Is the First National Newspaper

After years of planning, Allen Neuharth began publication of a national, general-interest daily newspaper that revolutionized newspaper design.

Summary of Event

The ceremony for the launching of USA Today on September 15, 1982, reflected the vision and drive of the newspaper’s founder, Allen Neuharth. At the ceremony, President Ronald Reagan, Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, and Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker were joined by hundreds of other dignitaries under a tent in view of the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument. USA Today (newspaper)
Newspapers, national
Gannett Company
[kw]USA Today Is the First National Newspaper (Sept. 15, 1982)
[kw]First National Newspaper, USA Today Is the (Sept. 15, 1982)
[kw]National Newspaper, USA Today Is the First (Sept. 15, 1982)
[kw]Newspaper, USA Today Is the First National (Sept. 15, 1982)
USA Today (newspaper)
Newspapers, national
Gannett Company
[g]North America;Sept. 15, 1982: USA Today Is the First National Newspaper[04940]
[g]United States;Sept. 15, 1982: USA Today Is the First National Newspaper[04940]
[c]Publishing and journalism;Sept. 15, 1982: USA Today Is the First National Newspaper[04940]
Neuharth, Allen
McCorkindale, Douglas
Knight, John S.
Miller, Paul

The event, celebrating the first day of publication for the national general-circulation daily newspaper, was monumental too. No publisher in the United States had attempted such a feat before, and Neuharth was determined to gain a circulation of one million for his newspaper within a year. Not only did he succeed in making USA Today the most widely read newspaper in the country, but he also revolutionized newspaper design.

Neuharth’s quest had begun in earnest thirty years earlier, during his first newspaper venture, but his boyhood contained the seeds of his phenomenal success. Reared in rural South Dakota, Neuharth lost his father at age two; he, his brother, and their mother struggled to make ends meet. Neuharth’s business education came from his early life of hardship.

Bitten in high school by the newspaper bug and trained in newswriting by a stint with Associated Press, Neuharth in 1952 started SoDak Sports, a statewide sports newspaper. By the time Neuharth was thirty, the undercapitalized paper had failed. He later considered this failure a stroke of luck; from it, he learned early that he must build gradually for any such venture in the future.

He next became a reporter at the Miami Herald, learning how to manage people and pass up short-term gains for long-term possibilities with the Knight newspaper chain. Executives at the small Gannett Company newspaper chain lured Neuharth away, and soon he convinced top management to let him try opening a new paper in the rich Sun Coast market near Cape Canaveral, Florida, where the space race was under way.

Planning for Florida Today took place in secret; the bright layout and upbeat editorial approach would reflect the readership well-educated, well-paid, forward-looking. If readers loved the paper, Neuharth reasoned, advertising would follow. Many of the design features he devised would reappear in USA Today. Florida Today, first published in 1966, was an immediate success that paved the way for Neuharth’s ultimate goal: a new national-circulation daily.

During the 1970’s, Neuharth became Gannett’s chief executive officer, and the company acquired forty-six newspapers. The operating profits provided the foundation for USA Today. Using $1 million in company research money, Neuharth early in 1980 initiated the “Project NN” (for “new newspaper”) task force in strict secrecy to assess the technical, financial, and editorial challenges. That autumn, his board of directors allocated $3.5 million for prototype production. Planning became more intense.

Neuharth used loaned reporters and other staff from Gannett papers for prototype production. This kept costs down, although start-up costs for USA Today ultimately ran to $300 million.

The scope of the project was huge, even before USA Today was ready to be unveiled to the Gannett board of directors pending their final approval. Neuharth had to go beyond technical questions to philosophical considerations: He wanted a newspaper that would compete not only with other papers but also with television, and he also wanted a newspaper that would appeal to the mobile American public that considered the whole nation its home. (Neuharth had in mind statistics showing that the United States had 850,000 air travelers daily, 1.75 million people staying in motels and hotels daily, and 100 million people who moved within a span of ten years.)

New satellite and facsimile-transmission technology was crucial to the enterprise and so was the far-flung Gannett empire, with its dozens of printing plants nationwide. Pages could be transmitted by satellite to local plants, where production and distribution could begin; distribution would require thousands of drivers to reach a hoped-for 105,000 outlets.

Details such as the new paper’s vending boxes were important; USA Today’s vending boxes were designed to mimic a television screen in order to appeal to readers’ viewing instincts. Color, not yet a newspaper staple, would be used lavishly and this presented technical challenges. Perfect four-color alignment had to be identical at all printing outlets. Before Neuharth got his board’s final approval of the project in December of 1981, two-week dry runs were conducted, including delivery, and forty-five hundred influential Americans were polled for their opinions of the new publication.

Between December, 1981, and the launch date the next fall, reporters had to learn a new writing style to conform to Neuharth’s view that readers wanted short, upbeat, informative, and unopinionated stories. Almost all the paper’s employees put in grueling twelve-to-fifteen hour days as they prepared for the paper’s launch.

The first front page was controversial and signaled USA Today’s independence. Instead of leading with a story covering the death of Lebanese president Bashir Gemayel, as many establishment newspapers did that day, Neuharth’s editors chose to feature stories about the death of Monaco’s Princess Grace and an optimistic twist on an airline crash. These stories, the editors felt, had more reader appeal.

The first day’s paper, distributed in the Washington-Baltimore area, sold out; within seven months, USA Today had reached the one-year goal of one million circulation. Over the next two years, production began at other Gannett plants; in 1986, the paper’s production went international. At the fifth anniversary of the paper’s launch, USA Today first turned a profit, although losses continued and reached some $800 million.


Ten years after USA Today first appeared on newsstands, nearly every big-city newspaper in the United States and many smaller papers showed its influence, both in graphic design and in news coverage. By the early twenty-first century, the paper achieved wider circulation than any other American paper, with more than 2.2 million in daily circulation, and its international sales made it the second most widely circulated paper in the English language, after The Times of India.

In a period when newspapers were rapidly going out of business, Allen Neuharth gambled that he could be successful with a new national newspaper. He succeeded by appealing to readers of the television generation. Neuharth once described the approach that became so widely imitated: “It communicates with the reader on a personal level, very quickly, clearly, and directly in an upbeat, exciting, positive environment. It’s giving the readers information that they want and need in order to form their own opinions.”

That meant shorter articles than readers were used to; separate sections for news, business, sports, and entertainment; lots of graphs, charts, boxes, and other visual treats; color used lavishly, including in advertisements; and an upbeat slant on news and headlines. The USA Today approach meant that women and minorities were featured on every page if possible; after all, this was a paper for the whole nation, not merely for white males. Neuharth later wrote that he wanted “a newspaper so different, so advanced in design and appearance and content that it would pull the rest of the industry into the twenty-first century, albeit kicking and screaming.”

Many in the news industry were quick to ridicule USA Today’s appearance. They called it “McPaper,” implying that it was like junk food: attractive and tasty but without substance. However, after USA Today’s circulation shot up and some large papers began to suffer in consequence, newspaper executives all over the country began to imitate its style. The Washington Post, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Miami Herald, Chicago Sun-Times, Newsday, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Dallas Morning News, San Francisco Examiner, Baltimore Sun, and even The New York Times all of these and more had to reexamine their treatment of news or risk a continued slide. In response, some newspapers improved their use of color and graphics, some shortened their stories and made better use of indexes to guide readers to the news, some imitated USA Today’s giant weather maps, some made their business coverage easier to follow, and some improved their sports reporting.

USA Today had made a giant leap in the reporting of sports scores and statistics. The immense investment that Gannett’s many newspapers made in computer and cable technology just before USA Today was launched meant that USA Today was hooked directly into the databanks of major sports organizations. One commentator said that the depth of sports reporting in the new paper came from the accumulated effect of thousands of statistics together, rather than from several long stories.

Once USA Today began publication, newspaper operations not merely newspaper appearance changed too. Neuharth had never forgotten the deep sense of injustice he had felt as a youngster when he saw women, including his mother, badly paid and badly treated. He knew the same treatment was often accorded to black and Hispanic workers, and he became an aggressive booster of affirmative action hiring and promotion, not only at USA Today but throughout the Gannett newspaper chain as well.

Although the newspaper industry as a whole had a poor record of minority hiring and of allowing women and minority group members to progress into management positions, Gannett was a beacon. Neuharth even tied executive pay raises to success in meeting equal employment opportunity goals (“Even the most chauvinistic of our male managers got the message when it hit their pocketbooks,” he wrote). In 1988, USA Today had a workforce that was 51 percent female; 41 percent of the paper’s management positions were filled by women, and 14 percent were filled by members of minority groups. In Gannett broadcast operations, nearly one-third of general managers were women in 1988 and about 20 percent were minority group members. All this took place while some of the nation’s most influential news organizations, including the Associated Press and The New York Times, were losing discrimination cases in court.

USA Today created a new class of reporter, the graphic journalist, who rushes to an event even a rock concert armed with a portable computer and sophisticated software to create visual images of the news. When Neuharth ordered Gannett printing plants around the country to upgrade their facilities to handle high-tech printing requirements, he knew that even if USA Today folded, the company would benefit from the investment. While the national paper did not turn out to be as immediately profitable as he hoped, the chain as a whole continued to perform well for stockholders.

Reception of USA Today and the changes it inspired has not, however, been wholly positive. Some critics, notably Ben H. Bagdikian, have argued that chain ownership of news outlets eats away at the vitality of a democratic society. Bagdikian has written that Gannett, the largest news chain in the United States, uses its monopoly position in many cities to strangle local reporting in favor of cheaper, centralized national coverage. As a consequence, he has alleged, Gannett profits continue even as voter participation falls. USA Today (newspaper)
Newspapers, national
Gannett Company

Further Reading

  • Bagdikian, Ben H. The New Media Monopoly. Rev. ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004. Classic study of the effects of concentrated media ownership on democracy. Discusses newspaper chain behavior, including that of Gannett. Lists inside sources of business information; index. Valuable counterpoint to Neuharth’s book discussed below.
  • Emery, Edwin, and Michael Emery. The Press and America: An Interpretive History of the Mass Media. 9th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2000. History of the news industry in the United States. Includes charts and illustrations concerning dynamics of profits, technology, and news groups. Separate bibliography for each chapter.
  • Lee, Martin A., and Norman Solomon. Unreliable Sources: A Guide to Detecting Bias in News Media. New York: Carol, 1990. Highly critical, far-ranging work that discusses the dark side of the news industry. Appendixes guide readers to media ownership groups, alternative media, and journalism organizations.
  • Moen, Daryl R. Newspaper Layout and Design. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1984. Author shows how USA Today has changed assumptions about newspaper operations, particularly through its use of so-called graphic journalists.
  • Neuharth, Allen H. Confessions of an S.O.B. New York: Doubleday, 1989. Breezy, confidential tone reflects Neuharth’s own gung-ho style. Firsthand account of a lifetime spent working toward the launching of Neuharth’s national newspaper.
  • Prichard, Peter. The Making of McPaper. Kansas City, Mo.: Andrews, McMeel & Parker, 1987. The definitive history of the founding of USA Today, this commissioned work describes the high-pressure atmosphere surrounding the paper’s birth. Numerous photos of staff members, charts, and USA Today pages.

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