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No one can gainsay Neuharth's achievement in bringing about the first telepaper. USA Today is the cross-pollination of print journalism and television, aimed at a generation conditioned to a diet of polychromed, encapsulated news. In its quest to be different, it has redefined the traditional newspaper menu to include far more consumer information, features about trends, poll results and just plain, unadorned facts, all of it served up in easily digested prose. If USA Today has a personality, it is that of the cheerful tipster, giving the best time to buy small cars or where to write for a booklet about veterans' benefits. "We take a much more personal approach to the news," says Publisher Cathleen Black, 41. "We are for busy people who want their news and information like this," she says, snapping her fingers.
USA Today has been gradually refined over the past three years. The paper is still divided into four sections--News, Money, Sports and Life--but the front page of each department boasts more pictures, crisper layouts and a more variegated palette of colors. The Sports pages, crammed with statistics, proved an immediate hit with readers. Money quickly became more consumer oriented, but Life struggled through months of fluff before sharpening its coverage.
The News section remains the untamed beast. From the start, USA Today editors decided to forgo the dutiful, gray Page One display of a traditional newspaper. "That was the easy part," recalls John Quinn, 59, the paper's editor. "But what should we put on instead? That's tough." The ideal mix, in Quinn's opinion, is a banner story across the top that grabs the reader's attention (SUPER HORSE JOHN HENRY PUT TO PASTURE headlined one issue last week). Another story tries to get a jump on the day's events (CHINA'S LI, REAGAN TALK PACTS TODAY). A third piece, dubbed Cover Story, deals in ankle-high depth with a current concern (USA'S 11,871 AIDS VICTIMS WAIT, WORRY).
USA Today editors are acutely aware of the importance of these three stories to sales. Many potential customers buy it from one of more than 100,000 blue-and-white vending machines, where only the top half of the front page is visible. To remind editors of this, boxes are planted throughout the paper's wedge-shaped headquarters in Arlington, Va.
The paper's hallmark remains the factoid, a short fact or statistic that appears halfway into a story to buttress a point or offer an example. Factoids: Appear in clusters. Can be as short as a few words or as long as several paragraphs. Always have this little box.
The factoids, combined with the paper's abundant charts and polls, offer enough addictive minutiae each day to fuel a game of Trivial Pursuit. What is the original name of Falcon Crest? (The Vintage Years); what is America's favorite kind of cheesecake topping? (cherry); which color houses sell best? (yellow).