New York Times, USA Today Reverse Roles

A comparison of the two papers’ home pages this morning reveals USA Today had better reporting, better news judgment and made better use of the Web.

As of 11:15 this morning, the home page of the New York Times, generally regarded as the heavyweight among national dailies, looked like this (click for larger image):

New York Times

At the same moment, the home page of USA Today, generally regarded as the lightweight of national dailies, looked like this (click for larger image):

USA Today

For those who don’t want to squint at those graphics, here’s the verdict: The paper whose newsboxes were originally designed to look like TV sets just crushed the one with the “All the News That’s Fit to Print” slogan alongside the masthead.

First, USA Today features a major story and two sidebars about the NSA’s program to collect information about domestic phone calls — an important follow-up to revelations about the NSA’s domestic wiretapping program, revelations first published by the New York Times.

The Times? Its main feature was a story about Christian groups who don’t like the forthcoming movie The DaVinci Code. (Some “will lodge a protest by seeing another movie”!)

USA Today’s page gives prominent play to four additional stories: An article about a report on the London subway bombings, with a link to the full report; a piece about Iraq’s government restructuring Baghdad security forces, again with a link to the plan; a story about enrollment in the new Medicare prescription drug program; and an article about a $70 billion tax cut package. (USA Today also has a rotating graphic in the upper right with other feature stories.)

Load up the Times site and, in addition to those movie-hating Christians, you’d get the following: on the left, stories about the London bombing, Baghdad security forces and Hepatitis among Asian immigrants in New York; features about indigenous Amazonians leaving the jungle, foreign car makers moving into the Detroit area, an obituary for former Times editor A. M. Rosenthal. And, in the right-hand space that USA Today devotes to news about multi-billion-dollar government spending programs and major international news, the Times gives us its usual embarrassing Thursday fare: pieces about home decorators unhappy that outlets that once only sold to decorators are now selling high-end wallpaper and fabrics to the public, and a downright embarrassing piece about $1,100 shorts for women to wear to the office.

The final tally:

USA Today beat the Times on a follow-up to a story for which the Times just won a Pulitzer, while the Times’ Web site is telling its readers that those Christians unhappy with The DaVinci Code is the most important story of the day.

USA Today readers find out about tax cuts; Times readers find out about women’s shorts that cost as much as the average American family earns in a week.

USA Today has more hard news on its home page than the Times, and an equal amount of international news. And it gives readers links to check out the documents stories are based on.

In short, compared to the Times, USA Today had better reporting, better news judgment and made better use of the Web.

Last week, the Times issued a memo to staffers announcing an initiative to “give an old Times tradition — writing comprehensive obituaries of prominent people in advance of their deaths — a 21st-century punch.”

Many more Web pages like this one, and it may find itself writing its own.

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Bryan Keefer was CJR Daily’s deputy managing editor.