Brian Fuller's blog on the media, marketing and content creation

The cancerous effect of USA Today

Posted on | June 11, 2007 | No Comments

We get to “celebrate” the 25th anniversary of USA Today in September. But we really should be critiquing its cancerous effect on the daily newspaper business in that quarter-century.

Al Neuharth got a few softball tosses in an AdAge interview and, as usual, he said some very interesting things. But I really peg the demise of daily journalism to his creation of USA Today. As the story goes, the big driving factor of a national paper like that with color was to drive sales of Gannett’s color printers. I have no idea whether it’s true, but it’s amusing nonetheless.

What USA Today did was cause a revolution in newspaper design. It said “don’t allow the events of the day to dictate publishing decisions. Let the page real estate do that; let TV and the TV generation do that.” So we got one main story per section and a ton of briefs. We got a ton of uninsightful but highly sightly graphics. We got splash and dash.

Pretty soon every newspaper in the country was shrinking stories and expanding their graphics departments. You could make the argument, and I’ll try here, that the nationwide newspaper reaction to USA Today took about eight years to take hold. That would take us to 1990. That’s precisely when newspaper circulation began to drop. Coincidence? Perhaps. Netscape didn’t arrive on the scene until 1994.

In the AdAge interview, Neuhart says:

I was a reporter for quite a while, but when I looked back on it once I became an executive, I realized how much of my time and energy I wasted on long-winded stories and how most of the readers skipped a lot of that long wind. It’s very important to differentiate between in-depth and long-winded.

I agree there’s a difference. But there’s also a difference between in-depth and pop-culture, television-driven “news” reporting. Readers want more of the former and less of the latter. Tell people what they need to know; not what you think they might want to know. The San Francisco Chronicle last week put a preview of The Sopranos’ final episode above the flag on page 1! As my wife said, “only earthquakes and assassinations should go there!”

Al’s a bright man who’s had many successes in his career. USA Today did bring about some long-overdue changes in newspaper aesthetics, but what’s good for Al hasn’t been completely good for journalism.

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No Responses to “The cancerous effect of USA Today”

  1. Mike
    June 21st, 2007 @ 3:23 pm

    Good luck Brian. You’ve been a rock to the tech journalism business for years. Print journalism is the big loser here.

    Mike

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