'USA Today,' Yesterday and Tomorrow

Bob Garfield, co-host of National Public Radio’s On the Media, has fun(ny) stories about the founding of USA Today which is celebrating its 30th birthday. At the time, Garfield was the paper’s advertising and marketing columnist.

Below, he writes that the same paper that was made possible because of technology will probably also meet its demise because of technology.

Republished with Bob’s permission. The original is at MediaPost. — Peter

Have I mentioned that I am old?

Never mind the grandchildren and reading glasses. I have polyps that are legal drinking age. So, yeah, I’ve been around.

For instance, this week USA Today celebrates its 30th anniversary, and I was there on Day One. I was the advertising and marketing columnist and in the debut edition had 700 words on the official sponsorships being sold for the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, at that point scheduled for two years hence. In those days official brandedness, like Kirsten Dunst and the Commodore 64, was still in its infancy. So the lead joke speculating about the Official Pasta of the 1984 Summer Olympics was still sort of funny.

As opposed to prescient.

This was all before personal computing of any significance, and well before the Internet, but what made USA Today possible was technology — the now quaint technology of transmitting pages via satellite to a network of Gannett printing sites around the country. That, anyway, was one thing that made USA Today possible. The other thing was the vision of founder Al Neuharth, the egomaniacal genius whose ability to squeeze personal perks from the Gannett cash cow was exceeded only by his ability to squeeze operating synergies from the same Guernsey.

Only Neuharth could have pulled it off, because nobody else in his position had the necessary combination of assets: 1) the coast-to-coast printing infrastructure, 2) a board stacked with pals willing to lose a half billion bucks before making dollar one, and 3) the middlebrow sensibilities required to hit the sweet spot.

From the beginning, “The Nation’s Newspaper” was derided for the brevity of its stories, its un-gray-ladylike splashes of color and its embarrassing episodes of jingoism. Yet it quickly took hold with readers. They liked the four-color weather map. They liked the sports page. They liked the itsy bitsy little front-page stories, soon to be known as McNuggets, and the many factoid-filled charts.

They might also have liked its easy-to-read compactness, weighed down as it surely wasn’t by much bulky and annoying advertising. The big agencies in those days were extremely hesitant to buy USA Today pages for their clients, not even the spirits, cars and travel clients who — by all logic — would have been ideal. The mystery of why this should be so was solved for me one morning as I headed from Washington to New York on the Eastern Shuttle. Seated next to me was the principal of a New York agency with a very large liquor account. I asked him why the distiller wasn’t in USA Today.

“Oh, you know,“ he said. “I prefer the Times.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, it’s more in depth. And I find the color in USA Today distracting.”

You find it distracting. You personally don’t care for it.”

“Right,” he replied, utterly oblivious to the implications. “I prefer the Times.”

I had no further questions. I just stared at him, blinking like Barney Rubble, realizing that my livelihood was in the hands of a Madison Avenue fully capable of making foolish choices for unsupportable reasons. Luckily, I wound up making a living off of that structural stupidity for the next three decades, but at that moment my sphincter surely tightened.

It tightened still further about a month later, when, while flipping through the next day’s dummy, I saw that there was a full-page Campbell’s Soup ad running opposite my column. That was awkward, because my column happened to lambaste the new Campbell’s campaign for misrepresenting nutritional data. I suggested to the editors they might want to shuffle the ad pages a bit.

They had a better idea. They spiked my column.

When they lied to me about why (“We’re just not set up to do ad criticism”), I somehow believed them. The Wall Street Journal didn’t, however. They wrote a piece that made fools of the lot of us. Only later did I discover that the whole ugly episode took place at a moment when Neuharth and the board were on the verge of pulling the plug on the whole paper.

But they didn’t. They hung in there, got their half billion back and a few billions more. Neuharth had not only a big head, but a hard one. This was immortalized when he installed a 25:1 bronze version of it in the lobby of USA Today headquarters. Within a few years, the paper became so flush that Neuharth was able to globetrot with a handful of editorial personnel to interview world leaders. It was called JetCapade, and he was derided for that, too — on the grounds of squandering millions so that he could meet foreign heads of state. That was a calumny and a lie. JetCapade squandered millions so that foreign heads of state could meet Al.

But God bless the man. His outsize ambition gave the world a successful paper that grew into a pretty good paper. Now, sadly, it is in the same desperate straits threatening all dailies. Circulation is down. Advertising has plummeted. The future is at best uncertain — all owing, ironically enough, to technology, the very thing that brought USA Today to life.

There will be no 60th anniversary. There may well be no 40th.  So while I have the opportunity, permit me to thank Al Neuharth and his brainchild for the opportunity it gave me. Now I am old. Then I was 27 — a featured national journalist, a mere five years into my career. Or, as I like to think about it:

The First Official Advertising and Marketing Columnist of the Nation’s Newspaper.

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