For all the ink that the Gray Lady generates, pro and con, and for all of the television news stories that she inspires, many non-media watchers would be surprised, if not shocked, to learn that the New York Times is far from the king of the jungle when it comes to newspaper circulation. With an average of 1.19 million daily copies, she is only the third ranking daily newspaper in the U.S., behind the Wall Street Journal (1.82 million) and, in first place, USA Today (2.21 million).
Granted, there are many technical reasons for this large gulf in circulation between the Times and USA Today. The newsstand price of the Times is twice that of "the nation's newspaper." The Times' national distribution channels are not nearly as well developed. In my small northwest Washington hometown of Lynden (population hovering around 10,000), I've spotted at least a dozen places where readers can pick up a copy of USA Today. If they want the Times, they have to drive a half-hour to the nearest large city. Many critics have derisively dismissed Al Neuharth's enterprise as "McPaper" for being distributed at every McDonald's in the U.S., but there are a lot of McDonald's in the U.S.
But the gulf between the two dailies is as much philosophical as it is technical. Where the New York Times, with its well-worn motto/boast "All the News That's Fit to Print," is self-consciously elitist and aimed at a narrow affluent niche audience, USA Today is, in the words of one media critic, "the daily channeler of the common zeitgeist." In plain English, USA Today is the paper for people who want a daily shot of news, opinion and entertainment with that coffee and sausage McMuffin, or who want to get a quick summary of what's going on in the world -- or check sports scores or get a preview of what's in theaters that weekend -- over lunch.
That common usage may not make USA Today a great newspaper, in some ideal Platonic sense, but it sure does make it a good one. While the concept of "news you can use" can be taken too far, it's nice to have a newspaper that you can use -- one that prizes brevity, functionality and simplicity of design over the longwinded disarray of some of its competitors.
To prove my case, it might be helpful to make a partial list of things that "the nation's newspaper" does right. It does sports well. It discontinues features that people aren't interested in (e.g. Larry King's unreadable column). The "trend" stories (e.g. "Americans change priorities in wake of bombings") are often interesting. The editorials are eclectic and somewhat centrist but mostly free of leftish cant: To wit, lately, they've taken to arguing for more choice and flexibility in education, including backing the push for single sex public schools. The letters page is well put together and airs a marvelous diversity of views. Scientific breakthroughs and technological developments are covered with the gee whiz excitement that they deserve: A recent cover story featured findings on a first generation bionic eye, complete with diagram. Most importantly, more often than not USA Today gets the story right on the money in a way that more spin-obsessed newspapers simply cannot. A recent cover story on this president's predecessors' meddling featured the following subtitle: "Carter, Clinton offer their help but Bush would prefer that his predecessors butt out of his foreign policy."
One Very Big Story that USA Today has been getting right is the War on Terror. A December William Powers column in the National Journal accurately argued that "it has been on top of this war like nobody else." It was USA Today that first reported the early presence of commando troops in Afghanistan, USA Today that almost had one of its reporters (Jack Kelly) blown up in a suicide bombing in Israel and, yes, USA Today that reported slow but steady military successes last fall when less competent papers were hopelessly rending their garments over the forthcoming quagmire.
Powers labeled USA Today's coverage "the biggest [media] success story of the war." Said coverage had "brought to the story a clarity and a focus that have been lacking in other national media, at a time when clarity and focus are exactly what's needed. … [I]t's as if this media outfit was built for exactly this story at this time -- one of those rare, perfect matches between a journalistic enterprise and its age."
He was right, but Powers may have been too cautious in his assessment. At a time when trust in the media is at an all time low, people are turning to a variety of sources that they believe represent the "straight goods" about what's going on in the world; witness the rise of the bloggosphere. But witness also the phenomenal selling power of USA Today, and realize that the two are related.
In fact, if the nation's newspaper continues in its current trajectory, some smart aleck may eventually declare in name what has been true in fact for some time now: that the new newspaper of record isn't nearly as stuffy as the old one.