I have seen the future, and it is called USA Today. The less-than-a-week-old "Nation's Newspaper" published by Gannett may or may not prove a commercial success, but as a barometer to what America will be like 15 or 20 minutes from now it is doubtless at least as reliable as the copyrighted "Accu-Weather" forecasts to which it devotes an entire color-coordinated page. It may also be a barometer to the future of American journalism, a prospect that I view with decidedly mixed emotions.
On the positive side, USA Today is a brilliantly conceived and executed production. In saying that, I'm happy to acknowledge that one of its senior editors is a close friend for whom I devoutly wish a stupendous triumph; but I suspect that few working journalists, viewing USA Today with greater objectivity, would disagree with me. USA Today is a tour de force of packaging and technology; if, as it expands beyond its initial Washington-Baltimore circulation base, it can sustain the level of sleek professionalism established in its first three issues, it will have pulled off a remarkable feat.
To be sure, USA Today is not quite as revolutionary as it seems at first glance, or as it would like us to believe it is. Its four-section structure (news, business, features, sports) is traditional; so is the competent, straightforward, characterless prose in which it is written. Rather, what's unusual about USA Today is the amount of information it contains, the manner of its presentation and the clarity with which its antennae bring in the fads and fancies of the moment.
To read USA Today is to subject oneself to information overload. In charts, boxes, graphs, lists, roundups, maps, it subjects the reader to a bombardment of facts. That most of them are of absolutely no moment is not the point; USA Today understands that Americans love information, statistics, trivia--that they mistake data for knowledge, gossip for news--and it offers all in abundance. Reading it is a numbing, exhausting experience, so relentless is the onslaught of factoids; it is also an unusually entertaining experience, one heightened by the quality of USA Today's color reproduction -- a true revolution in American newspapering -- and the care with which it organizes its material.
USA Today is a newspaper in a hurry for a nation in a hurry -- a nation with a 30-second attention span. Each section offers a "Quick Read" summarizing yesterday's events and tomorrow's trends; stories are breathlessly brief -- all the news that fits -- and only one in each section is permitted to "jump" from the front to an inside page; roundups tell the reader "What's Hot," point him to "Trends, Talk and What's Worth Trying," fill his mind with "Quotables." It's an ingenious pastiche of "Eyewitness News," People magazine, Bryant Gumbel, the National Enquirer, Roone Arledge, The Sporting News, Rona Barrett, "The Book of Lists," Louis Rukeyser, Time and Newsweek, Brent Musberger, Barbara Walters -- everything you always wanted to know about what's uppermost in the mind of with-it, upwardly mobile, tuned-in, middle-class America. Talk! Trends! Touts! Hold your breath, America:
"New American Library moved 'Fonda: My Life' into bookstores after Henry Fonda's death. Originally scheduled to be in stores by late October, it's the current favorite to replace 'Thin Thighs in 30 Days' as the No. 1 trade paperback."
It's difficult to know whether to laugh or cry over a piece of information such as that, if "information" in fact is the word for it; but as a reflection of the state of contemporary American culture and values it is uncannily, eerily, scarily apposite. USA Today has its finger firmly on the pulse of America; whatever America wants, USA Today is going to make sure America gets--and it is going to know what America wants several beats before America itself knows.
USA Today is the most "democratic" newspaper in the country; if you don't believe that, consider the explanation provided by a Gannett vice president for the paper's decision to lead its first issue with the news of Princess Grace's death and to bury on page nine its report on the assassination of the president-elect of Lebanon. The decision, he said, was made by the chairman and president of Gannett, Allen H. Neuharth:
"Al did his own survey. He asked around town, different people. He asked me. At the story conference he said that he thought that Princess Grace was the most important story in the minds of the people . . . That's what the paper's all about -- figuring out what people out there are interested in."
This is the real revolution of USA Today. Like parents who take their children to a different fast-food joint every night and keep the refrigerator stocked with ice cream, USA Today gives its readers only what they want. No spinach, no bran, no cranberry juice, no liver. The world according to USA Today is not ordered by events but by the perceptions of its readers -- as, of course, those perceptions are perceived by USA Today. Hard judgments about the relative weight of events go by the board; what counts is figuring out what the customers want, and coming up with an ample supply of it.
This is a genuinely radical departure. To be sure, newspapers have always been crammed with features designed to keep the customers satisfied, regardless of journalistic merit -- comics, astrological tables, sports "lines," advice to the lovelorn. But the play of the news and the character of newspapers have been determined by somewhat more elevated considerations: the judgments of the editors, based on their experience and knowledge of the world, about what is important and what their readers ought to know. Every day, newspapers give their readers a large serving of cod liver oil; it may taste awful, but it is good for them.
Yet USA Today, if my reading of its first three issues is correct, would argue that "news" is not what a handful of editors say it is, but what people are interested in: again, the perception counts, not the event. If a president-elect is killed in Lebanon and no one is interested, then the event is not news; like the tree that fell in a forest beyond anyone's hearing, the assassination never happened because it had no audience.
Well. There are many ways to skin a cat, and USA Today has come up with a new one. It's entitled. As it happens, shaping a newspaper as a mirror of popular taste is not much to my own taste, but what do I know? I am more than willing to concede the possibility that my views are retrograde, elitist and snobbish. I also think that USA Today will be a success of entirely unexpected dimensions, a veritable smasheroo, and that as a result its influence on American journalism will be very great. Whether that influence will also be benign remains to be seen.