It rolled off the press five years ago this week, a bright, splashy newspaper touted as the national showpiece for one of the country's biggest media empires, Gannett Co., and its irrepressible chairman, Allen H. Neuharth.
In the weeks and months that followed, Neuharth's "baby" was scorned by critics as "junk-food journalism" and derided by many financial analysts -- as well as top Gannett number crunchers -- as a wasteful, open-ended drain on the corporate bottom line.
But as USA Today celebrated its fifth birthday last night with a lavish party on the Mall followed by a private VIP reception with President Reagan, there was a consensus that "McPaper," as it sometimes calls itself, has become a permanent fixture on the American journalistic landscape. Its use of color and graphics is widely imitated, and many newspaper editors, while continuing to question USA Today's editorial contributions, say it has brought new vigor and energy to the industry.
More importantly, to Wall Street analysts and millions of Gannett shareholders, USA Today recently has shown the first signs of edging into the black. Advertising revenue is up more than 40 percent from last year. The circulation picture is even brighter; USA Today's circulation is 1.54 million, according to its last official report, the second-largest in the country after the Wall Street Journal's 2 million.
"When it started, it was a massively innovative creation, planned and executed like a marine invasion," said Joseph Fuchs, an analyst with the Wall Street firm of Kidder, Peabody. "The publishing community roundly said that it would be a spectacular failure and that nobody needed it. ... The paper is now moving from 'Will it or will it not be a success?' to 'How much of a success will it be?' "
Is USA Today here to stay? "I don't even think we could screw it up at this point," said Neuharth.
On the down side, during its first five years, USA Today suffered staggering operating losses of $458 million, an unprecedented sum for any newspaper, according to "The Making of McPaper: The Inside Story of USA Today," an officially sanctioned biography by Peter Prichard, the paper's managing editor for cover stories. Another $208 millions was invested in capital spending -- new printing plants and equipment -- that had some application to USA Today, Prichard writes. Millions of dollars of other losses were "hidden" by Gannett's policy of using "loaners" -- writers and editors who are on the payrolls of the company's other papers -- to work on USA Today.
But today, there is widespread agreement that the corner has been turned. Washington's media industry analyst John Morton, one of the early skeptics, estimates the paper will lose only about $18 million for all of 1987 (compared with about $70 million last year) and show a profit of about $6 million in 1988. The first brief glimpse of profitability actually appeared last June when Gannett President John Curley fired off an exultant telegram to Neuharth:
"McPaper has made it. USA Today broke into black with profit of $1,093,756 for month of May, six months ahead of schedule ... Hope you'll fly back to Washington for champagne celebration tomorrow."
In a brief interview this week, Neuharth projected continued circulation growth of 10 percent or more a year, aided in part by the addition of three new printing plants that would permit same-day delivery in pockets of the country that don't already have it. This would also allow USA Today to surpass the Journal in paid circulation, probably within two to three years. "I think the trends would indicate that would be pretty likely," Neuharth said.
At the same time, Neuharth said he is essentially pleased with the paper's editorial product. He still thinks the paper's A section, a perennial quandary, is too "soft" and needs a "harder edge." Too many timeless stories that don't reflect the day's news, he said.
But of the overall USA Today formula -- its brief, highly condensed news stories, its consumer-oriented business coverage, and its heavy emphasis on entertainment, sports, weather and notable personalities -- Neuharth says there will be no sharp changes. That is what people want to read, he said.
"There's a love-hate relationship people have to some kinds of news -- politics, sports, religion," he said. "Those are stories that people feel strongly about, in which they have a strong personal relationship."
What about other stories considered important by the journalistic establishment, such as the trade deficit? he was asked. "We don't try to ram an unwanted object down an unwilling throat," Neuharth responded.
That is precisely the "we-aim-to-please" attitude that has attracted the most criticism from many journalists. Longtime press critic Ben Bagdikian says that while the paper has had some modest impact on the newspaper industry, none of it "means anything journalistically."
"What USA Today did was create a philosophy that assumes the reader isn't interested in serious news, but wants to be entertained with bits and pieces," he added.
But while that kind of derision was frequently heard during USA Today's early years, most newspaper editors and publishers are now more charitable. If its brand of journalism hasn't impressed them, its survival in an era when the overall industry was shrinking clearly has.
"I think USA Today's most significant contribution has been a psychological uplifting for the industry," said James Squires, editor of the Chicago Tribune. "It was a very bold experiment by a publicly owned company and, in that sense, Mr. Neuharth is unique among the leaders of the American media industry. He is willing to take those big risks and, in this case, seems to have been very successful.