USA Today, at Death’s Door, Wants Us to Know We’re Next

By Jack Limpert

Michael Wolff delivers a eulogy for the news business this morning, mostly quoting from a February 9 Financial Times story about the financial troubles of British newspapers but then going on to deliver a death sentence to U.S. newspapers. Wolff says “the newspaper business is deader than a doornail,” and, if you were hoping there might be salvation online, Wolff says the digital news business is “at the point of death, too.”

What’s perfect about Wolff’s column is that he wrote it for USA Today, a paper with less reason for being than any other U.S. newspaper. And it gets even better: USA Today is owned by Gannett, which did more to ruin more American newspapers than any other company in the journalism business.

Starting in the 1970s, Gannett under Al Neuharth began buying locally owned newspapers all over the country, raising ad rates and cutting news budgets to become one of the darlings of the stock market. Why be good when you can make so much money cutting costs?

In 1982, flush with cash and brimming with the confidence to build a flashy new headquarters, a monument to himself, Neuharth started USA Today, aimed at serving the business traveler. USA Today was given away at many hotels, providing business travelers with an easy reading alternative to local newspapers. It provided a useful news summary, it had a great sports section, and it was a good business model until 10 years ago when business travelers could easily access the Internet.

So now USA Today hangs on, cutting costs and publishing Michael Wolff’s obituaries for the rest of journalism. At death’s door, who could be better positioned to do it?

Comments

  1. Peer to peer cannibalism has been all the vogue in American business for 50 years. It is our Achilles Heel.

    • Mike Feinsilber says

      Well, maybe. But over the years I’ve found myself in a town distant from any metropolitan paper and grateful to have USA Today. It often offered more national and international news than the local paper, especially after local papers decided that their salvation required them to devote almost all of their sparse space to local news, the localer the better.
      Travelers always want to know what the weather will be where they are and what it is like back home: USA Today recognized that and told them. Newspapers by the score have replicated its page of weather information.
      USAT’s page of news tidbits from every state is always catchy. And USAT was in the forefront in the generous use of color, which was rare when it started.
      Sure we scoffed and spoofed when USAT first published in 1982 and ran stories with headlines like “We Eat More Broccoli” but it grew up and now offers some smart journalism. No political coverage is more astute than that of USAT’s Susan Page.
      Will we be any better off with USA Today gone? I don’t think so.

      • Eugene Carlson says

        Agree with Mike that USA Today is better alive than dead, Susan Page is as good as anyone in the political press corps. For sure, Neuharth has a lot to answer from the Great Copy Editor in the sky.

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