September 15, 2022

USA Today published its first edition Sept. 15, 1982. For startups of that vintage, reaching 40 can be considered robust middle age. Remember Manhattan Inc. and Smart Money?

From early on, USA Today was influential for its generous use of color, a national weather map and story lengths that ranged from short to really short. A news summary with at least one brief item from each state endures. It was positioned as a traveler’s newspaper, widely available for free in hotels.

It took many years for USA Today to shed the image of being frothy and unserious even as it conducted strong investigations. It did not share in a Pulitzer win until 2018 for reporting on President Donald Trump’s border wall, overseen by current editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, then at The Arizona Republic.

Over the years, USA Today has evolved a national-regional approach to news that flows both ways. For instance, USA Today could pull coverage of the gymnastic coverage straight from Gannett’s Indianapolis Star. The regionals regularly publish national coverage and opinion content from USA Today and rely on its data journalism capacity for investigative pieces.

I have questioned how the print edition can stay profitable as reading habits pivot to mobile devices and business travel ebbs. Publisher Maribel Perez Wadsworth assured me in a May interview that the print version still makes money and will continue, along with digital, indefinitely.

The USA Today launch and the Gannett expansions of the last quarter of the 20th century bore the mark of flamboyant CEO Al Neuharth. He thought big and spent big, later on the overambitious Newseum. Among the oft-repeated anecdotes about him: when asked how to pronounce Gannett, Neuharth would reply, “The emphasis is on the net.”

Among Neuhearth’s legacies was an emphasis on diversity when the issue was getting comparatively little attention in the industry. Individual papers reported their numbers and editor’s bonuses were partly based on progress they made in hiring and promoting diverse newsrooms. Gannett has doubled down on its DEI commitment over the last two years with many women and journalists of color assuming top editing positions.

USA Today’s own celebration includes new print features and a beefed up Friday Weekend section. Its new branding campaign slogan is “To the Point.” And it is offering a $40 annual digital subscription.

Wadsworth commented in a press release, that USA Today “was created to be unapologetically different, intentionally accessible in its mission to serve everyday Americans. … We’ll continue to break storytelling frontiers for generations to come.”

A version of this piece originally appeared in The Poynter Report, our daily newsletter for everyone who cares about the media. Subscribe to The Poynter Report.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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