NO WONDER THE jellybeans say "HELP."

There they are, lined up on a desk at USA Today, the national newspaper that this morning was finally due to fill those blue-and-white newspaper vending machines on Washington street corners.

And keep filling them in Atlanta on Sept. 20, Minneapolis-St. Paul on Sept. 27, Pittsburgh on Oct. 4, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, Philadelphia, Seattle, San Francisco and Denver in the first three months of next year, until USA Today is selling more newspapers than any newspaper in the United States of America, 2,350,000 copies a day by 1987, according to projections by the Gannett newspaper chain, which is backing it at a reputed cost of $20 million this year and $35 million next year.

With no funnies. No classified ads. No obituaries, astrology, syndicated columnists or crossword. In a world in which the big newspapers are dying, TV and special-interest publications are eating up readers, and regionalization and alienation are supposed to be turning us into many nations, very divisible, too diverse for one publication.


"You could even call it simplistic," says editor John J. Curley, who has been marshalling his 242 troops toward that moment early this morning when the presses rented from the Army Times were due to roll the Gannett Corp. aggressively from its position as owner of 88 newspapers, almost all in small cities, and into the big-city big time.

With the countdown toward publication day getting into very low numbers, Curley pulls down his tie, kicks off his shoes and fires his eyes up to acetylene intensity as he explains in the paper's headquarters in Rosslyn why the journalism establishment is wrong, which is to say why this newspaper is going to fly right.

"If you're an elitist and you read The New York Times you might not pick us up. But these are the kind of people who sit around at Columbia journalism school and contemplate their own navels. Journalism schools and editors and reporters get locked into a mindset. You look at the media over the last 30 years. When I got into it in 1951, when I was 14, you could find lots of news in the local papers. They told the people everything they needed to know about themselves. But newspapers forgot about things of interest."

Things of interest: The prototypes of USA Today have covered their front pages with stories that are obvious and intrinsic grabbers for countless individual readers, as opposed to corporate, governmental, or institutional readers who may be fewer in number but greater in the making of public and private policy.

"War on Loan Deadbeats" trumpets a headline over a story about student loan defaults in last Friday's final dress-rehearsal edition. The lead story in the paper is the veto battle between the president and the Senate, but the rest of the page lands right on the steps of Mr. and Mrs. Front Porch America: "AMA Issues Diet Pill Warning" and "Rocket's Backer Dies Before Launch," the latter about the Texas millionaire who died just hours before his private rocket made a perfect flight. And the front-page feature describes farmers' fears that there won't be enough room to store their huge grain crop.

For all the ironies, tragedies and chiselers with college educations, however, this is no supermarket tabloid. The tone is bright but sober, long on news, short on the doings of Pia Zadora or the cast of "Dallas." The stories are short and tight, in a layout packed as carefully as a space capsule. There's world and national news, but the pride of the first section is two pages entitled "Across the USA," which feature the news from all 50 states: from a delay in the start of legalized bingo in Montgomery, Ala., to more chlorine for the drinking water in Rock River, Wyo.

Once, editors and readers alike seemed to scorn such tidbits. Are things going back the other way?

Investing in a project of this size was not "a glandular decision," says Gannett chief Allen H. Neuharth.

"It's hard to get used to," Curley says about the concept of printing only "things of interest." "For the editors to transmit this idea is difficult. About three weeks ago people were thinking that the Israel dispute was mandatory page one, because that's the way everybody does it. But we'd have it on the world page."

Despite the folksiness and populism behind this project, the offices of USA today have an ultra-corporate crispness about them. The decor is basically black and white, echoing Gannett chief Neuharth's wardrobe, which in public is always black and white. It doesn't look like a newspaper. There's none of the fulminating funk of newsrooms, no walls flaky with postcards, bloopers from other papers, outdated calendars, gag photos of chimpanzees sitting at typewriters, or cartoons with the names of staffers written over the characters.

There are no staff legends yet, no folk heros, because everybody's new. They take a lot of pride in the fact that the staff is about 16 percent minorities. There are a few rumors of staff romances, and everybody got a laugh out of the prototype they printed in which someone forgot to include Gannett's stock in the stock market tables, and the usual notices have gone up that somebody left the coffee pot on all night, but basically, staffers are just beginning to feel more at home here than the carpenters and electricians wandering around with power tools. Some of the editorial staff still wear their name tags.

The atmosphere, they say, is "electric," and to an outsider there's an atmosphere of puzzled, distant wariness, as if everyone were wearing sunglasses, as if they were all holding their breath. Which they may well be, even though Gannett has guaranteed the people it brought from other Gannett papers that their old jobs will be held open for them till December.

It's all very new, and a little strange.

Asked about the atmosphere in the newsroom, Robert Barbrow, an editor in sports, says simply: "Cosmic."

Says P.J. Bednarski, a television critic: "It's like you know you're going to have a baby, and the doctors have told you its sex, and that it's healthy, and now you can't wait to see what it looks like."

It makes things simpler that the paper follows a uniform layout in all four of its sections: news, sports, finance and a section for arts, life styles and trends.

All are aimed at an audience not of special interests or particular economic groups, but of travelers and people who once lived somewhere else and still want news from the old neighborhood. If all goes well, they'll be "upscale but not elitist" says Sheryl Bills, managing editor in charge of the Life section.

There will be none of the bewilderment travelers encounter on picking up a new newspaper. This will not only be the same over the entire country, in a projected 58,000 vending machines and 42,000 newsstands, but each section is nearly identical: a news summary down the left-hand side of the page, a feature called "Cover Story" under a color picture, a color box in the lower left-hand corner with national statistics on things like retirement costs or average ages of automobiles in America. In Sports the color chart might show football players' salary demands; in the Life section it might be the top 10 albums of the week; and in Money it might be a list of the top 10 agricultural banks.

With a predominantly male audience among those travelers, the sports section will be fiendishly detailed, with tiny agate print listing, among other things, how every run was scored in every major league baseball game in America the day before.

Says managing editor for news Nancy Woodhull: "Hey, I don't know, you put stories on the front page that you think are interesting. We want a news report that has a sense of the country. There isn't one particular American we're going for. What's important is a complete report. We get elitist in journalism, going after stories just because the opposition has them. I'm a very gut-level editor. We're getting back to basics."

Says executive editor Ron Martin, formerly the editor of the Baltimore News-American: "We don't work hard enough in this business at reaching people. There's a certain arrogance that begins to set in. We think there's a larger interest group out there."

Editorial page editor John Siegenthaler, who is also publisher of The Nashville Tennessean, looks out over Washington across the Potomac from his windows, then points the other way and says: "There's a whole 'nother world out there."

The idea of a national newspaper is not a new one. England, France, Russia and Japan have them. If America were to have one, would it be USA Today? Gannett is billing it as "The Nation's Newspaper."

The principle here is a newspaper for everyman, everywhere. Inside every newspaperman is a populist screaming to get out, to buy that little paper in the country and tell the stories that really hit home. What Gannett has done is take that urge, go national with it and streamline it to a corporate fare-thee-well.

The sports editor, Henry M. Freeman, will say "the nation is our town," and nearly in the same breath lapse into corporate-ese: "We want to provide a consistent information base every day."

Editor Curley says that for stories to get big play they "have to show a trend line."

The Gannett Corp. may make its money publishing small-city papers, along with owning some electronic media, but it chooses to call itself a "diversified information company."

Big and little. A small-town paper with a projected circulation over 2 million, with a scatter of printing plants that get their instructions by satellite. A big corporation trying to reach the little guy. Hard-edged precision, looking for a welcome in the heartland.