Newspapers Panicked When “USA Today” First Appeared


"USA Today" on the News Stand

Ground Zero At The “USA Today” Revolution

When USA Today first appeared in 1982, newspapers panicked.  How can we compete on the newsstand with all that color, graphics, and dumbed-down stories that begin and end on Page One, instead of jumping to inside.

In the newspaper’s 30 years, most print newspapers have incorporated many revolutionary elements in USA Today‘s, and print news has declined in importance and revenue. So it’s hard to remember today the upheaval USA Today caused in the newspaper industry and the country.

How Can Ordinary Newspapers Compete?

Many papers had to invest in color printing technology.  Mine, the Eagle-Tribune in Massachusetts, already had it.  (Newspapers do not print their own color advertising inserts. They just insert and deliver them.)

The newsroom needed a full-time graphic artist with her own graphics computer.  We could no longer borrow an artist from advertising when we needed a graphic.

A change already underway became urgent:

Newspapers were getting away from the old “inverted pyramid,” where the first paragraph of each story had to answer the questions who, what, when, where, why, and how.  That made for some thick, convoluted lead sentences.”

New Leads and “Nut Grafs”

The new style was to tell the reader, in a simple sentence or two, why he should care enough to read the story.  Then, in a “nut graf,” you grounded the reader with facts and background to move ahead in the story.  The reporters had to learn to write that way.

Unfortunately for the wire editor – me — the wire services stuck to the inverted pyramid. I had to re-write the opening of each wire story I used each day.   Each one took a few extra minutes, but the number of stories, and the amount of time I had, stayed the same. The paper would not pay me overtime for my everyday routine.  I was expected to “get faster.”

USA Today used other visual devices it did not invent, but used more than anyone before ever had:

  • Bulleted stories contain lists (like this).
  • Trend stories  about how our lives are changing.  The best trend story was a parody of a USA Today headline by Garry Trudeau, that became the title for a Doonesbury collection: We’re Eating More Beets.
  • Pull-out quotes were a sentence, often a quote, pulled out from the story, and blown up large.  They were intended to be seen first, along with the headline, to draw the reader in.
  • Art:  Suddenly, every story needed photos and graphics.  Reporters had to shoot more photos, so the photographers could concentrate on color photography.

     These are all good devices, but USA Today did them to excess, and The Eagle-Tribune, at first, tried to outdo them.

One reporter started turning in City Council stories that said:  “Yesterday, City Council [colon] ….” followed by six or eight bullets.  Our layout editors pulled out lots of quotes that did not deserve to be pulled out.  And we did at least one color graphic every day, whether we needed it or not, to give the graphic artist something to do.  We were afraid we’d lose her if we didn’t use her.

As things got more ridiculous, we began to remember that devices must serve content, not the other way around. Devices for their own sake look silly, and there is such a thing as too many devices.

Maximizing Page One Story Count Without Jumping Inside

"USA Today" Page One: Enormous Story Count

We tried to start and end our stories on Page One.  Survey after survey told us readers hate to jump to an inside page and often stop reading when the story jumps.

There was a conflicting imperative: keeping as many stories as possible on Page One. One way to do that was to run  a photo, pull-out quote, or teaser on Page One, directing the reader to the full story inside.  You could run a lead story on the front, and direct the reader to related stories inside. We used all those devices.

USA Today devoted the whole left side of each section front to one sentence “reefers,” referring readers to stories on inside pages.  Each reefer added to the story count on the page.

Bombing Libya Jumped

But some stories had to jump inside, like the U.S. bombing of Libya.

Global wire stories come in pieces from the wire services’ different bureaus: the White House, United Nations, State Department, Pentagon, European capitals, NATO, the Soviet Union, and the national political desk.

Local wire editors assembled their coverage, writing a lead, choosing the quotes, and connecting the bureau reports.  They went to the editor if they thought the paper needed more than one story.

Our managing editor brought me USA Today‘s Libya story, 12 paragraphs starting and ending on Page One, and said that’s what he wanted.

Their wire editor had lifted the first paragraph out of each wire service bureau’s story, and pasted them together.  A monkey could have done it.

When I stopped laughing, I turned in 15 paragraphs because three of those lead paragraphs needed some explanation.  Our story jumped to an inside page.




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