by Walter Brasch
The editors of USA Today, as they do every day, had to decide what to make its “Cover Story.”
The death toll from the cyclone in Myanmar was approaching 25,000, with about almost a million homeless, and the ruling military junta was still refusing to accept foreign assistance.
A Pentagon report revealed that about 43,000 medically unfit troops were sent into combat.
In Philadelphia, six police officers were under investigation for beating suspects. And, in Russia a new president was inaugurated.
What the editors chose to dominate the front page was a three-column head photo of presidential daughter Jenna Bush and a story about her forthcoming non-public private wedding. The only reason USA Today didn’t run the story on its front pages Saturday and Sunday is because it doesn’t publish on weekends. But, just about every other news medium gave the wedding heavy play.
When USA Today debuted in 1982, it was a glitzy full color alternative to the average gray newspaper. Focused upon an audience of travelers, and primarily available at airports and hotels, the five day a week newspaper, then as now, had short, quick looks at the news. “Across the USA” is a series of one paragraph stories from every state, plus the territories, something to let the lonely traveler know his home state still exists. A color weather map informs travelers what to expect when they arrive at an airport a dozen states away. Extensive business stories target middle- and upper-management workers who don’t have the time to read that day’s Wall Street Journal.
With an emphasis on polls, USA Today tells us what we think. And what we think is divided into four equal parts—News, Lifestyle, Sports, and Money. Thus, news is one-fourth of the newspaper.
Ridiculed as McPaper, but read by about two million people a day, most of whom get their daily dose from vendor boxes that look like a TV on a stand, USA Today has set the agenda for almost every newspaper in the country. Following the USA Today model, local newspapers have splashed color and graphics on its pages. The stories are shorter, but not necessarily tighter. And, in an era of downsizing, in which publishers who don’t pull in 20 percent a year profits are often reassigned, there are fewer reporters, fewer in-depth stories, fewer and narrower pages, and a greater reliance upon wire service stories. But, celebrity-based stories and increased fluff—what editors wrongly believe the readers want—have taken over the front pages.
USA Today was never designed to replace the local newspaper, nor should it be a model for local newspapers. It has a niche, and serves that niche well. But, local newspapers have become USA Today clones. That’s why if USA Today places a celebrity wedding as its most important issue of the day, then it’s reasonable to believe that the clones also believe that 25,000 deaths can be relegated to the inside pages.
[Walter Brasch, professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University and president of the Pennsylvania Press Club, readily admits he reads USA Today and several other newspapers. His latest book is Sinking the Ship of State: The Presidency of George W. Bush, available through amazon.com. You may contact Brasch at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website at: www.walterbrasch.com ]