USA Today and Me: 40 Years Ago

| 17 Aug 2022 | 03:59

Once upon a time, Manhattan was easily recognizable. There were pay phones and newsstands on every block. Our subway tokens, jammed into pants pockets, clanged as we walked along. And we can’t forget about the (sigh!) skyline.

Then came Sept. 15, 1982.

Forty years ago, USA Today came into being. Not long after, the Nation’s Newspaper, as the Arlington, Va.-based newspaper liked to call itself, had invaded New York, as a part of its nationwide rollout.

Before long, New Yorkers started gawking at the strange, distinctive blue and white boxes that spit out copies of USA Today, just as people always bought their dailies in small towns.

The notion of buying your morning paper by reaching into a box, instead of at a newsstand, proved to be only one of the changes that USA Today sparked over the past four decades.

USA Today has a special meaning for me on two fronts. I am a journalist, so I keenly noticed the upheaval that the “broad sheet” brought, with its wacky notion of printing stories that were so concise that they started and ended on the front page and did NOT “jump” inside the paper to another page, a hallmark of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.

Then there was its radical insistence on publishing color photographs – and making the Gray Lady seem so out of date. We noticed its determination to make sports stories – heretofore known as the “toy department” of a serious daily newspaper – a focus of its daily coverage. The paper was organized along the four sections of News, Sports, Money and Life. And didn’t we in Manhattan find it quaint and cute that USA Today had this compulsion about reporting the local news in all 50 states.

Overnight, USA Today decided, what happened in Sacramento, Little Rock and, oh yes, Peoria, had merit, even to us snobs in Gotham.

Joining USA Today

On May 20, 1983, I joined the Money section of the paper’s fledgling New York bureau, 535 Madison Avenue, at East 52nd Street. It was a frenetic time.

We were so crazed in trying to put our employer on the map that we seldom had time to engage in another tried-and-true custom of a Manhattan journalist: the long, leisurely, liquid lunch. We were lucky if we found time to grab a bite downstairs at Burger Heaven, which we affectionately dubbed, naturally, Burger Hell.

It WAS hell! The New York media establishment mocked us viciously – one joke had it that USA Today, with its very short news articles, could win a Pulitzer Prize for a new category of journalism, which it had pioneered: The Best Paragraph. Yuk, yuk, yuk.

The unions hated us for not adhering to their way of doing business. Rumor had it that their members smashed a bunch of our boxes to bits.

“Do Your Best”

To the stodgy, clubby New York media hierarchy, USA Today was the guy at the black-tie party who wore brown shoes.

One incident says it all. I remember being invited to be a panelist with James Greenfield, then a prominent editor at The New York Times. I was there in a case of mistaken identity, truth be told. Greenfield was urbane and solicitous to me, but the audience looked at me in his company like I had two heads.

USA Today was not big on kissing the ring of the New York media’s big boys. When I received the invitation to speak with Jim Greenfield, I knew I would be in way over my head, barely in my first month at the paper. I called my editor in a mild panic. “What should I do?” I asked plaintively. Clearly not sharing any of my reverence for the Times or insecurity about representing USA Today in Manhattan, he shot back: “Do your best. Jon.” Then he added: “I have to go.”

There were lots of highlights for me that first summer. I met Al Neuharth, the South Dakota-raised head of our parent, Gannett, and even hitched a ride to Washington with him, on the company plane! (Did an ordinary Timesman or woman ever get that kind of royal treatment from the boss?)

What a difference a few decades make. In 1983, USA Today was flush with money! Reporters could go anywhere in the USA in search of a cool story. I got to go to New Orleans for the first time – and I stayed in the swanky Royal Orleans Hotel, where the Rolling Stones had bunked down when they were on tour.

I somehow convinced the editors to send me, a Wall Street correspondent, all the way out to Bozeman, Montana, to interview a small-town stockbroker. What a non-New York story! This broker lived with his family in a tepee over the summer.

Good Friends, Good Work

The members of the New York bureau supported one another, while our snobby competitors at other papers made fun of us. I made lifelong friends (hello, Susan Antilla!). I did some good work. But ultimately, I guess I was too much of a real Noo Yawka to hit it off with my bosses in the heartland. I resigned from the paper after about 850 “todays” and never looked back.

Still, I do have fond memories – and I feel proud of helping USA Today establish itself as a serious playa in American journalism.

And you know what? When the paper gets nominated for that Pulitzer, for Best Paragraph, I’ll be cheering on The Nation’s Newspaper.