If you drew a chart — or better yet, an infographic — to plot the relative success of USA Today in its first 25 years, it would show its startling rise to become the nation's largest circulation daily. Now it starts its second quarter century with plans to expand its brand beyond the world of journalism.
Publisher Craig Moon said a USA Today store will open at LaGuardia Airport in New York, with merchandise organized under the paper's familiar color scheme — purple for lifestyle products, red for sports, green for financial and blue for news.
Moon also envisions USA Today-branded sudoku games or even takeout food, along the lines of "USA Today recommends" the best seafood restaurant in Oregon, or the best ice cream in Cincinnati, in deals that extend the brand and also generate revenue.
"We're very focused on the brand," said Moon, who leads the flagship property among the 85 newspapers owned by Gannett Inc. The company doesn't specify how much of its overall $8 billion yearly revenue comes from USA Today, saying only that it ranks third in its newspaper segment behind its domestic community newspapers and its British Newsquest segment.
USA Today also has a head start on other papers in exploiting the Internet. With 11 million unique visitors per month, usatoday.com ranks second among all newspaper Web sites, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. In the most recent reporting period, online revenue at the Web site grew 11 percent, faster than its print advertising.
Moon said the size of the online audience allows the paper to better attract targeted advertising, in which ads are matched up with readers' interests, displaying bank ads next to stories on personal finance, for instance.
Since Gannett CEO Al Neuharth launched the new national newspaper on Sept. 15, 1982, it has become such a familiar presence that it's easy to forget how many people thought it would be a resounding flop.
"We thought it would work, but we were by no means sure it would work," Neuharth said in a telephone interview. "No new venture is a guarantee."
At first, the paper piled up losses and faced derision within the industry from competitors who ridiculed its emphasis on soft news, short stories and color graphics, dismissing it as "McPaper."
Neuharth agreed that at times the paper was too unyielding in its effort to be different. "In the beginning we had to get attention ... and we probably went overboard," he said. "I do think they've made it more reliable, more predictable but still damn interesting. It's a hell of a lot better paper than when I was there."
The publication's editors make no apologies for its reader-friendly format.
"Much of the early criticism of USA Today was that we gave readers what they wanted as opposed to what they needed, as though we were pandering," said Editor Kenneth Paulson. "Today newspapers are scrambling" to deliver what readers want.
Many of the paper's most striking features — the full-color weather map, and the regular use of charts and graphics — have been emulated by other newspapers.
"The biggest impact was not color, or the weather map, or shorter stories," said Carl Sessions Stepp, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland who was USA Today's national editor when it debuted. "USA Today pushed and liberated newspapers to change faster."
It passed the Wall Street Journal to become the top selling paper in the country in 1999. Current circulation is 2.28 million, down slightly from a peak of 2.34 million in 2004, the year the paper's newsstand price increased from 50 to 75 cents. But it has not seen circulation slip as much as other large dailies.
Perhaps nobody reads USA Today more than travelers. The paper pays special attention to industries like aviation, and its papers are often available free to people staying in hotels. More than half of USA Today's circulation comes from bulk sales in which hotels or similar businesses buy the papers at a discounted rate and distribute them for free to their customers.
Neuharth said he believes newspapers are indeed being more aggressive in competing on the Internet than they were in the television era. And he rejects the notion that newspapers will be become relics. He noted that doomsayers have been predicting newspapers' demise since the advent of radio in the 1920s.
"Just as 25 years ago we had to make readers out of the television generation, today the challenge is to make readers out of the Internet generation," he said.