Sitting behind a gleaming, curved desk in his New York City office, Allen Neuharth picks up the day's issue of USA Today, the terse, rainbow-colored newspaper that he created and nurtures. "We stole most of this from somebody else," says Neuharth, chairman of the Gannett Co., parent firm of USA Today. "Most of the content ideas, the packaging, color and graphics are the result of what television and the newsmagazines have been doing for a long time." Leaning back in his chair, Neuharth, 61, turns to the paper's full-page weather map. "This is a direct, absolute steal from Willard Scott and other TV weathermen." Neuharth pauses. "The question is, can you redo it in a way that makes folks want to buy it?"
On the eve of the paper's third birthday next month, that question elicits a mixed answer. USA Today, which appears Monday through Friday, enjoys a circulation of more than 1.3 million, making it the country's third-largest daily.[*] Advertising pages have risen from an average of 6.5 a day for the first six months of 1984 to twelve a day through the first half of 1985. Once ridiculed by journalists across the country as McPaper, the fast-food version of the news, USA Today has been grudgingly accepted in many newsrooms as a different, if not necessarily the best, way of delivering the news.
Neuharth's faith in USA Today can be seen in the redesign of Family Weekly, the Sunday newspaper supplement that Gannett bought from CBS Inc. in March for $42 million. At the time of the sale, Family Weekly had 362 newspaper clients and a combined circulation of more than 12 million. Renamed USA Weekend and scheduled to debut in September, the revamped magazine is a close cousin of the newspaper, complete with the same logo and flashy graphics. Many of Family Weekly's longtime subscribers, however, have complained that the new look amounts to free promotion for USA Today. So far, about 130 of those clients have switched to Parade, boosting the nation's biggest Sunday supplement to 268 papers (circ. 30 million). Gannett officials claim that most of the defectors were small-town publications that will be replaced by fewer but larger city newspapers. "We will end up with pretty much the same circulation but with a better mix of markets," says Ray Gaulke, president of USA Weekend.
USA Today is still not a financial winner. Though officials at Gannett will not divulge figures, Wall Street analysts estimate that the publication has lost about $250 million in pretax dollars. Neuharth has always said that the paper would not become profitable until 1987, but some company officials nonetheless seem a bit dismayed that the flood of red ink might top $350 million.
USA Today faces a critical test on Aug. 26, when the price rises from 35¢ to 50¢. The last increase, from 25¢ last August, resulted in a temporary drop-off of about 100,000 buyers. Another late-summer decline is expected, and the briskness of both the circulation's recovery and its growth above 1.3 million will determine whether USA Today will survive.