Al Neuharth said the decision he made on Sept. 14, 1982, was easy, but critics of USA Today excoriated his decision for more than a decade as an example of what was wrong with newspapers.
Neuharth, the chief executive of Gannett Company, Inc., founded USA Today as a national daily newspaper for travelers and people who were more interested in sports, entertainment and health than government. As he planned the first issue of USA Today, Grace Kelly and Bashir Gemayel died.
You’re probably thinking “who is Bashir Gemayel?” but most newspapers made the assassination of Lebanon’s president-elect their top story on Sept. 15. Neuharth, though, made the death of the actress who became the Princess of Monaco USA Today’s top story and made Gemayel’s assassination an inside page story. Many critics argued that Gemayel’s murder was much more important and playing up Kelly’s death was an effort to satiate readers’ appetites for sensationalistic stories.
Neuharth’s decision reflected a belief that what readers want is more important than what they need. As a recent college graduate with a degree in Government & Law in 1982, I sided with the traditionalists. Eight months later, I was a USA Today sportswriter.
During my three years at USA Today, I heard the Gemayel vs. Kelly debate many times. I also agreed with the criticism of USA Today as a shallow newspaper that lacked information on important topics and too much information on athletes and entertainers that was presented via large photographs, splashy color and many charts and graphs.
I thought a lot about USA Today on April 19. On that the day, this story idea was accepted as I was reading about the manhunt for the alleged Boston Marathon bomber. One hour later, I read that Neuharth, 89, died.
“Al’s legacy was to jumpstart newspapers when they were beginning to lose favor with readers,” said longtime Gannett executive Charles Overby in USA Today’s story on Neuharth’s death. “He changed editors’ ideas about what belongs on page one.”
I can pinpoint when I decided Neuharth was right in the want vs. need debate. By 1990, I was a Chicago Tribune news reporter, USA Today was flourishing and many newspapers were copying Neuharth’s ideas. I had become used to covering governmental meetings attended by five reporters and zero residents. Readers were clearly uninterested in reporters’ news stories about their communities.
At a Romeoville Village Board meeting, a village trustee denounced the U.S. Supreme Court deciding a few days earlier that burning the American flag was legal and the village board approved his proposal to fine people who beat up flag burners $1. As the trustee told me after the meeting that he favored residents beating up flag burners, a local newspaper editor lectured me that the story was sensationalistic and he wouldn’t print anything about it.
The editor gave me a list of more “important” news items that occurred during the meeting. The items were sleep-inducing. Two days later, my story became my first page 1 Tribune story and became a hot topic of conversation on radio talk shows. A few weeks later, the Columbia Journalism Review interviewed me in a story about newspapers choosing sensationalism over important news stories.
I don’t think newspapers should always print what readers want. Constantly choosing sensationalistic stories can hurt newspapers’ credibility and, thus, reduce their long-term readership with their audience. I am also glad that as a freelance writer for hire for most of my career I could choose my assignments. In the 1990s, I went door to door interviewing residents about a neighbor who chopped off his girlfriend’s head. After about 10 minutes, I told my editor that I couldn’t do the story. I haven’t accepted a similar assignment since.
The want vs. need debate seems quaint today because the media landscape is no longer dominated by newspapers. Many readers prefer reading online content providers, and many journalists have been replaced by content writers and blog writers for hire.
Nevertheless, as I read about law enforcement officials capturing Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzohkhar Tsarnaev, I couldn’t help thinking that readers would have been better off if journalists spent more time looking for news we could use rather than sensationalistic stories.
Martin Z is a freelance writer available on WriterAccess, a marketplace where clients and expert writers connect for assignments.