper's praises on 30 and 60 second television spots this fall. Among them are the likes of former Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne and weatherman Willard Scott.

A major obstacle the paper must overcome is advertisers' preference for newspapers with subscribers. About 67 percent of all USA Today sales are at newsstands and vending machines. But skepticism on Madison Avenue does appear to be dissolving, says Thurman R. Pierce Jr., vice-president in charge of print advertising at J. Walter Thompson. It hits a big cross section of America, he says.

USA Today's success has surprised many skeptics. ``This paper was not conceived by Madison Avenue or Wall Street,'' says J. Taylor Buckley, a senior editor at USA Today. ``It came from a bunch of yo-yos from Gannett'' who were attuned to the American public.

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