The sign on George Rorick’s office at the Poynter Institute should read “journalism pioneer.” While George is too unassuming to
claim such a title, it belongs to him. A master of informational graphics and design for newspapers, George is largely responsible for creating one of the iconic information tools in the history of American journalism: the USA Today weather map.
On this 20th anniversary of the creation of that groundbreaking newspaper, George reflects on his experience of inventing the weather page and working under the eye of that self-proclaimed S.O.B., Al Neuharth. George is interviewed by his colleague Roy Peter Clark.
Roy: George, how and when did you get involved with USA Today?
George: The paper started on Sept. 15, 1982, and so we did all our prototypes in 1981.
Roy: Had you been working for Gannett?
George: For about seven years I was at the Lansing State Journal, a Gannett newspaper in Michigan, as art director. One afternoon, I got a call from Washington from Mo Hickey, who would eventually become the first publisher of USA Today. He asked me if I would be interested in working with him on “a secret project.”
George: It had something to do with the design of a newspaper — very big. And I said, “Yeah, sure. I’d love to do this.” And he says, “Well, can you get here tonight?” And so I did. I was there that night.
Roy: Where did you meet?
George: I actually went to his apartment in Washington, D.C. He had to leave town, and I had his apartment for the first two or three days. Really nice place. And then I just went down K Street the next morning by myself and found the office in the Women’s Bank Building. Gannett had taken a large suite on the top floor of that building. So that’s where we did the first prototypes. It was very plush. Beautiful view. But it was not really designed to be a production shop at all, so by the time we left there (three months later) it was a total mess. But that’s where we did the first two prototypes.
Roy: How many people were involved?
George: We had people come and go from Gannett, but as I remember, there were probably 35 people working on the first two prototypes.
Roy: What happened to those first two prototypes?
George: Gannett sent those two out to focus groups and to advertising agencies in New York and so on. They wanted to get a feel for what the media and the public and the advertising industry thought of the newspaper. And Neuharth said there was going to be a few weeks before we would hear any feedback, to see if we were going to continue. And so it was on December the 14th, 1981 — I remember exactly the date, because it was my birthday — he announced to the public that Gannett was going to start up a new newspaper called USA Today.
Roy: Give me a sense what those meetings were like when you were creating those prototypes.
George: Ron Martin was in charge of the whole project. He worked very closely with John Quinn and Al Neuharth.
Roy: When they talked to the group, what did they say they wanted in this new newspaper?
George: It was like, “Let’s get a lot of talented people in the room and say we want to do something different, and we want to do it across the USA, for example. They would throw it out to us and let us be as creative as possible. They weren’t dictatorial about it at all. It was just, let creativity flow and see what happens.
Roy: Who decided on the color blue for the nameplate?
George: Al Neuharth had a final say on almost every little detail of the paper, and he liked blue. It was actually blue and black.
Roy: George, papers like the St. Pete Times were already using lots of color and experimenting with modular designs. Was it clear to you early that USA Today would be advancing the design and color revolution?
George: There were a lot of design elements, a lot of philosophy we picked up from other papers and that was in the back of our minds when we did the prototypes. We put a lot of energy into trying to come up with something different, and then they put it out to the focus groups, and the focus groups would tell us, “Oh, I like this idea.” “I don’t like this idea.” And we would go back and we would tone it, change it. A lot of it, I think, was based not on what we felt was right, but how the public reacted to it.
Roy: Was that true for the weather page?
George: In the first two prototypes, the weather page was on the back on one of them, and it was in the inside in black and white on the other one. We wanted to find out what ad agencies would say about that. They all felt that it definitely should be on the back page in full color. So it was.
Roy: Even though that would take that page away from them?
George: That was a concern we had. Yes. And they said, “No, this is a great idea for marketing.”
Roy: Nothing represents the visual innovations of USA Today more than the weather page. What was the original source of the idea for a weather page?
George: I think it came from Neuharth, but there didn’t seem to be a lot of emphasis or excitement about it. But it was on our list of things to do.
Roy: Did the weather page have much priority in the development of the first prototype?
George: It was on our list of the top ten things that we needed to get done. We were looking for response and that was one of the things that got response.
Roy: After the first prototype, did the response lead to its having a higher priority?
George: Much higher.
Roy: Did you have any models of full-page newspaper weather pages to work from? Anywhere?
George: I hadn’t seen any. We would, of course, have a map of the U.S. We talked about the five-day forecast. We had a lot of discussion on what cities to use in the forecast, because it was going to be a national newspaper. A huge obstacle was the limitations of the technology of the time. I was scared to death until I saw the first prototypes. You didn’t know if it was going to work until you saw the page. We didn’t have computers to make sure the colors would come out the way we expected. One time Al Neuharth asked me: “Is this gonna work?” And I said “Yes,” but really to be honest, I wasn’t positive.
Roy: Okay. Was there a big difference between the first and final prototypes you did of the weather page?
George: I think we did 15 prototypes total. Tremendous differences.
Roy: What were some of the differences, let’s say in the weather map?
George: On the final prototype the map is more dynamic. It has a different shape, a different style. It’s more what I’d call a designer map, an icon, a symbolic map. I didn’t design a map that you would use to go from New York to San Francisco. It was more of just a symbolic map of the U.S. to show — everything’s accurate — but to show how the weather affected it. It’s a very quick read map. Very, very graphic. A very graphic map.
Roy: Were the earlier versions of the map… flatter?
George: Flat. A traditional map is very flat, like you’d see in National Geographic. A very straightforward map. The last map, I gave it a different perspective.
Roy: And in 15 prototypes, were these changes gradual, or were they quantum leaps?
George: From prototype one and two until prototype three there was a quantum change. I probably did eight or nine different versions before we published prototype three.
Roy: That many versions?
George: We tried it with a view of the U.S. looking down on a globe. And looking at it from different perspectives, you know? With Canada and South America, or just the U.S. — any way we could. Every time I thought I’d have it the way we wanted it, I’d come in and find Neuharth sitting at my desk.
Roy: So you’d come in in the morning and Al Neuharth was sitting at your desk?
George: And I would always be waiting for him to say, “This is it.” And he would say, “That’s not quite it. Let’s try this now. Let’s look at something else.” And he would never say what he wanted. I just kept doing it until I got something.
Roy: What was it like to have Neuharth looking over your shoulder?
George: I had my moments with Neuharth, you know, he’s a hard man to work for, but that’s okay, I thought. You just really had to know what questions to ask. When I left, he actually walked down the hall to catch up with me before I got on the elevator to say thanks for coming. But on a daily basis, he just wanted you to be efficient and know what you’re talking about. I’ve said that at times I was more petrified of him than the day I had open heart surgery.
Roy: What do you remember most from the experience of pioneering this project?
George: I remember all the attention that the weather page drew. It almost got to be embarrassing. After we started publishing, the TV stations would come in with their cameras and we would be live on television, and they’d want to talk to the weather guy. And then we’d get letters. I would get more mail and responses from readers than almost anybody would in the beginning. People would come and ask me for my autograph.
George: Yeah. I was the unknown guy. I was really embarrassed by the amount of attention that it drew.
Roy: What did the messages and letters say?
George: “Oh, I really like the weather. I love the impact.” We got letters from people saying, “You don’t have my city on the map. Can I get my city on the map?” There was a congressman at the time lobbying to get Alaska on the map in proportion to the U.S.
Roy: What were some of your frustrations?
George: To produce the page on a daily basis to reach the quality that we were trying to achieve with color photography. It was very difficult at the time. This was before the Macs. This was before the computer. This all had to be done by hand. And by the time you went through all your information-gathering process, the five-day forecast, and then wrote the story for the page, and then doing the graphic on the page every day in addition to the map. There was a weather explainer that really got people’s attention. All that took time, so the biggest frustration and challenge, I think, was just trying to figure out how are you going to do all of this on a daily basis and have it done by five o’clock in the afternoon.
Roy: So technically speaking, it must have been a difficult project.
George: It was very difficult. I had to invent a lot of new processes to get that done.
Roy: Would it be possible for you to walk me through some of the stages of the mechanical process of putting out the weather page?
George: The weather page has 10 colors on the color key. And without getting technical, I figured out a way to do all those weather bands, as many as 10, with separate colors all butted together to register perfectly by cutting just three flaps. That took me 20 minutes.
George: It should have taken me hours, but it just took me 20 minutes. So that late in the afternoon we would get the map from the U.S. Weather Service and it would show us what the temperatures are across the U.S. and we would take that and, within 20 minutes, I could have that done.
Roy: Now you’re talking about cutting velox?
George: Cutting those colors bands, I used Amberlith.
Roy: I remember people creating color pages by using these overlays.
George: Right. But I had to get 10 colors and I used three overlays. And I did that by having a mask and certain knockouts, you know, technical things that worked really well. And that was one part of it, and the other part of it was color keying all the cities across the U.S. to coordinate with the colors on the map. And the other problem I had was getting the graphic for the weather feature done every day. I had a very tight schedule. That had a multi-color presentation done with overlays. I’d label everything A, B, C, D, and the highest I ever got was the letter T. So that’s a lot of flaps.
Roy: Wow. So on a particular project you used as many as 20 flaps?
George: Yeah. That’s way up there. But those production people there, they’re called color strippers, were excellent. They did a really good job with that. But the big frustration, without getting too technical, was to figure out how we’re going to do this process every day on a deadline. Did I ever tell you about my story with Neuharth about deadline?
Roy: No, no. Please do.
George: I let my guard down a little bit with Neuharth, I guess, and he was talking to us one day about satellite delivery and he said, “We have a window, and if you miss this window, our transmission time is gone.”
Roy: A window for satellite transmission to printing plants around the country?
George: And he said, “If you miss this window the delivery time is gone.” So I’m thinking, there must be a backup or something, so I’m asking, “What happens if you miss your deadline?” He looked at me and he said, “George, missing our deadline is grounds for dismissal.” And he said, “But we all get two chances. Consider this your first.” I’ll never forget that.
Roy: One of the things I remember very vividly is how many newspapers began to imitate certain aspects of USA Today. And the two things I remember most was the adoption by some newspapers of the color blue on the front page. And they picked up the weather map. There was a lot of cheap imitation of what you guys had spent so much time and energy creating at a high level of excellence.
George: I was impressed and proud that people tried to copy you. But I wasn’t very impressed with what I saw. I mean I put a big commitment in that page. I figured at one time we had approximately invested 30 hours a day in that page between me, the editor of the page, and production and so on. Thirty hours every single day. Most newspapers that I saw that tried to imitate it probably spent an hour-and-a-half … at most. And it looked it that way.
Roy: When you look back now on 20 years of this newspaper and realize that you were on the ground floor, what’s your feeling about it?
George: That’s a good question. I don’t think about it too much. But I look back and my feeling is, well it was just a lot of fun. It was very chaotic. It was a new learning experience for all of us, and I just like to be involved in new projects.
Roy: Do you have anything else you want to add, George?
George: I thought it was pretty interesting that it was top secret and once we finished the prototypes they were hand delivered to the Army Times in Virginia, printed with guards all around so nobody could see what it looked like. And I was just amazed at the time how secret the whole project was. We couldn’t take a paper out. You’d almost get searched before you left that day.
Roy: Were you bound to secrecy?
George: Yeah. You couldn’t talk about it.
Roy: If you talk about it, we’ll have to kill you?
George: It wasn’t quite that strong. But you got that impression, yeah.