Bob Bestler | USA Today’s 30-year run quashes this naysayer

On the LooseSeptember 21, 2012 

USA Today celebrated its 30th birthday last week with a new format and a new logo.

In a comment written for the anniversary, founder Al Neuharth noted how, when it began publication on Sept. 15, 1982, USA Today was scoffed at by many in the news biz.

For instance, Neuharth wrote, TV commentator Linda Ellerbee referenced the paper's “non-smudge'' ink promotion by saying USA Today “doesn't rub off on your hands or your mind.''

As an editor for The Milwaukee Journal (now Journal-Sentinel), I and my colleagues were among those laughingly calling it McPaper -- so dubbed because it was seen as the unfulfilling fast-food of newspapers. Its daily collection of news stories became McNuggets.

At the time, Neuharth said it would take about five years to make a profit. We laughed at that, too. Five years? No way it will survive five years.

Who's going to buy a newspaper with no specific news about one's city or state? National news we can always get from TV. For free.

Unfortunately, I have a terrible track record when it comes to predicting the fate of dramatic media innovations.

I also never thought a 24-hours news station (CNN) could survive or a 24-hour sports station (ESPN) or a 24-hour weather station (The Weather Channel).

A national newspaper? Get serious.

Oops. Wrong again.

Not only has USA Today survived, it has thrived. Consider the most recent daily circulation figures for the top three newspapers in the United States, as reported by Neuharth:

• The Wall Street Journal: 2,118,315 (1,566,027 print, 552,288 digital).

• USA Today: 1,817,446 (1,701,777 print, 115,669 digital)

• New York Times: 1,586,757 (779,731 print, 807,026 digital).

Those are amazing numbers for USA Today, a mere babe considering how long the WSJ and NYT have been around.

I'll confess that it has become one of my favorite papers, too, It's fun and easy to read and carries a crossword puzzle that is uniquely suited to my intellectual level. (I even order USA Today crossword puzzles by the book.)

I don't buy it much, except when I'm on vacation. I like to know what's going on while on vacation, but I don't need the depth of The New York Times. USA Today works just fine, thank you.

I noticed in the anniversary issue a more up-to-date quote from Linda Ellerbee. It shows that she has come around as well.

``When it first began, I wrote that USA Today was a newspaper for people who found television news too complex,'' she wrote. ``But while television news has gotten worse, USA Today has gotten better. Now I read it just about every day.''

Yeah, I guess the laughing has stopped.

Contact BOB BESTLER at bestler6@tds.net.

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