In the cacophony of Boston-related news coverage last week, the death of USA Today founder Al Neuharth on April 21 barely registered. The way perceptions of Neuharth's paper changed since its founding in 1982 is a fascinating look at how American media have changed as a whole. To put it another way, the relative consistency of USA Today over the past three decades highlights how much the rest of our media have changed around it.

Despite being the most widely circulating newspaper in the country (although the Wall Street Journal also claims this honor, depending on how circulation is measured) USA Today has always been something of a joke. Journalists and readers both derided it when it debuted in the Eighties, and it has become the butt of countless jokes. It is not difficult to see why. Its visual style – particularly its parodied-to-death front page "Snapshots" graphics – and willingness to place advertisements everywhere (including the banner headline) made it difficult to take seriously. That it was (and is) commonly given away for free in hotels and institutional settings reinforces the perception of the paper as disposable, shallow, and generally Less Serious than Real Newspapers like the New York Times, WSJ, and other big city dailies.


As is so often the case in a nation that lets the free market determine which media outlets succeed or fail, USA Today established some measure of legitimacy with its popularity. It's hard to ignore a paper with circulation that spills into seven figures. But the hue and cry throughout USA Today's rise in the 1980s interpreted its sales figures as a harbinger of the apocalypse. "America is doomed if this is the kind of garbage we are going to read", said many a snobbish, albeit not entirely incorrect, commentator. It looks like a comic strip! It's more advertising than news!

It's just so un-serious!

How funny it is to fast forward to 2013 and see USA Today in its current position as part of the "old guard" of the American media; a remnant of a bygone era. Its emphasis on graphics, ads, and short blurbs in place of feature stories all became common in the intervening years. Its graphics, in fact, now look quite tame – almost quaint – in comparison to what media outlets routinely plaster all over the internet, cable TV news, and newspapers today. In thirty years the USA Today went from the bottom of the journalistic barrel in the U.S. to an example of how things were done in better days – without fundamentally changing. Everything else got much worse.

Direct comparisons are difficult because newspapers as a medium have largely faded into the background of American media empires. Nonetheless, the weeping and rending of garments that accompanied USA Today's emergence shows how little we knew in the 1980s about how much worse the media could get. We hadn't foreseen the Glenn Becks, the 20-words-or-less Headline News network, the bombastic graphics and music, the entertainment-as-news ratings bait, and all the other rotten aspects of the system we have today. Hell, CNN has been doing 24-7 Boston Marathon bombing coverage for the past week; did it actually deliver more or better news than USA Today during that time? Probably not, unless Grief Porn counts as news now.

The pessimist's mantra – "Don't worry, it will get worse" – would have been sage advice to anyone who saw USA Today during its infancy and declared it the worst of the worst. When I watch TV news these days, I am disgusted by how bad it is. What really depresses me, though, is not how bad it is now, but that it is inevitably going to get worse.


  • Remember how the original vending machines for USA TODAY were designed to look like televisions? That was pretty much the point at which we knew no good could come of it.

  • I can't imagine that teevee news can get any worse than whole segments of the jounralists doing nothing but reading tweets out loud, but I know that this reflects a failure of my imagination rather than the actual hitting of the bottom of the barrel.

  • I was coming in to say what J. Dryden said.

    It was a huge deal to my Media Writing teacher in 1982.

  • Middle Seaman says:

    We have changed a lot since the 80s. Journalism became a class above us the Joe Blows. The Democratic Party disappeared; we now have two Republican parties. Except for Big Dawg, all presidents since the 80s were inapt and strongly supported the rich over the rest.

    USA Today was a harbinger for things to come.

  • I've never been bothered by USA Today.

    Seriously, my hometown paper (which happens to be a subsidiary of Kaplan Test Prep) pays Bush torture apologists, Krauthammer, and Jennifer Rubin to write.

    USA Today is Shakespeare by comparison.

  • Back in the mid-1980s, I used USA Today to teach my English as a Second Language students (the adults, I mean) to read. The stories were in short, easily-digestible chunks and the childish graphics made it easy for people who were just learning English to figure out what was going on.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    If anyone thinks USA Today is bad, just wait until the Kochsucher ;-)Brothers buy up newspapers, and join Rupert Murder-Ork in spinning the news their way, in ways that the guys trying to build centrifuges in Iran would envy.

    When I was working, and had to travel, my one regret was that I didn't have a parrot with me to put USA Today to the use it was meant for. But then I realized – animal cruelty to helpless animals, is just about as bad as human torture.

    Also too, though – USA is, was, and always will be, far better than the NY Post, which I wouldn't use to wrap fish in – because it would be an insult to the poor, dead fish.

    Also three – lining a birdcage with the NY Post, would scare the parrot into sh*tting himself to death – and I prefer surf & turf, and not chicken & chicken of the sea.

  • I took current events class in high school at the height of Iran-Contra, back in the 1980's. I only was able to figure out what Iran-Contra was about years later, by studying it on my own.

    The problem was that every day of current events class went like this:

    1. Spend 45 minutes reading USA Today cover to cover.
    2. Spend 5 minutes on a quiz on what you just read.

    There was no discussion at all, no attempt to produce a coherent story. I do not exaggerate when I say that a typical quiz would be 10 questions like this:

    1. What general testified before congress today?
    2. What is the hot new tech stock?
    3. What high school's prom was profiled on the front page of the life section?
    4. Who won last night's college football game?

    In other words, it's exactly what you get when your Current Events teacher gets all her news from USA today. There was no attempt to discuss the news as any sort of rational picture, because the very idea of sorting things out into a rational picture was foreign to her. She taught history class along the same lines. Our exams would have questions like, "Who was the losing vice-presidental candidate in the 1836 election?" You knew you needed that A to get into college, but getting the A meant memorizing every single detail of the most infinitesimal trivia from the history book.

    And let me add that this was at the best private school our town had to offer…

  • Oh, I almost forgot the best thing about my high-school history teacher.

    ME: Why do we study history?

    TEACHER: We study history so that we can see God's plan for humanity unfold over time.

    ME: Ok, but why do they study history in PUBLIC schools?

    TEACHER: (Po-faced, lip trembling, aghast,) Well, I should *hope* it's for the same reason!

    (The best thing about her explanation is that implicitly she's saying that we MUST know which high school's senior prom was profiled in USA Today because, pay attention now kids, THAT'S HOW JESUS WILL DEFEAT SATAN.)

  • Don't know about the USA but I though it was reasonably okay in Germany. Here in Australia, I have yet to find a newspaper that I don't want to set fire to after reading it for two minutes.

    The less disgusting ones are colorful rags that appear to report exclusively about local crime, celebrities and housing auctions. The others are colorful rags that spew forth a constant torrent of conservative propaganda. Me being a botanist, I am using them for the plant press, and even that I find trying.

    And I will stop now before I start writing about TV. Let's just say we don't have a TV set anymore and we don't miss it.

  • The Onion modeled itself on USA Today. The Local Man stories inflated to absurdity by fonts, graphics, and style is… the same, aside from subject matter.

    Anyone here read The Week? That's another revised throwback that shouldn't work, but I like it. Don't know the circulation, but it seems successful.

  • Another weird little factoid (likely reported in Al's rag): David Gold also died last week. He too started his venture in 1982: the 99 cent store chain. These were among the many blessings on the land added during Ronnie Reagan's first term. Do you know anyone who reads the one or shops the other? I don't. Depressing thought: either of these now buried billionaires could buy and sell all the people I've ever known my entire life, and most of those I ever drove by on the 405. The 1980's also bought us the Powerball. It wasn't just journalism that took a dive. Still, the coffe is much better these days IMHO.

  • The American Media is a for-profit entertainment industry. This must always be kept in mind. Facts do not sell. Facts are dry and boring and nobody wants to pay for those. As corporations, the news media companies have one and exactly one responsibility, and it is not to The Truth. It is to the Shareholders, to increase the bottom line, at all costs.

    The profit motive eliminates any and all consideration for quality journalism.

  • I agree. In my travels there's been very few daily papers worth the purchase price. My local paper is suitable for absorbing the grease from fish and chips. Quite a bit of that is that I get my news on-line. The only news a local paper should bother with is just that. Local news, local sports and local obituaries.

  • I love 99-cent stores! Strange socks, soap, 12-packs of razors, Red Vines, laser pointer cat toys, bags of odd rubber bands, solar driveway lights, vitamins… why pay regular prices? What ARE regular prices?

    I still say the US could for a decade stop importing everything but batteries, crude, food, and soap and 99% of us would only run out of shoelaces. We have too much stuff.

  • Maybe I'm misinterpreting the past, but I think there was a time when journalists contributed to a product called "news" which was sold to consumers/readers/viewers. But as the only important revenue stream eventually came from advertising, the product became "eyeballs" sold to advertisers. The free USA Today at your hotel is a perfect example, because, as the internet aphorism goes, "if you are not paying for a product, it means you are the product." (see Facebook, Google, etc.) Unfortunately, it is very convenient to certain large and powerful interest groups that there be no "news" in this country, and so those of us who want it have to scrape up whatever we can.

  • I am grateful to the news sources that I have come to trust. The NY T with a steady dose of salt is the only hard copy I read. Years ago I used to rely on Newsweek but they went the route of U S A Today. If the paper was a better quality you could at least wipe your butt with it. I also realize that the blogs that I now read to keep up with the world are for the most part preaching to the fully converted, but isn't that what most of us want…a confirmation of our beliefs.

  • I just watched a Spanish language film called NO! starring Gael Garcia Bernal. It concerned the Plebiscite that removed Augusto Pinochet from power in Chile after fifteen brutal years as dictator. The theme of the movie was that the main person in charge of the anti-Pinochet campaign wanted to sell democracy in the same way he sold toothpaste. He wanted jingles, not anthems; he wanted slogans, not moral persuasion. He wanted the voters to see themselves as young, vibrant, strong and attractive, not as
    defeated, outraged or dispirited.

    His approach to the problem worked. Pinochet was turned out of office.

    I had real problems with this film, mostly having to do with the cinematography and I hated the main premise …that people are irrational, gullible and endlessly manipulable. on the other hand,I have been thinking hard about my own understanding of society , as opposed to that of the film's protagonist. It is very humbling.

  • with Pravda on the Potomac and Izvestia on the Hudson, who could ask for more? how to dumb down America without really trying. what is fascinating is the see how the front page of USA Today has changed.

    watching America devolve(something Right wingers could only dream of!) is not a pretty picture. but like said above, it is only going to get worse. at least until the Right finishes its' destruction of all intelligence in the Amerikan states. getting the masses dumbed down is really sad. i think of the movie "Wall-E", and know this really is our future. i am glad i won't be around to see it all. there is hope in my life, after

    the anti intellectualism that started in the 60's has never stopped. like snowball going downhill, we are seeing the speed of ignorance increase exponentially. i'm sure the Right will be happy then. no different opinions and BB will be happy knowing his children won't ever have to "think" outside the box. Here's looking at your "victory" over the leftist commies types, BB. like i have learned watching the Right over the last umpteen years, "ignorance is bliss." and boy are these people/Right wingers going to be in "Paradise."!!!

  • This has been a very entertaining comment thread to read–GandT is one of the few web sites I've found where the comments are largely from intelligent people. I too only read USA Today when it's free at a hotel, and I'm amazed how OK it seems now compared to my local daily. USA Today has a good sports section, I must say, and a good crossword puzzle.

    Re 99 cent/dollar stores, my favorite dollar store purchase was for an office holiday party gift exchange where we had a dollar limit. Several co-workers just gave lottery tickets. At my local dollar store I found a black-and-white jester hat with three points, each with a bell on the end. The person who got it said it was the best present she'd ever gotten!

  • coin operated says:

    It used to be that newspapers were the one place where you had 24 hours to let the CNN glitz factor subside and get some quality analysis of what happened *yesterday*. Used to be…as John pointed out above the profit motive eliminates any and all consideration for quality journalism, even in the dead tree reporting systems.

  • Oh, the media has been worse. Mind you, I am not old enough to remember, but the media during the Gilded Age, at the turn of the century and just after was quite horrid. Remember the term "yellow journalism?" anyone?

  • Gerald McGrew says:

    I agree that print and TV media have gotten worse, but overall I'd say my ability to learn on my own and fully investigate a story has grown exponentially since the 1980's.

    As was noted above, in the 1980's one's understanding of something like Iran-Contra was mostly limited to print journalism and TV news. For pretty much everyone, there was no way to dig any deeper or learn the full story on their own.

    Now? Rather than shouting "Damn it! This is all I have to read?" our problem is discerning which of the almost infinite sources of information is credible enough to trust. Over my morning tea I can read about a story from many different angles and perspectives and use that to come to a reasonably well-informed position.

    So honestly, when it comes to gathering information, I think things have gotten WAAAAAAAAAY better.

  • It's pretty much like how Network went from a blistering satire that nobody could take seriously to an accurate portrayal of reality in thirty years since its production.

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