The genesis of USA Today was on February 29, 1980, when a company task force known as "Project NN" met with Gannett Company chairman Al Neuharth in Cocoa Beach, Florida to develop a national newspaper. Early regional prototypes included East Bay Today, an Oakland, California-based publication published in the late 1970s to serve as the morning edition of the Oakland Tribune, an afternoon newspaper which Gannett owned at the time. On June 11, 1981, Gannett printed the first prototypes of the proposed publication. The two proposed design layouts were mailed to newsmakers and prominent leaders in journalism, for review and feedback. The Gannett Company's board of directors approved the launch of the national newspaper, titled USA Today, on December 5, 1981. At launch, Neuharth was appointed president and publisher of the newspaper, adding those responsibilities to his existing position as Gannett's chief executive officer.
Gannett announced the launch of the paper on April 20, 1982. USA Today began publishing on September 15, 1982, initially in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. metropolitan areas for an newsstand price of 25¢ (equivalent to 65¢ today). After selling out the first issue, Gannett gradually expanded the national distribution of the paper, reaching an estimated circulation of 362,879 copies by the end of 1982, double the amount of sales that Gannett projected. The design uniquely incorporated color graphics and photographs. Initially, only its front news section pages were rendered in four-color, while the remaining pages were printed in a spot color format. The paper's overall style and elevated use of graphics – developed by Neuharth, in collaboration with staff graphics designers George Rorick, Sam Ward, Suzy Parker, John Sherlock and Web Bryant – was derided by critics, who referred to it as "McPaper" or "television you can wrap fish in," because it opted to incorporate concise nuggets of information more akin to the style of television news, rather than in-depth stories like traditional newspapers, which many in the newspaper industry considered to be a dumbing down of the news. Although USA Today had been profitable for just ten years as of 1997, it changed the appearance and feel of newspapers around the world.
On July 2, 1984, the newspaper switched from predominantly black-and-white to full color photography and graphics in all four sections. The next week on July 10, USA Today launched an international edition intended for U.S. readers abroad, followed four months later on October 8 with the rollout of the first transmission via satellite of its international version to Singapore. On April 8, 1985, the paper published its first special bonus section, a 12-page section called "Baseball '85," which previewed the 1985 Major League Baseball season.
By the fourth quarter of 1985, USA Today had become the second largest newspaper in the United States, reaching a daily circulation of 1.4 million copies. Total daily readership of the paper by 1987 (according to Simmons Market Research Bureau statistics) had reached 5.5 million, the largest of any daily newspaper in the U.S. On May 6, 1986, USA Today began production of its international edition in Switzerland. USA Today operated at a loss for most of its first four years of operation, accumulating a total deficit of $233 million after taxes, according to figures released by Gannett in July 1987; the newspaper began turning its first profit in May 1987, six months ahead of Gannett corporate revenue projections.
On January 29, 1988, USA Today published the largest edition in its history, a 78-page weekend edition featuring a section previewing Super Bowl XXII; the edition included 44.38 pages of advertising and sold 2,114,055 copies, setting a single-day record for an American newspaper (and surpassed seven months later on September 2, when its Labor Day weekend edition sold 2,257,734 copies). On April 15, USA Today launched a third international printing site, based in Hong Kong. The international edition set circulation and advertising records during August 1988, with coverage of the 1988 Summer Olympics, selling more than 60,000 copies and 100 pages of advertising.
By July 1991, Simmons Market Research Bureau estimated that USA Today had a total daily readership of nearly 6.6 million, an all-time high and the largest readership of any daily newspaper in the United States. On September 1 of that year, USA Today launched a fourth printsite for its international edition in London for the United Kingdom and the British Isles. The international edition's schedule was changed as of April 1, 1994 Monday through Friday, rather than from Tuesday through Saturday, in order to accommodate business travelers; on February 1, 1995, USA Today opened its first editorial bureau outside the United States at its Hong Kong publishing facility; additional editorial bureaus were launched in London and Moscow in 1996.
On April 17, 1995, USA Today launched its website, www.usatoday.com, as part of the USA Today Information Network to provide real-time news coverage; the site would eventually expand to include a spin-off website that launched in June 2002, USATODAY.com Travel, providing travel information and booking tools. On August 28, 1995, a fifth international publishing site was launched in Frankfurt, Germany, to print and distribute the international edition throughout most of Europe. On October 4, 1999, USA Today began running advertisements on its front page for the first time. In 2017, some pages of USA Today's website features the "autoplay" functionality for video or audio-aided stories.
On February 8, 2000, Gannett launched USA Today Live, a broadcast and Internet initiative designed to provide coverage from the newspaper to broadcast television stations nationwide for use in their local newscasts and their websites; the venture would also provide integration with the USA Today website, which transitioned from a text-based format to feature audio and video clips of news content. The paper launched a sixth printing site for its international edition on May 15, 2000, in Milan, Italy, followed on July 10 by the launch of an international printing facility in Charleroi, Belgium.
In 2001, two interactive units were launched: on June 19, USA Today and Gannett Newspapers launched the USA Today Careers Network (now Careers.com), a website featuring localized employment listings, then on July 18, the USA Today News Center was launched as an interactive television news service developed through a joint venture with the On Command Corporation that was distributed to hotels around the United States. On September 12 of that year, the newspaper set an all-time single day circulation record, selling 3,638,600 copies for its edition covering the September 11 attacks. That November, USA Today migrated its operations from Gannett's previous corporate headquarters in Arlington, Virginia to the company's new headquarters in nearby McLean.
On December 12, 2005, Gannett announced that it would combine the separate newsroom operations of USA Today's online and print entities, with USAToday.com's vice president and editor-in-chief Kinsey Wilson being promoted to co-executive editor, alongside existing executive editor John Hillkirk. In 2010, USA Today launched the USA Today API for sharing data with partners of all types.
Newsroom restructuring and 2011 graphical tweaks
On August 27, 2010, USA Today announced that it would undergo a reorganization of its newsroom, announcing the layoffs of 130 staffers. It also announced that the paper would shift its focus away from print and place more emphasis on its digital platforms (including USAToday.com and its related mobile applications) and launch of a new publication called USA Today Sports.
On January 24, 2011, to reverse a revenue slide, the paper introduced a tweaked format that modified the appearance of its front section pages, which included a larger logo at the top of each page; coloring tweaks to section front pages; a new sans-serif font, called Prelo, for certain headlines of main stories (replacing the Gulliver typeface that had been implemented for story headers in April 2000); an updated "Newsline" feature featuring larger, "newsier" headline entry points; and the increasing and decreasing of mastheads and white space to present a cleaner style.
Miguel Vazquez from USA Today
shows off the publication's Metro App, 2012.
On September 14, 2012, USA Today underwent the first major redesign in its history, in commemoration for the 30th anniversary of the paper's first edition. Developed in conjunction with brand design firm Wolff Olins, the print edition of USA Today added a page covering technology stories and expanded travel coverage within the Life section and increased the number of color pages included in each edition, while retaining longtime elements. The "globe" logo used since the paper's inception was replaced with a new logo featuring a large circle rendered in colors corresponding to each of the sections, serving as an infographic that changes with news stories, containing images representing that day's top stories.
The paper's website was also extensively overhauled using a new, in-house content management system known as Presto and a design created by Fantasy Interactive, that incorporates flipboard-style navigation to switch between individual stories (which obscure most of the main and section pages), clickable video advertising and a responsive design layout. The site was designed to be more interactive, provide optimizations for mobile and touchscreen devices, provide "high impact" advertising units, and provide the ability for Gannett to syndicate USA Today content to the websites of its local properties, and vice versa. To accomplish this goal, Gannett migrated its newspaper and television station websites to the Presto platform and the USA Today site design throughout 2013 and 2014 (although archive content accessible through search engines remains available through the pre-relaunch design).
Mid-2010s expansion and restructuring
On October 6, 2013, Gannett test launched a condensed daily edition of USA Today (part of what was internally known within Gannett as the "Butterfly" initiative) for distribution as an insert in four of its newspapers – The Indianapolis Star, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, the Fort Myers-based News-Press and the Appleton, Wisconsin-based Post-Crescent. The launch of the syndicated insert caused USA Today to restructure its operations to allow seven-day-a-week production to accommodate the packaging of its national and international news content and enterprise stories (comprising about 10 pages for the weekday and Saturday editions, and up to 22 pages for the Sunday edition) into the pilot insert. Gannett later announced on December 11, that it would formally launch the condensed daily edition of USA Today in 31 additional local newspapers nationwide through April 2014 (with the Palm Springs, California-based Desert Sun and the Lafayette, Louisiana-based Advertiser being the first newspapers outside of the pilot program participants to add the supplement on December 15), citing "positive feedback" to the feature from readers and advertisers of the initial four papers. Gannett was given permission from the Alliance for Audited Media to count the circulation figures from the syndicated local insert with the total circulation count for the flagship national edition of USA Today.
On January 4, 2014, USA Today acquired the consumer product review website Reviewed In the first quarter of 2014, Gannett launched a condensed USA Today insert into 31 other newspapers in its network, thereby increasing the number of inserts to 35, in an effort to shore up USA Today's circulation after it regained its position as the highest circulated weekdaily newspaper in the United States in October 2013. On September 3, 2014, USA Today announced that it would lay off roughly 70 employees in a restructuring of its newsroom and business operations. In October 2014, USA Today and OpenWager Inc. entered into a partnership to release a Bingo app called USA TODAY Bingo Cruise.
On December 3, 2015, Gannett formally launched the USA Today Network, a national digital newsgathering service providing shared content between USA Today and the company's 92 local newspapers throughout the United States as well as pooling advertising services on both a hyperlocal and national reach. The Louisville Courier-Journal had earlier soft-launched the service as part of a pilot program started on November 17, coinciding with an imaging rebrand for the Louisville, Kentucky-based newspaper; Gannett's other local newspaper properties, as well as those it acquired through its merger with the Journal Media Group, began identifying themselves as part of the USA Today Network (foregoing use of the Gannett name outside of requisite ownership references) gradually integrated into the USA Today Network through early January 2016.