The Inside Story
of USA Today
(Andrews McMeel and Parker)
Part 2USA Today, the in-house journal for the semiliterate, is the product of an organization known as the Gannett Company, which has made its mark on the American Fourth Estate by a simple ruse. It buys up small or medium-sized newspapers --- those that enjoy monopoly status in their communities --- then by rigorously cutting expenses (e.g., firing most of the news staff), beefing up advertising and promotion departments, and instituting a militant policy against any and all controversy and in-depth reporting, it turns these newspapers into what is so vulgarly described in one of the new barnyard expressions of our time: Cash Cows. Moo. It is the ultimate whoring of freedom of the press, and this particular corporation excels at it.
The top doges in the Gannett organization decided that this barnyard approach to newspapering could be extended to the whole of America through the coming of USA Today. That's what The Making of McPaper is all about.
One of the prime theses of The Making Of McPaper is that Gannett created the second national newspaper after the Wall Street Journal. We aren't too sure. USA Today is rich in graphics, lewd in color, wretched in content, but its closest competitors are not the WSJ but weeklies like The National Enquirer and The Star whose market shares have been dropping since the introduction of USA Today. There are others, too --- English-language newspapers as meretricious as Gannett's, though not yet of these shores: the London dailies like the Daily Express or the Daily Mail --- covering England like the dew with a combination of sex, scandal, and jingoism.
The Making of McPaper is ostensibly the story of the conception, execution, and success of USA Today. But the reader must be forewarned: the author, one Peter Prichard, is scarcely a mole within the Gannett organization. Much has been made of the fact that this is Gannett, warts and all (vide the semiserious title) --- but the biggest of them all, one Al Neuharth, ends up being practically canonized for being so insightful, wise, interesting, foresighted, driven, astute, etc., as to conceive of and gamble his career on USA Today.
Canonization of business leaders is all the rage now, starting with the elevation of Lee Iacocca somewhere out there just to the right of and perhaps a tad above the divine. Neuharth, too, is one of those hard-driven, hardball, hard-ass players, but when all is said and done, according to Prichard, he is warm, kind, loyal, truthful, brave, with a heart as big as all outdoors. Exempli gratia: when it comes to announcing his retirement,
Neuharth made an announcement that startled many in the room. His voice began to break as he said: "My instincts as an investigative reporter and editorial analyst tell me that the time has come to take another step in the planned and orderly transition of Gannett's leadership to the next generation.
"I am not going away, " Neuharth said, his voice full of emotion. He seemed to be holding back tears. "I love this company and the business and profession we are in."
Whenever they trundle out the lachrymal discharges of the leading heavy, it's probably time to man the bilges, especially when we know that he is not necessarily riding away into the sunset after a job well done, but more likely tucking his $100,000,000 in options in the trunk of his Lamborghini and driving off into the Poconos.
It's hardly surprising that our guide Prichard knows who's holding onto the chains of power at Gannett --- power that could come crashing down on some maudlin amanuensis if he were to blow it by being a little too honest. This may have something to do wit his roseate portrayal of Neuharth's stepping down, something that sounds like it was extruded from the word processors at B, B, and D:
After he gave up the title of CEO, Neuharth seemed more reflective --- still driven, but some of the hard edges had been softened.
(It's a goddamn good thing that Prichard was not commissioned by the Gannett organization to write a biography of Vlad the Impaler: "After his final slaughter, the old warrior, with tears in his eyes, remounted his faithful stallion, looked down at the hundred thousand bodies skewered on stakes in the meadow, and said with a husky voice: 'Truly, this was my last --- and greatest --- battle.' And he rode off slowly, towards the east, from whence he had come so many happy years ago.")
§ § §
When you get right down to it, the theme in The Making of McPaper is not one of victory, nor even the launching of the most successful, awful newspaper monopoly in the history of this or any other country. Rather, the leitmotif is one of Wagnerian suffering. A hundred executives, thousands of lesser workers did heavy penance to midwife this mastodon. People went without sleep, even the top men and women, throwing about bundles of newsprint under great physical duress when the deliverymen didn't arrive on time. Editors went off after a particularly harrowing meeting to throw up. Executives passed out on the newsroom floor from hunger and exhaustion. Then there are Neuharth's manifold agonies, which, because of his exalted status, are of a different order, the pain of a man who has an Oedipal ego, although --- possibly --- not the Oedipal capacity for suffering (nor, apparently, at least judging by the text here, an Oedipal love life). Indeed, The Making of McPaper has more agony per column inch than "Dear Abby," Little Women, or a Samuel Richardson novel.
These Executive Morality Tales grow out of a change that has come about in America in the last half-century. When you and I were young, rags-to-riches stories were all about us. After all, our fathers grew up in a republic where 95 percent of the wealth was in the hands of 1 percent of the citizenry. Many of our parents and their friends and relatives were dirt-poor, or had just gotten off the boat at Ellis Island.
Things have changed vastly since the end of WWII. The movers and doers who are going to crank up something like USA Today didn't grow up in poverty --- so there can be none of the heart-tugging stories from the past that my father and your father and their fathers used to be able to rustle up on the 4th of July so we could stop munching on the wieners for a moment, count our blessings, and puff out our chests with the fact that we were living in the greatest country in the world where the poorest of the poor could rise to the top, cream in the bottle of Guernsey.
Prichard didn't have access to stories like this --- or at least not enough of them. So he looked elsewhere for the theme of mortification, survival, and ennoblement. What better an object of our compassion than an executive editor who has to work his ass off week after week, month after month, destroying health, family, vacations, getting this goddamn paper out every day, and, then, finally --- through immense sacrifice --- making it the ultimate success. It's the turn-of-the-century poor-to-rich story dredged up for the 1990s: white collar heroes, clawing their way across the landscape of American newspapery, destroying personal health and family happiness in the process of making this turkey fly. The Making of McPaper may be a story of free enterprise and success, but, as well, it's a medieval tale of martyrs deep in the pain of sacrifice back in the old print factory. Perhaps it should be retitled The Passion Book of Contemporary Journalistic Saints.
USA Today is the example of "innovative, long-term thinking by management," Prichard says. Maybe. But it's also the product of endless resources: a half-billion dollars in start-up costs; a quarter-billion dollars in "borrowed" printing plant facilities (borrowed from within the organization); $30,000,000 for street vending machines alone, and --- on top of it all --- a magical instinct for what the besotted masses will buy, if they are horse-whipped long enough. After all's said and done, the newspaper can be considered successful only if you believe in the accounting procedures of the Gannett Corporation, which permits assets and liabilities to be shuffled hither and yon, like Easter eggs, according to the whim of the executives who want to, who must paint success (their very jobs are at stake).
There are in this story hectares of martyrdom and heroism --- but there are also a few tales of naked thefts. For one, the McNugget style of reportage was stolen direct from the San Francisco Chronicle; the requirement that each day's issue be consistent --- with exact placement of news, articles, and features --- came from the Wall Street journal. And the up-beat style of reporting has been around at least since the early Jesus-on-a-Tortilla stories in the New York Daily News. What wasn't stolen was the use of color --- The Los Angeles Times reported that almost half of the dailies in America were using color before USA Today came on the scene.
With all this, USA Today becomes a tribute not so much to Neuharth's razor-sharp instincts for what America needs but, better, his ability to lift ideas from those who were already successful --- and then to plumb, ad nauseam, the public's need for treacle, parceled out in a series of monosyllabic four-and-a-half column-inch stories which are designed to reassure the functional illiterates of the TV Generation that they are really not so bad off after all, that they can get through a whole fat daily newspaper without once moving their lips. It's The Power of Positive Thinking designed for Les MisÚrables of the Television Age.
Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus, said Horace: "The mountains will heave, and a silly little mouse will be born." $500,000,000 spent --- much of it through the kind assistance of the tax-forgiveness and depreciation laws of America (thus, it's our money). Executives burnt out like joints in a college dormitory. The greatest technological assemblage in the history of newspapering brought together through superhuman effort and coordination. No sacrifice too great. And Neuhardt with a catch in his voice and a tear in his eye...doing what? Weeping over the fact, perhaps, as we all should be weeping, that such a humbug should be so successful.
Our forefathers worried endlessly about giving us absolute freedom of the press, and what do we get? Not just a mouse. No, something worse. The biggest squeaker of them all: a mickey-mouse throw-away with elephantiasis of the ego.
--- C. K. Rywald
The Fessenden Review,
XII, #3 (1988)