Republished from Sept. 12, 2007
USA Today-first issue

The first issue, Sept. 15, 1982.

USA Today Had Reputation as Diversity Leader

When Wanda Lloyd was at the Washington Post in the early 1980s, as an editor at the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service, “anytime I heard about a speech made by John Quinn, Al Neuharth or Cathie Black” — early principals of USA Today — “there was something in their presentations that said something about women or people of color being an integral part of the organization.

“Something across the river” — USA Today was across the Potomac in Arlington, Va. — “made me think there’s an opening for someone like me.”

Lloyd left the Post for USA Today, where she rose to senior editor. She is now executive editor of Gannett’s Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser.

USA Today is celebrating its 25th anniversary this week, but amid the hoopla, it might be forgotten what a beacon for diversity the “nation’s newspaper,” now the country’s largest, was at its founding.

“It was a little frustrating,” founding editor Quinn told Journal-isms on Wednesday. “Some of my colleagues would say, ‘I know this great person who can do what we want.’ We said, ‘We’ve got a lot of those; we’ve got to have somebody else.'” And sometimes that meant going outside Gannett,  the nation’s largest newspaper company, to find them: People such as W. Curtis Riddle and Monte Trammer, African American Gannett executives who started their careers with the company as part of that founding effort.

The percentage of people of color at USA Today’s founding, Quinn said, exceeded that of the nation as well as the newspaper industry. Of the five managing editors, two were women. At the level below them were two more women and two African Americans. The average age was 30. “More important, we had the talent we needed,” Quinn said.

Today, according to Ed Foster-Simeon, the deputy managing editor for news who handles recruitment, the representation of newsroom professionals of color stands at 17.8 percent, of a total of 448. For the newspaper industry, the figure is 13.62 percent, according to the annual census of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. For the nation, it is 33 percent.

USA Today’s 17.8 percent includes 1 percent who are Native American, 5 percent Asian American, 9 percent black or African American, 2 percent Hispanic and 2 percent two or more races, Foster-Simeon said.

Five of 14 deputy managing editors are African American, but no black journalist ranks higher. At the time of the ASNE report, USA Today had 56 professionals in the fast-growing online component. Of those, 10.7 percent were people of color: 5 percent Native American, 3 percent Asian and 3 percent black.

“Twenty-five years ago, this was the place to be,” a longtime African American newsroom employee told Journal-isms. “Gannett led the way in diversity, particularly among African Americans.

“Twenty-five years later, that is not the case. We make a big deal about it, but our numbers have dwindled. When people leave, they are not replaced. There has never been a minority section head in Sports, Life, Money or News. You can make the DME (deputy managing editor) rank and that seems to be the ceiling.”

Barbara Reynolds helped launch the paper as one of the founding editors, with responsibility for the op-ed page.

“At that time, there were men in charge — John Seigenthaler, editorial page editor, John QuinnPeter Pritchard and founder Al Neuharth,” she told Journal-isms, “and a woman, Nancy Woodhull — who actually believed in diversity.

“In fact, much to my surprise, action was threatened against those who foot-dragged on diversity. I remember in the early days when editors would say they couldn’t find any ‘competent blacks’ and other people of color, they were threatened with pay deductions. And alas, suddenly ‘competent blacks’ were brought into the fold. I saw how the paper benefited from its more diverse employee base, whose shared culture and contribution could attract and appeal to all segments of society. Initially I saw how this paper was truly the best example of an all-American paper which saw value in everyone. The eighties were the age of diversity.”

“USA Today really set the pace for this industry in terms of content diversity,” Lloyd said. “It was perceived by some, including readers, as going too far. The paper had a rule that a person of color and a woman had to be on the front page, above the fold, every day. “What that did was, because USA Today’s Page One is kind of a billboard for the rest of the newspaper, it forced the rest of the newspaper to be diverse. You had to have people of color in Life and women in Sports.”

Others recalled a sort of golden era where Reynolds and columnist DeWayne Wickham were writing in the opinion section; Jessica Lee was covering the White House; Donna Britt, who went on to become a Washington Post columnist, was based in Los Angeles for entertainment news; and Lee Ivory, now a deputy managing editor, headed the USA Today Baseball Weekly. Early on, Karen Howze, another black journalist, was managing editor for the international edition.

If African Americans did not rise above the deputy managing editor level, Quinn said, they went elsewhere within Gannett to become publishers and editors.

Quinn left in 1990. And while succeeding editors professed the same vision, it was executed unevenly. Reynolds was dismissed in 1996. “The paper changed from a pro-people paper to a pro-business paper, chasing profits, access to the rich and powerful more so than any high ideals about diversity and inclusion,” she said. Ivory’s weekly section was merged into the Sports section. One editor promoted seven white men at once without a second thought, a step that would not have been taken previously.

Now a rotating roster of black women writes for the op-ed page every Friday in Reynolds’ old spot. Wickham still has a travel budget that allows him to cover “people that the majority may not want to hear,” which he said keeps USA Today true to the Kerner Commission’s 1968 charge to the news media to integrate and report on African Americans.

Foster-Simeon says that in 2005 and 2006, 40 percent of the hires were minorities. “Ken has stated we need people of color,” he said, speaking of top editor Ken Paulson.

But as one internal observer said, USA Today is in many ways like the rest of the industry. “Time has passed and the pressure is off and the goal posts have continued to be moved up.”

Said another, “There’s not the same push that the [Tom] Curleys and the Neuharths and the early regimes and founders of USA Today had.”