BOB GARFIELD: This week marked the 25th anniversary of USA Today. Called "McPaper" by its critics, USA Today has become the largest circulation general-interest daily newspaper in the country. At least some of the credit, and maybe a lot of it, has to go to the paper's bright and cheerful colors.
In a memo to staffers this week, Gannett CEO Craig Dubow wrote, "It helped to make journalism less self-conscious and more customer-centric. It sped the transition to color and tighter writing. It brought the television and newspaper closer together in time to welcome the Internet."
I actually was there at USA Today in the beginning, and so was graphics editor Richard Curtis. The difference between me and him is he's still there 25 years later. And I asked him about those heady days leading to the launch of what we called "The Nation's Newspaper." RICHARD CURTIS: We wanted the paper to be lively. We wanted the paper to be reflective of the conversation that was going on in the nation at that time. In 1982, we were competing basically with other newspapers to some extent, but mostly we were competing for a share of readers' time. Some of the research showed us that a lot of people read more than one newspaper anyhow, and we were thinking if we could be that second read, we could gain a large share of the audience, especially on a national basis. BOB GARFIELD: Let's talk about your role in USA Today's success, because when it was started, lo, you know, a quarter of a century ago, I think it's fair to say there were three notable differences between it and other newspapers. The stories were short is one. It practiced a sort of journalism of hope, as the founder Al Neuharth called it. And most of all, it was colorful - I mean, four-colorful - and very bright and bold. That was your responsibility. RICHARD CURTIS: I'd like to think that I did a lot of sketching of various formats and things like that, but actually I waited until the content started to take shape, the short stories that you mentioned, for example. That dictates a different kind of approach than if you're going to do a few long stories. BOB GARFIELD: Now, Richard, I'm sitting here holding a paper from September 15th, 1982, the very first edition. It's remarkable to me how your original concepts survived. Was there one particular design element that you came up with at the moment of creation that you're particularly proud of surviving to this day? RICHARD CURTIS: It hasn't survived to this day, but the one element that we started with was a column count that was different from other newspapers. Most newspapers in those days were either six columns wide or eight columns wide, basically to allow advertising units, in what was called standard advertising unit sizes, to fit into the newspaper without having odd column sizes.
We believed that we would have only full-page advertising increments, which means you didn't have to make the same considerations that other newspapers did. So we started with a seven-column format, which served us well up until the year 2000, I think it was, when we redesigned. BOB GARFIELD: Now, that's a good answer, although frankly I was expecting you to mention the weather map, which was [CURTIS LAUGHS]as far as I know, the first printed in four color. You've put together 6,500 four-color weather maps, Richard. RICHARD CURTIS: And the content of the weather page has evolved over the years for various reasons. Nineteen-eighty-two, we didn't have a Weather Channel, for example. Today we do, and they're our partners in producing that page.
We've redrawn the map to a perspective that more people are familiar with and one that doesn't accentuate the Southern part of the country at the detriment of the Northern part. The number of cities on that map are increased exponentially. Now we sell an ad on that page, so it also now makes a lot of money. BOB GARFIELD: Here we are on the 25th anniversary of USA Today at a time that is extraordinarily tumultuous for newspapers. At your shop, one, you're dealing with published rumors that Rupert Murdoch has actually made an offer for the paper, a billion-dollar offer. But then there's also the memo that was recently distributed from the Gannett chairman, Craig Dubow, which congratulates everybody for a quarter century of USA Today and then suggests that you are all [LAUGHS] in for a world [LAUGHS] of hurt, that there are painful events to come and for nobody to lose patience and to lose heart.
Is it your sense that USA Today is better positioned than most newspapers to make the transition from newsprint to the digital world? RICHARD CURTIS: Now, of course, I'm speaking from a pretty biased position, but I think we are, because change has always been a part of our lives, and the reason that most people came here, as you may recall from your own personal experiences, is to sort of change the world of newspapers.
Another thing is that - I read this statistic today - 10 of the past 11 reporting periods of the ABC circulation figures that are reported in March of each year, USA Today has shown a growth - 10 of the past 11. And admittedly, maybe the last two have been miniscule. It's still that we're growing. And if you compare that to other papers, they're experiencing significantly large single-digit declines in circulation if not double-digit declines in circulation.
So I think that there's still a hunger out there for a national newspaper that is more or less balanced and does a fair job of reporting a wide breadth of news to people. There's still an appetite for that out there among people. BOB GARFIELD: Richard Curtis is managing editor for design at USA Today. Thanks, Richard. RICHARD CURTIS: You're welcome, Bob. Thanks. It's been my pleasure, and it's good to hear from you again.