WASHINGTON — About the time it all started, Gannett News Service reporter Ann Devroy asked to interview President Reagan and got an odd reply from the White House.
Devroy's employer, Gannett, also wanted the President to attend the party launching its new newspaper, USA Today. Gannett could have one or the other, the White House said. Reagan would either grant the interview or drop by the party, but not both.
Devroy's bosses at Gannett took the party.
That choice says much about USA Today, Gannett's brightly colored and highly promoted national newspaper, which recently celebrated its fifth birthday with a series of nationwide parties, publication of an authorized history and the conclusion of a promotional tour disguised as a cross-country reporting trip by company chairman Allen H. Neuharth.
In part thanks to such promotion, USA Today has been variously credited with making newspapers more relevant to the TV generation, devastating Gannett's 89 other papers, improving sports sections nationwide and pandering to the most trivial appetites in American culture.
Beyond such hyperbole, however, are three questions whose answers are important to the future of American newspapers and their readers:
--Has USA Today really exerted a revolutionary influence on the American media?
--Are Gannett's claims that the paper is now a financial success fully believable?
--How has the grand experiment affected America's largest newspaper chain?
The answers may disappoint both USA Today's strongest critics and its biggest fans. Contrary to some of the accolades, the paper's design and color have not revolutionized American newspapers. Nor has its major innovation--packaging news into optimistic, bite-sized bits of "infotainment"--attracted many imitators.
Financially, the paper has silenced skeptics by surviving, but its unusual marketing schemes and integration with other Gannett properties makes assessing its profitability difficult.
And inside Gannett, the evidence suggests that critics are wrong: USA Today has not left a trail of clone newspapers or devastated the chain's other properties, though it has spawned a certain newspaper philosophy practiced, in Gannett's peculiar syntax, "across our USA."
On the first question--USA Today's impact on other papers--Gannett chairman Neuharth is characteristically expansive: "Newspapers generally across the U.S.A. in the last five years have changed more in appearance and content than in any previous time period like that. I believe USA Today has been some of the cause."
Carl Stepps, a former national editor at USA Today and University of Maryland professor, is more cautious: "I can think of nothing that USA Today invented. What I think USA Today really did was take a lot of things that were on the edge of happening, or happening locally, bundle them together and then sort of dare everyone else to do them."
USA Today Editor John Quinn agrees: "Everything USA Today is doing we adapted from somebody else."
The satellite delivery system came from the Wall Street Journal, as did having the same look on key pages each day. The Journal and the San Francisco Chronicle have had front-page summaries of the inside contents for 20 years. Color technology was learned from such papers as the St. Petersburg Times and Orlando Sentinel, which had achieved USA Today-quality color by the mid-1970s.
One area USA Today did innovate, evidence suggests, is sports statistics. When USA Today officials approached the Elias Sports Bureau, the sports data company from which it gets its varied and sophisticated numbers, Elias had tried and failed to syndicate material with other newspapers. Today, Elias's material is sent nationwide by the Associated Press.
Many advertising executives also credit USA Today with helping persuade Madison Avenue to view newspapers as a color advertising medium, a province once left largely to magazines.
But in other areas, some of the claims of USA Today as popularizer seem exaggerated.
One of the most common ideas heard is that USA Today prompted American newspapers to use color. Actually, according to a study by the Poynter Institute, more than half of all daily papers in America were using color by 1983, when USA Today was only a few months old, some of them with USA Today quality.
Nor, did USA Today seem to spawn a rash of full-color weather pages across the country. In the 14 major markets where USA Today first was launched, for instance, a study by the Newspaper Research Journal found that only three of the 25 newspapers in those cities changed the size of their weather packages or added color.
Instead, more than half the papers replaced the standard wire-service weather map with a better one, usually one that focused on their local region.
In general, the hard evidence suggests that USA Today's impact on American newspapers has been positive and simple: it stimulated an industry now dominated by monopoly newspapers to do basic things better.