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THE MAKING OF McPAPER: The Inside Story of USA Today by Peter Prichard (Andrews, McMeel & Parker: $19.95; 414 pp., illustrated)

August 23, 1987| David Shaw | Shaw writes about the media for The Times and has written often about Gannett, Neuharth and USA Today.

When USA Today began publishing in September, 1982, the wizards of Wall Street and Madison Avenue were virtually unanimous in their hoots of derision and predictions of failure. Editors of other newspapers were equally dismissive. There was just no way, everyone agreed, that a new newspaper--starting from scratch, distributed nationally, relying almost exclusively on newsstand sales, filled with the same stories in Boston as in Bellflower--could possibly succeed in the United States today. After all, in the preceding 12 years, 141 American daily newspapers had either folded or merged. If such venerable institutions as the Washington Star, Philadelphia Bulletin and Chicago Daily News couldn't make it, how could an upstart like USA Today survive?

But it's always been a grievous error to underestimate either Allen Neuharth or the appetite of the American public for trivia, superficiality and self-deception. USA Today, Neuharth's brainchild, will never be confused with The New York Times; USA Today is called "McPaper" because its format of very short stories (news McNuggets) amid a blizzard of color pictures, charts and graphs make it seem like fast-food journalism. The paper will be five years old next month, though, and it already has the second-highest circulation--and the highest readership--of any daily newspaper in the United States. After sustaining pre-tax operating losses of $486 million through 1986--plus $208 million in capital costs largely attributable to the paper--USA Today showed its first monthly profit ($1,093,756) in May; with both circulation and advertising continuing to climb, it seems clear that author Peter Prichard's claim that the paper is "going to make it" is no idle boast.

How did it happen?

Simple. Surveys show that many people feel guilty about not reading a daily newspaper, so Neuharth made it easy for them to assuage their guilt; he created USA Today, so people could buy it and persuade themselves they were reading a newspaper. Neuharth realized that people were increasingly getting their news from television, so he created a newspaper that is more like a morning television news show than a traditional newspaper--bright, visual, nothing to severely tax the intellect; he even sells the paper in coin boxes that resemble television sets.

In addition, Neuharth listened to all those readers who complain about negative news; he decreed that USA Today would practice a "new journalism of hope." Thus, the classic USA Today headline over a story on a plane crash: "Miracle: 327 survive, 55 die." Finally, Neuharth is sensitive to the mounting public skepticism of and, sometimes, hostility toward the press; thus, headlines and stories in USA Today feature the word "We" or "Us," a not-so-subliminal attempt to link readers and USA Today as "us" (as opposed to "them"--presumably the rest of the press, other Cassandras and anyone else not unquestionably devoted to the American Way--or as USA Today would have it, The USA Way). One day in 1984, the front page of USA Today featured a headline that said "We take on record hike in our debt," a graph showing that "We've been watching less TV coverage of the Democratic and Republican conventions since 1952," one story that began "We're buying fewer personal computers than makers thought we would . . ." and another that began "Domestic jetliners flew more of us last year than ever before. . . ."

Critics ridiculed these gimmicks, but Neuharth always said his newspapers were published for readers, not for other editors, and it turns out that he knew exactly what he was doing. Readers love USA Today. They have from the beginning. It was the advertisers who were most skeptical, and once the paper proved it had enough readers--the right kind of high-demographic readers--advertisers began climbing aboard. Even some respected newspaper editors have begun to praise USA Today--for its pioneering use of color, its tight editing, its weather page, its sports statistics and its use of charts and graphs to help tell a story. Many papers have paid USA Today the ultimate compliment--they've copied it.

Prichard's account of this surprising success story is as fascinating as it is unusual--unusual because Prichard has been a USA Today employee virtually from the beginning, and he has been with USA Today's parent company, Gannett, for almost 15 years. His book is, as its subtitle says, the "inside story" on USA Today. But unlike most authorized corporate biographies, it is neither a whitewash nor an exercise in self-justification and image-polishing. For this, the reader must thank not only Prichard (the managing editor for cover stories at USA Today) but Neuharth, the man who conceived of both USA Today and this book (a book, not surprisingly, that resembles USA Today in its physical appearance--16 pages of color and 140 other pages (out of 357 total) with illustration of one sort or another, be it photograph, chart, map or some other graphic device).

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