An insider tells the full story of the making of USA Today

The Making of McPaper: The Inside Story of USA Today, by Peter Prichard. Kansas City: Andrews, McNeel & Parker. 370 pp. $19.95. Some people think that the Gannett newspaper company is a pernicious influence on the profession, trafficking in formulized, sterile, quarterly-earnings journalism.

There is another faction, smaller perhaps, who feel that Gannett is unjustly maligned. ``Wait until history is written,'' they proffer in defense of their defense. ``History will recognize the innovation and achievement and dismiss any sins for the trivial matters they are.'' Passions run high and there seems to be no middle ground.

Gannett is the country's biggest newspaper chain - 90-odd newspapers (plus television, radio, and billboards). Its holdings range from a glut of undistinguished small- and medium-size papers to the recently acquired and very prestigious Des Moines Register, Louisville Courier-Journal, and Detroit News.

But its public presence is tied to USA Today, the glib, splashy, high-energy, wrapped-in-the-flag, full-color flagship newspaper that - despite the long odds against it - celebrated its fifth birthday this fall.

In keeping with chairman Allen Neuharth's flair for the dramatic and penchant for self-promotion, Gannett is celebrating the birthday with a book chronicling its tortured beginnings and five-year climb to solvency and success.

This is very much the company's book - the copyright belongs to Gannett, not to author Peter Prichard, a USA Today managing editor and Neuharth's chosen historian.

But rather surprisingly, given Gannett's close-to-the-vest reputation, this is not a press release. Neuharth gave Prichard complete access to company files and instructed people to cooperate. Once Prichard had the full story, Neuharth placed no restrictions on his telling it. And it is a fascinating story.

People with good business sense don't start up newspapers in the 1980s, and in 1980 no one could have reason to question Allen Neuharth's business sense. Under Neuharth, Gannett became one of Wall Street's favorite media companies, with an unbroken string of quarterly earnings gains dating back to the day it went public in 1967.

But Neuharth knew the company was still a minor-league media player, and that rankled him. ``No matter how you try or how well you produce in El Paso or Bridgewater, your efforts are not as noticed as they would be in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, or Chicago,'' he said, and he set out to create a national newspaper that the industry could not ignore.

The planning was done behind opaqued windows in a bungalow in Cocoa Beach, Fla., with a cloak-and-dagger mind-set that bordered on paranoia. When one of the planners discovered smoke in the bathroom one day, he told the secretary to call the fire department. ``But don't tell them where we are!'' he added. ``We're working on confidential files here.''

Prichard tells his story in these human terms. He uses anecdote and incident to show the missionary zeal of the believers swept up in Neuharth's enthusiasm for the paper; the doubts of the money people in Gannett headquarters in Rochester, N.Y., daring not to defy Neuharth but lending nothing but pro forma support; the grousing of Gannett newspapers across the country, disgruntled at having their presses and personnel co-opted to support the lumbering giant, having their budgets squeezed to help offset the $458 million in losses that USA Today would amass before it turned the corner this year. (Losses that the Gannett company was able to withstand. Its string of quarterly earnings gains continues unbroken.)

In the vortex of this swirl is the driven Neuharth, at times charismatic, at times almost maniacal. In the early days he would help put the paper to bed, rewriting headlines on his trademark 1926 Royal typewriter, worrying most of the staff into exhaustion, dispatching blunt, withering memos when something in the paper displeased him. He would accost pedestrians he saw buying a copy of the paper, poking his head out from the back seat of his limousine and asking them what they thought.

Most thought the man in the limousine a trifle peculiar.

Prichard might agree, but then he would quickly submit that genius is sometimes peculiar. ``His vision has changed journalism...,'' says Prichard in his peroration. That would no longer seem open to question. Witness the widespread use in other papers of USA Today-like color, charts and graphs, and increased sports-page agate.

Whether Neuharth and USA Today have changed journalism for the better, however, will continue to be a matter of some dispute. Prichard's book will not resolve the debate, but it will help to crystallize it, for it is a full, fair, and engaging history. USA Today fans will read this book and have their confidence reaffirmed. USA Today critics will read it and wonder: If there are journalists in the house as capable and as uncompromising as Prichard proves himself here, why is the newspaper still so frivolous?

Charles Fountain teaches journalism at Northeastern University.

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