The editors of USA Today,
as they do every day, had to decide what to make its lead story.
The death toll from the cyclone in Myanmar was approaching 25,000, with
about almost a million homeless, and the ruling military junta was still
refusing to accept foreign assistance.
A Pentagon report revealed that about 43,000 medically unfit troops were
sent into combat.
In Philadelphia, six police officers were under investigation for
beating suspects. And, in Russia a new president was inaugurated.
What the editors chose to dominate the front page was a three-column
head photo of presidential daughter Jenna Bush and a story about her forthcoming
private wedding. The only reason USA Today didn�t run the story on its front
pages Saturday and Sunday is because it doesn�t publish on weekends. But, just
about every other news medium gave the wedding heavy play.
When USA Today debuted in 1982, it was a glitzy full color
alternative to the average gray newspaper. Focused upon an audience of
travelers, and primarily available at airports and hotels, the five-day a week
newspaper, then as now, had short, quick looks at the news. �Across the USA� is
a series of one paragraph stories from every state, plus the territories,
something to let the lonely traveler know his home state still exists. A color
weather map informs travelers what to expect when they arrive at an airport a
dozen states away. Extensive business stories target middle- and
upper-management workers who don�t have the time to read that day�s Wall
With an emphasis on polls, USA Today tells us what we think. And
what we think is divided into four equal parts -- News, Lifestyle, Sports, and
Money. Thus, news is one-fourth of the newspaper.
Ridiculed as McPaper, but read by about 2 million people a day, most of
whom get their daily dose from vendor boxes that look like a TV on a stand, USA
Today has set the agenda for almost every newspaper in the country.
Following the USA Today model, local newspapers have splashed color and
graphics on its pages. The stories are shorter, but not necessarily tighter.
And, in an era of downsizing, in which publishers who don�t pull in 20 percent
a year profits are often reassigned, there are fewer reporters, fewer in-depth
stories, fewer and narrower pages, and a greater reliance upon wire service
stories. But, celebrity-based stories and increased fluff -- what editors
wrongly believe the readers want -- have taken over the front pages.
USA Today was never designed to replace the local newspaper, nor should it be a
model for local newspapers. It has a niche, and serves that niche well. But,
local newspapers have become USA Today clones. That�s why if USA
Today places a celebrity wedding as its most important story of the day,
then it�s reasonable to believe that the clones also believe that 25,000 deaths
can be relegated to the inside pages.Walter Brasch is professor of journalism at Bloomsburg
University and president of the PennsylvaniaPress Club. His
latest book is Sinking
the Ship of State: The Presidency of George W. Bush, You
may contact Brasch at firstname.lastname@example.org
or through his website at: www.walterbrasch.com.