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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

USA Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 21, 2005; Page C01

Ken Paulson, the editor of USA Today, wanted to gauge reaction to a front-page feature on six heavyweights who will shape the future of Social Security. "Anybody hit us on the fact that there were six men and no gender diversity?" he asked.

No, said reader representative Brent Jones.

The Post irked commentator Armstrong Williams by reporting on a skit about him that didn't happen. (Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

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Any backlash to a photo spread on a gay couple and their kids? "No backlash," Jones said.

Jack Kelley hasn't set foot in the paper's glass-sheathed headquarters near Tysons Corner since he was fired for serial fabrications last year, but in some ways his ghost inhabits the place. Paulson, who took over 11 months ago, solicits reader reaction at the daily editors' "huddle" as a check on potential missteps.

The veteran Gannett editor has also imposed strict rules on the use of anonymous sources, which some reporters say go too far and limit their ability to compete on stories. No information attributed to a "senior administration official" has appeared in USA Today since December, largely because of Paulson's crackdown. Even such formulations as "Democrats opposed to Bush's Social Security plan" are barred unless some names are included, and the use of unnamed sources has dropped about 75 percent.

To grant someone anonymity, Paulson says, "you have to go to a managing editor, identify that source -- which was at the heart of the Jack Kelley mess -- explain why we trust that source and how it moves the story forward." Paulson also runs Jones's picture on the editorial page, inviting feedback -- because, he says, past complaints about Kelley never reached or were dismissed by senior editors.

Since Karen Jurgensen and her deputies were ousted last year in the wake of an outside report blaming a "virus of fear" for the Kelley scandal, Paulson, 51, has been stressing communication. At a monthly staff meeting, he announces all staff engagements and retirements, flashes pictures of new babies on a six-foot PowerPoint screen and offers to respond to any questions or rumors. He also awards $50 each day for the best contribution to the paper.

Running the nation's top-selling paper is a huge step up for the genial Paulson, whose first job, at a Florida newspaper, was as police reporter, newsroom attorney and rock critic. Formerly a senior vice president at the Freedom Forum and an adjunct professor at Vanderbilt University Law School, he has run Gannett papers in Green Bay, Wis., Melbourne, Fla., and Westchester County, N.Y.

Many staffers say they find Paulson pleasant and approachable, but they question whether he has improved the editorial product and contend that belt-tightening is hurting the paper. The editorial staff is down to 417 from about 440.

Despite its 2.3 million circulation, USA Today has just four foreign bureaus, including one that recently opened in Baghdad. Staffers say some foreign trips have been canceled for financial reasons. Under a new partnership with the Christian Science Monitor, the paper has opened a joint bureau in Mexico City and will run Monitor dispatches from abroad. Paulson, who has also named the paper's first foreign editor, says he's mainly interested in covering global news that affects American readers. Jones says his reports that readers felt the paper was focusing too heavily on violence in Iraq prompted a weekly feature called "Life in Iraq."

USA Today plans to reopen vacant bureaus in Boston, Chicago and, eventually, Austin, Paulson says, but also to team up more with other Gannett papers.

Some staffers say the paper, with its tightly packed front section, has limited interest in Washington politics. Last Monday and Tuesday, USA Today carried a total of three staff-written Washington stories about domestic affairs. It has not run a story since January on the mounting allegations against House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. The paper also dropped its best-known political columnist, Walter Shapiro, citing space constraints.

"We believe firmly in the need to monitor what goes on in Washington, but we also have to make clear why it matters to people in Idaho and Iowa and Montana," says Paulson, adding that he wishes he had more space.

One misstep during Paulson's tenure occurred when USA Today obtained the now-discredited National Guard documents about President Bush and published a front-page story the morning after CBS broadcast Dan Rather's story on the subject. While editors later said they would not have published had CBS not acted first, the Sept. 8 story cited memos "obtained by USA TODAY and also reported Wednesday on the CBS program '60 Minutes.' "

At a morning news meeting last week, Paulson complained about airport security delays, asking, "Is there any way for us to chart that?" He expressed interest in stories on how obesity affects life expectancy and how ordinary Iraqi families are faring, both of which would end up on Page 1. "We'll do a basketball billboard," Paulson said, meaning a box on the NCAA tournament would be placed above all headlines. After each editor ran through the day's stories, J. Ford Huffman, deputy managing editor for graphics, offered a list of potential charts, from death row statistics in the wake of Scott Peterson's sentencing to the sale of healthier bread.

USA Today was ridiculed as journalistic fast food after its 1982 launch, but most newspapers wound up copying its full-color, graphics-intensive approach to attracting readers. Now it's USA Today poking fun at its rivals with a "Never Gray" TV ad campaign that depicts unnamed broadsheets as so dull that their readers doze off.

With no home town to cover -- its sprawling campus, with rooftop tennis courts and landscaped ponds overlooking the Dulles Toll Road, seems to emphasize its isolation -- USA Today takes a special interest in local trend stories. "Study shows rural roads are most deadly," said one front-page piece, with a box listing five states with the highest death tolls. Another Page 1 effort on the hazards of teen driving included a 50-state chart. These are not the kind of stories that win Pulitzers -- the paper has never captured one -- but play to its core audience.

Catering to a 60 percent male readership, the paper gives sports big play, with recent front-page pieces on obese football players, NASCAR drivers lacking pensions and two best friends attending the college basketball playoffs.

Paulson, who says the front page needs "energy," reviews newsstand sales to see what sells and what doesn't. "The message is not to go soft at all," he says. Paulson stresses the importance of covering pop culture -- the paper played the Oscars at the top of Page 1 for three straight days -- and owns seven TiVo recorders to help him keep up with what's on the tube.

"We're not snobs," Paulson says, invoking one of his mantras. "If our readers care about 'Desperate Housewives' and Green Day or the new Nintendo platform, let's approach those stories with the same level of professionalism we do in covering Iraq. We don't apologize for reflecting our readers' interests."

Premature Review

How did The Washington Post manage to report that a Gridiron Club skit had lampooned commentator Armstrong Williams when the skit never took place?

"It was a goofball mistake on my part," says Post reporter Neely Tucker, who corrected it after the first edition and apologized to Williams. He says journalist sources told him of the planned skit -- working reporters are barred from the annual event -- and that he only learned later that it had been dropped. (President Bush did make a joke about Williams, who took $240,000 from the administration.) Williams is miffed that a Post correction on the incident didn't mention his name for those who might have read the early-edition story.

Pay to Play?

The Wisconsin State Journal's new monthly business publication is offering advertisers a $25,000 package that includes appointment to an advisory board, guaranteeing six meetings a year with key editors. Despite the appearance, Publisher Jim Hopson denied to Madison's Capital Times that "these sponsorships buy access."

Switching Sides

Gloria Borger, who co-hosted CNBC's now-defunct "Capital Report," is rejoining CBS News as chief political correspondent. "It just feels like going home," says Borger, who was persuaded in part by anchor Bob Schieffer, her former partner on "Face the Nation."

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