When Karen Jurgensen became editor of USA Today in 1999, she became news herself. Several competing papers did stories on her, in part because she was one of few women to run a major newspaper. ("It was like I had three heads," says Jurgensen, who thinks the gender angle was overblown.) In nearly every piece, she noticed an error--nothing huge, she says, but enough to make her think, No wonder people don't like the media. So Jurgensen instituted an "accuracy program." USA Today began selecting at random stories it had published, then checking back with sources to find mistakes--and, of course, discourage errors in the first place.
At the time, it might have seemed an overreaction to a little publicity. Now--after New York Times reporter Jayson Blair was caught in a string of plagiarisms and fabrications, ultimately leading to a staff revolt and the resignation of Times executive editor Howell Raines--it seems prescient. It also underscores Jurgensen's dual challenge. In the post-Blair era, any editor wants to avoid negative attention. On the other hand, she would like to raise the profile of the nation's largest paper, which has never called attention to itself in proportion to its size. For most Americans, USA Today is like the airport Starbucks: a staple of life on the road (only about 300,000 of the 2.3 million copies sold a day go to subscribers, and it publishes only on weekdays), familiar, reassuring and, mostly, unremarked on.
The Times (weekday circulation 1.1 million), in contrast, makes headlines with every journalism prize, mini-scandal and intrastaff squabble. Journalists will tell you all this attention is justified because the Times is the nation's most important newspaper. And this is true, if you keep in mind that the journalist's definition of important is "important to journalists." USA Today is not in an urban hot spot. In 2001 it moved (along with corporate parent Gannett) to spacious new digs, complete with fitness club, in the remote office-park suburbs of Washington. Its comparatively quiet newsroom culture doesn't make for juicy media gossip. Rather, it just discreetly makes its way into the hands, and consciousness, of more Americans than any other newspaper. Says Mark Halperin, political director for ABC News: "The media elites in Washington and New York who don't read USA Today unless they're traveling underestimate its influence in the lives of Americans." Walter Shapiro, a USA Today political columnist, says, "There's no greater feeling than being out somewhere in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and realizing that one has a choice of two newspapers for the entire press corps and the entire campaign: the local paper and USA Today."
That's not to say there is no longer prejudice against the paper's what-the-news-means-to-you populism, quickly read articles and heavy graphics, which may explain why the paper has never won a Pulitzer Prize. But the knee-jerk conception of USA Today as a vapid, happy-news paper has been an outdated cliche for more than a decade. True, early versions of the paper, founded in 1982, were known for columns like Offbeat USA ("The Human Side of the News")--glib news bits that sent the message "Hey, we know this is news, but don't be scared. We'll make it easy on you."