THE MAKING OF McPAPER The Inside Story of USA Today By Peter Prichard Andrews, McMeel & Parker. 370 pp. $19.95

MANY PEOPLE who have worked in journalism or publishing have fallen victim to the illusion that their particular office is so fascinating, unique and crammed with oddball characters that it should be memoralized in a book. A luckless few actually write such books, which tend to be read by a -- how to put it? -- limited audience. Peter Prichard, now the "cover stories editor" of USA Today, is the latest journalist to fall prey to this urge. The Making of McPaper may find its largest audience among the employes of the Gannett company, which has dropped nearly half a billion dollars on the paper since its launching in 1982. Fortunately for Prichard, however, outsiders may want to peruse his book, too, because this corporate saga stars one of the more colorful eccentrics of modern publishing, USA Today founder and Gannett chairman Allen H. Neuharth.

A maniacally dedicated newspaperman from South Dakota, Neuharth spent decades fighting his way to the top of Gannett, a cautious company that had found a sure-fire route to success -- buying profitable local newspapers and making them even more profitable. By 1978, Neuharth had become president, CEO, and chairman of the board, and Gannett revenues were almost $1 billion a year.

Still, Prichard says, Neuharth was not sated. In the profession, Gannett was derided as the nation's biggest conglomeration of ratty little rags. "Neuharth was not about to be satisfied with second-best in anything, and that was especially true when it came to his company's reputation. The word was out, inside and outside the company, that Gannett was looking to do something -- maybe anything -- on a national scale."

In November 1979, Neuharth decided to explore the creation of a national newspaper. Producing and distributing newspapers every day to 100,000 outlets across the country was a job of nightmarish cost and complexity; despite the violent opposition of Gannett's money people, Neuharth was determined to try it. He wouldn't bet the company on it, but he was willing to spend money -- lots of it.

THE MAN who made this decision emerges in McPaper as a most peculiar bird. According to Prichard, Neuharth "dressed exclusivly in black and white -- as did his second wife . . . in jet-black jogging suits, dazzling white silk shirts, and vivid black-and-white checked blazers." His oceanfront estate, Pumpkin Center, was the latest in mogul chic: 11 TVs, 15 phones, alarms and surveillance systems galore. He had what one must describe as a unique management style. In November 1984, for example, when things looked bad for USA Today, he ordered his minions to slash costs.

"After this grim meeting, {the paper's execs} adjourned for dinner to Bernard's Surf, a Cocoa Beach restaurant . . . Neuharth was not around. Thirty minutes later, the door opened and there was Neuharth: He was wearing a crown of thorns. There was a huge wooden cross leaning against the wall behind him . . . 'I am the crucified one,' Neuharth told them. Then he presided at what he called 'The Service for the Passed-Over' . . . because if USA Today did not cut its losses they were all going to be 'passed-over.' "

As the remarks above indicate, McPaper is considerably more candid than most authorized company histories. Like the newspaper that is its subject, the book is cleanly written, full of anecdotes, packed with graphs, charts, and color pictures, and charged by an upbeat vision of life's possibilities. It is also bereft of analysis -- a failing that it shares with USA Today.

As Prichard notes, most journalists roundly panned Neuharth's baby when it appeared. (They still do now, when the paper may be about to go into the black.) McPaper argues that the critics were unable to appreciate USA Today's revolutionary import and points to its widely imitated weather page, use of color, and comprehensive sports coverage as examples of its impact. But these were not what editors decried. USA Today was called "McPaper" because its brief treatment of major stories, emphasis on celebrities, and boosterish tone allegedly made it the journalistic equivalent of junk food. These traits have moderated over the years, but the paper still remains as Neuharth envisioned it -- the world's biggest small-town newspaper.

Little newspapers everywhere are journals of received opinion. Readers love them; indeed, they exist to please readers. And that's what the Gannett team wanted to do: "USA Today," Prichard writes, "would be edited . . . not for the nation's editors, but for the nation's readers." Neuharth wanted it to exemplify a "new journalism of hope," which would "inform {people} without offending them" and "advocate understanding and unity, rather than disdain and divisiveness." In practice, this stance meant leading the first day's edition with the death of Grace Kelly rather than that of the president of Lebanon, who was blown to bits on the same day. It meant giving a photo of a fiery crash the headline "Miracle: 327 survive, 55 die." And it meant cosponsoring the 1985 presidential inauguration, a happy-days extravaganza that did little for the paper's reputation of objectivity.

Neuharth rebutted such criticisms, as does Prichard, with enthusiastic letters-to-the-editor from Average Joes and Janes across the United States. Indeed, there are so many of them that, despite Prichard's sometimes annoying boosterism -- "Through the efforts of thousands of people," he writes, "efforts which can only be described as heroic, Neuharth and his troops . . . invented a new newspaper, improved journalism, and informed millions of readers" -- it is clear that Gannett truly did produce a reader-driven paper.

How to evaluate that accomplishment is another question. As Charles Kuralt says in his foreword to McPaper, USA Today is in many places outside the Beltway the only paper available with any substance at all. If Neuharth's dream opens up the world for any of the citizens of those towns, all the squabbling, mistakes, long hours, and wild spending described in McPaper will in some sense be justified; if it doesn't, this history of Neuharth's legacy will be just another story about somebody else's office.

Charles C. Mann writes about business, science and the media. His book, "The Second Creation" (co-authored with Robert P. Crease), a history of particle physics, will appear in paperback next month.