USAT was founded, remember, by one Al Neuharth, who left an indelible legacy on the paper (not to mention the newspaper business in general, a subject for another day). Neuharth, who died earlier this year, wore his anti-intellectualism on his sleeve, mocked the most ambitious journalism as “elitist” and fixated on what he called the “bad and sad” (e.g. social problems, corruption), and stumped the country evangelizing his “Journalism of Hope,” the commoditized boosterism that earned McPaper its nickname. I mean, its news boxes were designed to look like TV sets, for pete’s sake. The Journalism of Hope’s main fault was that it was just deadly dull. In his 1989 memoir, he made a list of the country’s “10 most overrated papers” that included basically every great paper of that, or any, era—from the Times, the Post to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Miami Herald, and, ominously for them, the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Des Moines Register, both then-recently acquired by Gannett, never to be the same again.
The larger lesson, though, is that “uniqueness” of content, aka, quality, is the key to getting readers to contribute more to the production of news.
In a sense, USA Today’s current free tilt is born of necessity—a legacy of Neuharth’s banal vision of journalism and one the paper will eventually need to overcome.