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USA Today, America's first national newspaper, celebrates its 25th anniversary and looks to grow through licensing. USA Today celebrated its milestone 25th anniversary on Sept. 15, 2007. Founded in 1982 as the country&a

April 6, 2018

8 Min Read

USA Today, America's first national newspaper, celebrates its 25th anniversary and looks to grow through licensing.

USA Today celebrated its milestone 25th anniversary on Sept. 15, 2007. Founded in 1982 as the country's first national newspaper, USA Today was the most expensive and closely watched newspaper debut in history. The paper, which continues to boast the title "the nation's top selling newspaper," has a circulation of 2.3 million and a daily readership of 4.4 million. A team of more than 500 editorial staff and nearly 2,000 total employees contributes to its continued success. For its audience of more than 2.8 million who are traveling and working abroad, an international edition, printed in four countries, delivers the news to their doorsteps. i1_422.jpgi1_t_98.jpg

The paper's origins go back to 1978 when Al Neuharth was named CEO of Gannett Co. Inc. At the time, Gannett owned 80 newspapers, seven television stations, and 12 radio stations. With operations in 34 states, the company was primed to stake its claim with a national newspaper published with new satellite technology.

In 1979, Project NN (National Newspaper) was conceived at Pumpkin Center—Neuharth's Cocoa Beach, Fla., home. Following years of research and planning, and backed by millions of dollars and with the support of more than 200 newsroom staff (65 percent on loan from other Gannett newspapers), the first edition of USA Today rolled off the presses in Springfield, Va., on Sept. 15, 1982. An initial print run of more than 360,000 issues immediately sold out in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

"When we decided to create a national newspaper we knew it had to be vastly different," says Neuharth. "USA Today was designed to make newspaper readers out of the television generation. The innovation set in place 25 years ago did change the face of the new media and continues to have influence today."

When USA Today made its debut, it was unlike any other newspaper ever printed up to that time. The newspaper was bright and colorful, and unlike other papers, which reserved color only for special sections, USA Today used color and enticing graphics to illustrate its stories. Other visual highlights included a "psychedelic" weather map, and its "Snapshots" images, which appear on the front of each section of the newspaper.

Sold in news racks designed to look like TV sets, the eye-catching displays quickly caught the interest of passersby. The newspaper's unique journalism stance was also reflected in its editorial approach. The team was intent on delivering tight and concise writing—only the cover stories would jump to another page. A focus on news that would be interesting to the average American, coupled with a unique appearance, made the paper quite popular with consumers, yet it was criticized by many industry insiders. Famously referred to as "McPaper," USA Today was derided by critics as "fast-food journalism."

The newspaper withstood the test of time, however. In 2006, advertising pages hit 4,387. Its award-winning Web site,, continues to draw 10.9 million visitors monthly. The newspaper is currently published via satellite at 36 locations in the United States and at four international destinations. Its Web site was quick to adjust to today's technological advances and offers 20 blogs and several podcasts, and often incorporates both audio and video into its coverage. In addition, USA Today Mobile brings news and information to virtually any mobile or handheld device through texting and mobile Web technology.

With such a storied past, USA Today looks to the future with optimism. "While we continue to invest heavily in growing our core products as well as launching new print and online products, the USA Today brand has legs far beyond the core products we produce, and has only begun to reach its potential," says Christy Hartsell, director of licensing, USA Today. "This translates into additional opportunities for USA Today and its partners to generate new revenue while creating quality products for our customers." While many of USA Today's competitors have struggled in this challenging media climate, the brand's core products have continued to flourish.

A recent venture into licensing became one of the motives for generating new revenue this year. As the third-largest English-language paper in the world and one of the most recognized brands worldwide, licensing was an obvious choice. "USA Today has such a wealth of content and a sound reputation that appeals to everyone," says Hartsell, who describes the brand as "trustworthy" and "inviting."

USA Today was quick to ink 11 contracts, seven of which were signed in the first five months of 2007. To accomplish that, a lot of legwork was done in 2006. In spring of that year, Nancy Bailey & Associates was hired as licensing agent. The team immediately booked appointments at both Book Expo America and Licensing International Expo. Prior to that, USA Today dabbled in licensing when it partnered with Electronic Arts to be the paper of record in the Madden NFL video game. Andrews McMeel also signed on for puzzle calendars and books, among a few other projects. i2_157.jpgi2_t_84.jpg

Headquartered in McLean, Va., USA Today now has a licensing team that consists of three key executives, including Hartsell, who is responsible for overseeing the content and brand licensing efforts. She also serves as the primary liaison with Nancy Bailey & Associates. Book Editor Ben Nussbaum, who joined in February 2007, works with the publishers to brainstorm and produce new USA Today titles. Nussbaum's first two books, 25 Years of USA Today: The Stories that Shape our Nation and the reissue of The Making of McPaper: The Inside Story of How USA Today Made It, hit retail in August 2007. Content licensing project lead Craig McKinnis heads up the content licensing efforts, overseeing partnerships with the database vendors, Web sites, and other content-licensing partners.

All 11 licenses span across the publishing, merchandise, and branded retail categories. Publishing agreements now include Andrews McMeel (puzzle books and calendars); Mead (puzzle and "Snapshots" calendars); Multimedia International Inc. (a monthly Sudoku magazine); Nolo Publishing (a 12-book series of business/personal finance books, right); and Sterling Publishing (puzzle books). Other deals include "The Year in Sports" titles from 2007-2009. Merchandise agreements include Navajo Manufacturing for reading glasses, and HDS Retail for USA Today Travel Zone stores. MDI Entertainment also signed on for lottery tickets, and uclick for crosswords on Nintendo DS.

Hartsell says that publishing and eyewear were the first categories signed. "It's crucial that newspapers in this media environment find a way to extend the brand, and publishing is a natural move for us," she says. "It is also a great way for us to get more mileage out of the quality news and information we produce every day. While we'll rely on some publishers to provide content for some books, USA Today will provide most of the content for others."

The USA Today reading glasses are available now at food, drug, mass retailers, convenience stores, and specialty shops. The fashionable mix is offered in 14 classic, retro, and high-fashion styles and eight diopter levels. The frames are made from Nickel Silver, which offers a durable and long-lasting fit, and the lenses are both scratch- and impact-resistant. The entire line is priced below $20 retail.

"We are preparing for the opening of our first USA Today Travel Zone store in the USAir terminal at LaGuardia Airport by the end of the third quarter 2008," says Hartsell. The shops will carry typical news and gift items along with USA Today merchandise, and will feature a convenient charging station that allows travelers to charge the batteries on their electronic devices. "We are focusing on opening additional stores in other airports throughout the United States," adds Hartsell. Select stores will include a food and beverage component to enable travelers to get everything they need in a one-stop shop. Although the current focus is domestic, USA Today will be licensing some products internationally in select countries as it makes sense for the brand and its partners. Since the licensing program is in its infancy, Hartsell did not have global results at press time.

What's next for the brand? It seeks publishing partners that can create a series of travel guides, children's books, and activity packs, as well as reference books for adults. Since the brand is synonymous with travel, a collection of travel books and travel gear are being explored. "Our daily Snapshots graphics that appear on each section front of the paper are also sparking a lot of interest from potential licensees," says Hartsell.

Publisher and president of USA Today Craig Moon says, "25 years later USA Today is stronger than ever. We are committed to moving forward with the same enthusiasm and talent that have made this newspaper successful over the last two-and-a-half decades."

Says Ken Paulson, editor of USA Today: "We strive to bring a fresh take and new approach each day to the topics that matter most, from American foreign policy to 'American Idol' and everything in between."

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