USA Today’s 30th birthday bash

The paper promises to reinvent the news businesses amid crab cakes and blue champagne

Thursday night, the Gannett Company gathered employees, friends, and family at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of USA Today. Recognizing that an event in 2012 that looked back fondly on 30 years of newspaper history could seem more like a wake than a celebration, event organizers instead went with the theme “My USA 30 Years from Today,” and brought together an ensemble cast of up-and-comers that included Newark Mayor Cory Booker, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, and three Olympic gold medalists.

At the cocktail hour before the event, USA Today publisher Larry Kramer and Gannett CEO Gracia Martore could be seen posing for a photograph with Booker and Preibus while Matthew Koma, a young singer/songwriter brought to the event to discuss “the future of music,” looked on. He was discernibly the biggest rock star in the room, wearing a denim vest, Nike hightops, and an orange bandana amid a sea of ruddy-looking Midwestern publishers, who all wore blue suits and ate crab cakes. The Olympians (swimmers Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky along with soccer player Heather O’Reilly) all wore their gold medals around their necks; the rest of us just wore name-tag lanyards.

The event also promised to be the unveiling of a major redesign of both the USA Today newspaper and website but, sadly, the specifics of the redesign were barely mentioned. Instead, Gannett treated the crowd to a flashy video promo (which I can’t find online). The video didn’t show much of the actual redesigned website (which launches in beta on Saturday), but it did have a lot of action shots of the average Joe newspaper reader of the future as he went about his daily ritual. Like newspaper readers of old, this one was seated at his breakfast table. The difference was that his breakfast table doubled as a computer monitor, and he was able to casually drink coffee while grabbing and repositioning charts and stories with his free hand. In the future, everyone will get to play Wolf Blitzer right in their own kitchens.

Yesterday, AdAge published a nice explainer on the redesign, calling the more tablet-like experience it will provide a “new canvas for Web advertisers.” This sounds like an exciting prospect, and I hope that USA Today can reinvigorate newspaper design in the digital age just as it did 30 years ago when it popularized color and infographics.

There’s more to news than just design, though, and some of the changes promised by Gannett may not set as good an example for the rest of the industry. The AdAge article explains that Kramer is pushing for his paper to publish more breaking news stories and for print reporters to create more video content—demands that will further stretch the paper’s beleaguered newsroom. Writing in Friday’s paper, USA Today editor in chief David Callaway explains that the company will work to leverage Gannett’s 5,000 editorial employees (spread across 82 newspapers, 23 TV stations, and other assets) in order to create a reporting network that can provide national news for all of the Gannett properties. This has promise, but the strategy might further weigh down local news operations that lost a combined 700 employees just last year.

After the speakers left the stage, the crowd listened politely to three songs by Matthew Koma. Kramer then dismissed us for the after party. We shuffled to the back of the room, the bar reopened, and waiters trotted out platters full of glasses of champagne dyed the blue color of the USA Today logo (I suppose it would be more accurately described as blue sparkling wine). USA Today is kind of the blue champagne of newspapers: fun, refreshing, and something most of us only try on vacation. That doesn’t mean we’re not glad to have them around, though. Here’s to another 30 years.

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Michael Meyer is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter at @mcm_nm. Tags: , , , , , ,