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.