Love USA Today or Hate it, the ‘McPaper’ Prefigured Internet Content

Nobody knew it in 1981, but the paper was a harbinger of attention spans to come

(L. to r.) TV exec Grant Tinker and dancer/actor Gene Kelly join Al Neuharth (r.) at a party for USA Today

It was only a tiny story in Adweek’s June 29, 1981 issue—“Gannett Releases Prototypes of National Daily”—but it flagged what would become one of the decade’s biggest media stories.

Al Neuharth, the gadfly Gannett mogul known for banging out copy on a manual typewriter while sitting in his treehouse—would be launching a newspaper called USA Today. Though pulp circulations were slipping, Neuharth argued that America needed a national broadsheet for an on-the-go population: color photos, short articles, big sports section.

Critics branded it the McPaper. “It doesn’t rub off on your hands—or your mind,” sniffed commentator Linda Ellerbee. Newsweek called Neuharth “the man who shortened the attention spans of millions of Americans.”

But within five years of the paper’s September 1982 debut, USA Today was profitable. What Neuharth saw in 1981 was simply the future. A generation before the internet, USA Today had pioneered snackable content.

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