Easy Chair — From the July 2013 issue

Trio Grande

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The lady who changed the world,” was how The Economist described Margaret Thatcher in its obituary. Whether or not we believe that individuals ever wield such power over history, it is certainly true that the world changed during Thatcher’s premiership — and that it seemed to be moving in her direction.

Thatcher wasn’t the only empire builder to die in April. So did Al Neuharth, the founder of USA Today, and Howard Phillips, one of the principal architects of what came to be called the New Right. And when all three departed in quick succession, it struck me that they shared a certain sensibility. Each would have made an excellent case study for the Great Man (or Great Woman) theory of history, defying the world and recasting it through heroic labors. And each went about this task in roughly the same way. They were populists who bitterly denounced elites; they were worshippers at the shrine of free enterprise; and they all reached their zenith in the early 1980s.

[1] With the discovery in 2010 of oil just off the Falklands, however, it has become retroactively less pointless.

It was 1982 that saw Mrs. Thatcher’s triumph over Argentina in the Falklands, one of the most pointless wars in recent history.[1] It was in that same year that Neuharth, then CEO of the Gannett newspaper chain, launched USA Today, one of recent history’s most unlikely feats of entrepreneurship. Nowadays, of course, no one would dream of launching a national print newspaper. But even in 1982 the idea seemed not only quixotic but dangerously capital-intensive: you needed printing presses all over the country to pour out those full-color pages and a satellite communications system to beam the copy from coast to coast. Before the paper finally turned a profit, in 1987, Gannett lost $233 million on the venture. Neuharth himself wrote in what I came to think of as the USA Today style: brief, choppy, chummy. I almost said “pared down,” but that’s not accurate — Neuharth’s ideas were simply too potted and obvious to require much in the way of verbal expression. Here, for example, he explains the founding of the paper in a 1997 installment of his column, Plain Talk:

Our mission in creating USA TODAY was pretty simple, albeit a bit risky: Reinvent the newspaper to attract the TV generation. Color a must. Also lively, compelling content and presentation. Maximum of information. Minimum of wordage. No confusion or hassle. A place for everything and everything in its place.

It’s one thing to deploy this style from what was basically a publisher’s pulpit. What’s amazing is that Neuharth sounds exactly the same in his 1989 memoir Confessions of an S.O.B. He not only fills the pages with USA Today–style bullet points, but splashes them across the cover as well.

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October 2018


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