Let's see now. What's the latest in USA Today?
Well, on the front page, in the sports box next to the masthead, there's a picture of the Fridge with the headline TOXIC LEAK: REFRIGERATOR PERRY HIT, LEAKS DEADLY FREON. There's also a reference to a relatively minor story—FOUR OUT OF THREE COLLEGE JOCKS CAN'T COUNT—that appears on page 7C.
Let's go inside for a moment.
Ah, yes, here's what we're looking for: the red-bannered USA Today Sports, the nation's first national sports daily. And what little morsel is in "Today's Tip-off," the box with the check mark at the top of page 1? Hope it's upbeat. "People are talking," it reads, "about the giant electric robot that crushed five stadiums last week. Sports teams across the USA have been crippled by the strange robot, which arbitrarily wrecks arenas and rebuilds them in less convenient places."
Well, that's all we want to read about that! Let's see what's in the "USA Snapshots" graph at the bottom of the page. THE NOSE KNOWS, the "Snapshots" headline reads. Uh-oh. The bars on the graph are flowing into an athlete's nose, showing what kinds of things he is putting up there nowadays. They are labeled: "Airplane glue 7%, Cocaine 23%, Dristan 9%, Finger 38%, Cocaine 23%."
So it goes for 32 hilarious pages in the Harvard Lampoon parody of USA Today, which hit the newsstands last month. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, parody has to be a close second. USA Today is some product. Easy to needle, yes. And occasionally dizzying because of information overkill. But there's nothing else like it this side of Mars. USA Today certainly has the most unusual daily sports page in America—oops, the USA—although all of its rivals are local newspapers and as such aren't really in competition with the nationally distributed USA. "We can't cover the Boston Red Sox as well as The Boston Globe can," says USA's editor, John Quinn. "But if you're a Boston Red Sox fan, and you're in Denver, we'll give you a more complete report than The Denver Post."
America's first national sports daily has given the locals a hotfoot since splashing onto the scene four years ago. It had so much color and space, and so many graphs, charts and boxes, that it triggered some quick changes in newspapers across the country. Because of it, local sports pages have become easier to read and a lot more informative.
"It was a great thing for [sports] editors," says Dave Burgin, editor of the Dallas Times Herald. "It scared publishers so much that they got off the dime." Burgin, a former sports editor himself, estimates that after the debut of USA Today, sports pages in the top 20 newspaper markets increased their space by as much as 10% and started paying more attention to nuts and bolts.
Since USA has freaked out on factoids (USA-speak for those tiny boxes followed by one or two lines of information), it is only fitting that we serve up a few of our own about the newspaper's sports section:
•The way USA Sports packages its material—a box here, a blurb there, a list neatly fitted in between—makes reading it a breeze.
•USA's eight pages five days a week are more than any other newspaper sports section can offer. "As a sports editor you drool over their space," says Joe Gilmartin of The Phoenix Gazette.
•The agate section is a daily almanac of sports around the country. Dave Smith of the Dallas Morning News was the first sports editor to run endless columns of stats, but USA whetted the public appetite for even more.
•With the exception of the sports section's daily "Cover Story," the USA articles are either short, shorter or shortest. There's a guideline at USA Today that no lead paragraph should contain more than 25 words. And the importance of a particular item is not necessarily related to its length.
•USA Sports almost never ventures an opinion, and thus the section has little personality. Furthermore, any comments that are made by, say, Rudy Martzke in his industry-influential TV column (page 48) or Tom Weir in his general column should be limited to events of the last 24 hours or next 24.
Since its inception, USA Today has picked up 4.7 million readers, rising to first place among the nation's daily newspapers, 700,000 ahead of The Wall Street Journal. USA ranks second in the more important category of paid circulation, behind the Journal. Clearly, some of those millions of USA readers are sports junkies. "I love it, but maybe I'm weird. Maybe I like to read the telephone book," says Kathy Slattery, sports information director at Dartmouth.
Could the paper survive without sports? Never. Though some of its readers buy USA Today solely for sports, it's clear that the sports section serves as a kind of hors d'oeuvre for the other sections. Says Henry Freeman, USA's managing editor for sports, "It's an immediate hook to get people into the paper. It is to the paper what the sun is to Miami."
The flagship paper of the Gannett chain, which is based in Arlington, Va., just across the Potomac from Washington, may have plenty of readers, but as yet it has no profits. According to a story that appeared in U.S. News & World Report earlier this year, USA Today is losing $285,000 a day, a remarkable amount of money for a five-day-a-week paper. And USA isn't expected to turn the corner until late next year at the earliest, barring any serious downturn in the economy. The twin problems are that USA carries relatively few ads—newspaper advertising is largely targeted at local consumers—and at 50¬¨¬®¬¨¢ a pop it is the ultimate hand-me-down paper. Airlines and hotels buy USA by the truckload to give away. Half of America then sits around hotel lobbies or airport lounges reading Rudy Martzke TV tidbits for free.
The chummy aim of USA's sports page is to be your paper—a kind of daily Sporting News without any crusading spirit or literary pretension. USA definitely does not want to be the kind of paper that will punch the high-and-mighty in the nose. And the paper has a rule against stories quoting unnamed sources. That policy has cost the newspaper a few scoops (USA Sports certainly hasn't made a habit of breaking major news stories, although it does reveal interesting stats like players' and coaches' salaries), but it has scored points among athletes and Pollyanna readers.
Steelers placekicker Gary Anderson, for one, likes the even, predictable tenor of USA stories. "They don't assess blame or create goats, which we as athletes certainly like." Says Bill Little, the University of Texas's sports information director, "They don't get into a lot of muck like many local journalists who are always trying to find out what's bad."
In fact, USA Sports has filled a void by concentrating strictly on reporting the bare facts. A lot of sports sections have gotten away from those basics in the last 20 years, running long sociological stories at the expense of stats, game summaries and other essentials. Too many sportswriters wanted to be Hemingway and didn't report what the score was until the middle of the sixth paragraph. Meat-and-potatoes fans felt shortchanged, and when USA Today was launched, they flocked to it.
But with all its perkiness and peppy little factoids, USA Today was just begging to be satirized. "It was a good subject for us because it's unique and visible and a little bit silly," says the Lampoon's editor, Harvard senior Daniel J. Greaney, who is a fan of the paper. "It's incredibly optimistic and so trend-oriented, everybody sees humor in it immediately."
Like the rest of the paper, USA Sports loves stories about Mary Lou Retton and other media darlings who make all of "us" (USA-speak calls for the use of the first-person plural when referring to the American public) feel jim-dandy. Bad-news stories tend to be reported reluctantly.
Most satire about USA, of course, goes to the heart of the paper's weaknesses. Here-with, are some factoids that speak volumes.
•Basketball writers, who usually have to write lengthy "running" game accounts for their newspapers on deadline, have been known to ridicule USA writers for sending a single "running paragraph" to their office at halftime.
•Wags at other papers enjoy referring to USA Today as the McPaper, the fast food of journalism. "If we're McPaper," replies USA senior editor Taylor Buckley, "how come they're stealing our McNuggets?" (A nugget is USA-speak for a small bite of information closely related to a factoid.)
•Bill Dwyre, sports editor of the Los Angeles Times, recently came up with a hard-to-digest commentary about USA's short stories: "Our writers can't burp in eight inches."
•The Associated Press Sports Editors association jokingly cited USA Today for publishing the Best Investigative Paragraph.
Even USA has learned not to take itself too seriously. Buckley sends out a daily internal memo to his writers called, naturally enough, The Daily Blurb. USA writers receive a $25 McNugget Award and a special McNugget magnet suitable for refrigerator doors if a blurb they write is chosen the month's best.
The most accurate line about USA Sports is that it's the evening TV sports-cast put to print. "I don't mean to make any ethnic slurs," says the Times Herald's Burgin, who otherwise rates the section highly, "but it's like a Chinese meal. You eat it, and you're hungry a few hours afterwards."
Another shortcoming is the paper's lack of a compelling columnist. Gannett chairman Allen Neuharth, who designed USA Today with the help of Freeman and other editors, wants to serve the interests of his readers, not the egos of his writers. That's a nice sentiment, but opinion is the very dialogue of sports. USA Sports ought to have a strong, articulate voice.
It could also do a better job of writing about people. Readers rarely come to know sports personalities as real people in USA's pages. Rather, players tend to be accumulators of stats or earners of big salaries or recent additions to the disabled list. And because the section is always geared to its 48-hour window on current events, the athletes seldom seem to talk about their lives away from the playing field.
On balance, though, these are minor blemishes, especially when one considers the staggering amount of information Freeman and his 72-member staff supply its readers day after day. "We take a classified advertising approach to the news," Freeman says. "Most people aren't going to read us from start to finish. You're not going to read the classifieds from start to finish, but if you're looking for a house in a certain neighborhood, you're going to read that part."
USA would not have been possible 10 years ago, before the age of communications satellites and portable word processors. The newspaper is printed primarily on Gannett presses around the country, and its staff is connected to a number of high-tech computer data bases, including the Elias Sports Bureau, a New York stat factory. USA has staffers or stringers at every major sporting event in the country. Material for the popular state-by-state "Across the USA" column and other round-ups is filed by staffers in the field as well as some 300 stringers, supplemented by the Gannett News Service, the resources of Gannett's 92 daily newspapers and the dogged working of telephones.
Freeman, 39, openly pirated some of the sports section's features. He stole the back-of-the-section calendar boxes, in which upcoming events are listed, from Miami Herald executive sports editor Paul Anger. "How They Scored" in baseball was used by local papers. But the expanded baseball standings—showing each team's batting average, ERA and record over the last 10 games—is believed to be Freeman's idea.
Once, after an umpire left a game for the birth of his child, Freeman had the sex and name of the baby included in the box score. He added the category "caught stealing" to the box scores ("Where else can you get that kind of stuff?" says Tommy Lasorda) and even put in the names of players who struck out. Says Texas Rangers general manager Tom Grieve, "I'm glad they didn't have that when I was playing: 'Struck out—Grieve, 3.' "
USA also scores with the off-the-wall facts it runs in special boxes called "The So-and-So File." Who cares what kind of pasta Joe Shlabotnik likes? But somehow, the odder the item the greater the reader response. It also caters to gamblers with extensive odds quotations and dubious advertisements that unabashedly guarantee "free winners" in what is euphemistically referred to as the paper's "Professional Sports Service Guide."
Those Harvard smarty-pants subtitled its version of USA's "Sportsline" column "A Glossing Over of the Top Sports News of the Day." The soft-news "Sportstalk" column in the Lampoon was called "Watered-down Sports for Wimps." And the TV column carried the tag line "A Look at the Tiny Sweaty People Inside Your TV."
Yes, there's some truth to all of it. But more to the point is what Beano Cook, the ESPN football curmudgeon, says about America's fast-food newspaper: "If I'm stranded on some South Sea island, give me USA Today, Stefanie Powers and reruns of Hawaii Five-O, and nobody would ever find me."
Willie McGee and his fellow jocks can't get enough of the good news in "USA Today."
MAPPING 'USA TODAY' SPORTS
Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium
Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome
Mile High Stadium
Comiskey Park Wrigley Field
Three Rivers Stadium
Atlanta Fulton County Stadium
RFK Memorial Stadium
RUDY MARTZKE'S TV SET
High School Heroes
A look at sports statistics about America's McPaper
USA Today goes short on
Events more than 24 hours old
Henry Freeman, USA Today's managing editor for sports, lists his five favorite books:
1. Red Storm Rising
2. Gone with the Wind
3. Elvis Is Dead and I Don't Feel So Good Myself
4. Lonesome Dove
5. The Bourne Identity