Ken Paulson strolled across the stage, a wireless mike in his hand and an affable expression on his face.
I'd heard his style at monthly staff meetings compared to both Phil Donahue's and Mister Rogers'. When I attended one in June, the editor of USA Today didn't take off his shoes, wear a cardigan or sing about the beautiful day in the neighborhood. But he did flash PowerPoint pictures (to oohs and aahs from the audience) of a 7 pound, 5 ounce baby born to a staffer May 18, welcome two new employees and recognize contest winners. There was substance, too: a presentation about a new general assignment rewrite desk in the News section, a discussion of the paper's deepening efforts to recruit minorities and another presentation about planning for emergencies from tornadoes to terrorist attacks.
Paulson announced he would visit the Washington bureau the following week and planned to talk about stories USA Today should "own." He emphasized the paper's commitment to its watchdog role in holding government accountable, including raising objections when federal officials brief reporters on background. The meeting's tone was collegial, upbeat and a bit reminiscent of a pep rally.
USA Today is a more settled place roughly a year after revelations of star reporter Jack Kelley's brazen fabrications shamed the paper and toppled its leaders. But the wounds from that episode still sting, and the paper's humiliation has galvanized efforts to shore up credibility.
Paulson has steered the nation's top-selling paper onto a course of painstaking attention to sourcing and attribution, of greater openness and accessibility to readers and staff, and of swift responsiveness to hints of reporter wrongdoing or missteps by the paper. When USA Today stumbles, as it did when it reported on apparent new memos about President Bush's National Guard service, or when a reporter errs, as veteran Pentagon correspondent Tom Squitieri did when he failed to attribute quotes to other publications, Paulson's team acted decisively to stanch the damage.
"My first year here was really about accomplishing two things," Paulson says. "We needed to heal. We had just gone through the most difficult crisis in the newspaper's history, and there was a lot of division and a lot of hurt feelings. We simply needed to get back on track and rebuild morale. The other critically important mission was to shore up our credibility. USA Today had a serious setback with Jack Kelley, and we needed to take steps to minimize the likelihood of a future incident like that."
Paulson, 51, developed many of his ideas about how to run newspapers--including the monthly staff meetings--as editor of smaller sister Gannett papers and as executive director of the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center in Nashville, where educating the public about free speech and journalism's mission was central to his job.
But the changes the journalist and lawyer has made at USA Today are inevitably colored by the prism of the Kelley scandal and the searing indictment an outside panel leveled at the newspaper's culture. That report, made public on April 22, 2004, documented ineffective management, lax editing, a "virus of 'fear'" among some staffers in the News section and "broken" internal lines of communication. The paper's editor and the managing editor for the News section resigned; Publisher Craig Moon announced outsider Paulson's appointment one week after the report's release.
"We thought he would bring a real energy in the newsroom, and I think he has," says Moon, who wanted to rectify the "perception" of a culture of fear and encourage more collaboration across the paper's four sections--News, Money, Sports and Life--that the panel concluded had functioned as four separate papers.
Paulson had worked briefly at USA Today when it launched in 1982, but he stepped into his new role as a virtual unknown to much of the staff. "After the Kelley scandal, this newspaper was a seriously wounded animal," says Bruce Horovitz, a reporter who covers marketing for the Money section. "It's like we'd been shot in the heart and the psyche at the same time. How do you find somebody who's both a heart surgeon and a brain surgeon? They went out and got this guy who most of us had never heard of."
Horovitz sent Paulson a welcome note of sorts after his appointment was announced: "We hear you're a nice guy, but they said that about Jack Kelley."
"I wasn't necessarily saying that to stick a knife in Jack because I wouldn't do that," he recalls, "but kind of to break the ice and to let [Paulson] know we were kind of a wounded beast."
"He's certainly tried to find a way to make it a place that feels a little kinder," Horovitz says now. "Are we there yet? Nah, we're not there yet. Are we on the way? I think most writers would say so."
Paulson convenes a gathering dubbed "the huddle" at 10:40 each morning with Executive Editor John Hillkirk, the managing editors, the reader's representative and the standards and development editor. Reader Editor Brent Jones, or someone from his office, begins by reviewing reader feedback--one of the safeguards Paulson instituted to catch the sort of problems that festered undetected in Kelley's work for years despite warnings from government officials, foreign sources and others inside and outside the paper.
"If anybody alleges inappropriate conduct by a reporter, we hear about it within 12 hours," Paulson tells me later. "If somebody raises a concern, we'll look at it." He recalls four or five instances this year, none of which resulted in disciplinary action. In one case, an accuracy survey--the paper sends out 10 each week to people quoted as a check on accuracy and fairness--found that one person did not remember giving a quote that appeared in a story. In that case, the reporter was able to find the quote on a tape, although Paulson says a journalist could simply stand by his or her reporting if a tape is unavailable. "You have to trust your reporters," Paulson says. "It's only when you see recurring problems that you really would move ahead," as he did when multiple instances of unattributed quotes surfaced in Squitieri's work.
When I visited in late May, a reader had raised a question about the use of "Koran" instead of "Qur'an," and Paulson asked Adell Crowe, the standards and development editor, to look into the issue and check Associated Press style. Shortly after it was discussed at the huddle, a story referred to the Koran but added parenthetically that it was "also spelled Qur'an."
The huddle bestows a $50 daily "Hainer Award," named for the late reporter Cathy Hainer, to recognize the day's best work. This used to be a monthly prize: Paulson made it daily to increase staff communication and convey the type of work he wants to see in the paper. The day of my visit, Paulson and his team chose a trend story by reporter Dennis Cauchon about states raising the minimum wage, a practice that reduces the role of the federal minimum wage, which has remained flat for eight years.
Paulson opened the huddle that morning--the same day news would break, in the middle of the 11 a.m. planning meeting, that W. Mark Felt had finally revealed his identity as Deep Throat--with a brief speech for my benefit about anonymous sources. He noted it was "ironic" that a recent piece by Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz quoted anonymous sources complaining about USA Today's anonymous source policy. He told his managing editors to encourage people to talk freely with me and concluded by noting it would be refreshing if my piece only quoted people on the record.
The anonymous sources policy is perhaps the most important marker of Paulson's first year at the paper. Although USA Today--which banned unnamed sources entirely in its early years--had a policy in place before Paulson's arrival, the panel found editing standards on Kelley's use of unnamed sources were "appallingly lax" and the guidelines were "regularly and routinely ignored."
Paulson and his management team tightened both the guidelines and enforcement of those rules. The current policy states: "The use of unnamed sources erodes our credibility and should be avoided." Anonymous sources can be cited only as a "last resort," and the identity of each unnamed source must be approved by a managing editor, who decides whether the news value outweighs damage to the paper's credibility. The rule applies not only to direct quotes but also to the use of anonymous sources generally, and unnamed sources may only be used to report facts. "Anonymous accusations and speculation are not acceptable," the policy says.
Carl Pisano, the night editor for the News section and one of the "heavies" on enforcing the new policy, says the "guiding philosophy was we were looking to reduce anonymous sources to an absolute minimum." He says no important news stories have been vetoed because of anonymous sources, but editors occasionally have stripped information from unnamed sources and even rejected a handful of stories, usually narrow or incremental pieces such as "inside-the-Beltway" accounts that "don't have a mass audience and don't have a great impact."
Paulson tapped Crowe, already in charge of staff training, for the new position of standards and development editor. One of her tasks is to read the paper closely each day to make sure it has followed sourcing and attribution rules. She estimates the use of anonymous sources has dropped about 75 percent, a success that's gleaned mostly favorable attention within the industry and the trade press.
John Seigenthaler, a founding director of USA Today who headed the outside panel, says the paper has gone a long way toward enhancing its credibility. "It's not easy to implement a strict rule on last resort," he says. "As a reporter I know I would brace under that, and I'm sure reporters have. But in the long run it seems to me, given the indiscriminate use of confidential sources" in the industry, the paper's policy "is a step in the right direction."
Edward Wasserman, the Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, reviewed the guidelines at my request and rates them "pretty good" overall. He agrees greater care should be given before granting confidentiality. But he says the guidelines risk discouraging reporters from pursuing important stories that rely extensively on anonymous sources, particularly stories dealing with the private sector and privately held companies.
"What I'm missing here is a framing statement that says, 'Listen, your principal job as a journalist for this organization is to get important news and get it before the public.' Someone should be telling them, 'The worst sin you can commit is to miss a big story,'" Wasserman says. "They're not just in the business of avoiding mistakes in reporting. They're in the business of reporting news."
I heard that sentiment echoed by a number of staffers, and I asked Paulson whether his goal was to curtail anonymous sources or eliminate them. "We want to use anonymous sources for all the right reasons," he replied. "Confidential sources are critical to the work of a good newsroom. You cannot live up to your watchdog role under the Constitution without using confidential sources from time to time."
Among the more than two dozen reporters and editors I interviewed for this story, complaints about the anonymous sources policy per se were less frequent than frustration with enforcement of sourcing rules, particularly the way reporters should attribute information.
"That actually is a lot more difficult and a lot more nuanced than the sourcing issue," Pisano says. "We're trying to have anything that we discuss in a story, if it's not an incontrovertible truth, then we need to have some form of attribution in it."
Political stories, for example, traditionally refer to "supporters" or "Democrats" or "opponents" or "Republicans" taking a particular stance. "We want to take it beyond that," Pisano says. "We want to tell the reader: 'Here's an example of what they're saying,' a real person with a real quote." If reporters write, "Democrats oppose President Bush's Social Security plan," they're "making the Democrats into a monolithic group, and that's not so," Pisano says. "We're looking for precision in the reporting, and not a broad statement that can be an oversimplication about what this broad group or any group is really feeling about an issue. You just can't go making an overarching statement like Democrats oppose such and such."
Congressional reporter Kathy Kiely says she often can easily insert names of Democrats or Republicans as examples to bolster broader statements. She's also had some success using the policy to get administration and congressional sources on the record. Where it becomes awkward is in cases where a particular political strategy is obvious, but no one wants his or her name attached to it, and reporters aren't permitted to make the observation themselves. "You can't write that it's Republicans' strategy to downplay Tom DeLay's ethics problems, even though it obviously is," she says. "There are times when it prevents us from writing with that voice of authority because everything, practically, has to be footnoted."
Reporter Joan Biskupic has covered the U.S. Supreme Court since 1989 for Congressional Quarterly, the Washington Post and now USA Today. But when the high court struck down federal sentencing guidelines in January, an editor cut an observation in her story that federal judges have long complained the guidelines tie their hands.
She says some editors wanted her to quote a lower court judge to back up the statement, which she had based on years of reporting, including a series she coauthored at the Post on sentencing guidelines. But Biskupic didn't want to use valuable space in a 429-word story for an extraneous quote when there was barely room to explain the ruling and the Supreme Court justices' complicated positions.
"When you've covered a beat for a long time, you want to be able to make some assertions on your own authority," says Biskupic, who holds a law degree from Georgetown University and has talked at length with editors about her concerns. "In some situations, particularly these days on judicial nominations and court politics, I'd rather assert something from my own experience and research than rely on a lawyer who may be newer to the field or have an ax to grind."
Disputes over attribution have surfaced in foreign coverage as well. When former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri died in a February bombing, Foreign Editor Jim Cox felt it was important for every story and brief that followed to say the Lebanese opposition believed Syria was behind Hariri's death. "A strict reading of our guidelines would require us to have a name of a Lebanese opposition person who said that in every single story," Cox says. "How many times can you go back and keep quoting, finding a Lebanese opposition person to say that and go on the record, and getting it in? At some point, it becomes silly and probably counterproductive."
For the first dozen or so stories and briefs, Cox and his staff had to include those quotes in each story or delete contextual references to the Lebanese opposition. "You have a choice between a story that has some sort of gaps in logic and leaves some questions in the minds of the readers," Cox says. "Or, if you each of these times are going to go get somebody or find somebody who said this, you wind up in some cases really slowing stories down having to put that in." (In mid-June, he said editors eventually were able to work through some of these "early hiccups" and reach some middle ground for ongoing stories such as this one.)
Pisano told me there has been some difference in interpretation of the guidelines among the paper's four sections. "And reporters, being reporters, will wave a story in our faces and say, 'How come they let this person do this and you won't let me do that?'" he said, adding the policy probably needed clarification. "A lot of reporters have thought the rules were too confining and being applied too strictly, and I think that's a conversation that we need to have... What we're trying to do is meet the mission of the paper. If Ken feels some parts of the attribution are too strict, and we need to back off, that's fine."
In early summer, the attribution component of the sources guidelines had not yet been written. Paulson had asked Crowe and others to assemble some examples to illustrate attribution standards for the entire paper. He planned to review their recommendations to see if the policy needed fine-tuning.
Peter Eisler, an investigative reporter in the Washington bureau, says most reporters believe the underpinnings of the policy are necessary and good. But "the implementation has been kind of bumpy," he says. "I think a lot of people are relieved to hear that they're taking a look at the consequences of that policy and see if it needs any refining in terms of the way it's implemented."
Strict implementation of the guidelines is intended to prevent not just abuse of anonymous sources--or, in Kelley's case, creation of nonexistent sources--but also a repeat of one of the lapses in coverage during Paulson's first year.
The night that "60 Minutes Wednesday" aired its ill-fated report on President Bush's National Guard service, USA Today obtained the same memos from the same source, later identified as former National Guard Lt. Col. Bill Burkett.
As editors planned the next day's story, they relied on the "60 Minutes" investigation, their reporters' positive feelings about the source and the lack of challenge from the White House, which e-mailed copies of the four memos to reporters and editors around the country at 9:30 that night along with its defense denouncing the rehashing of old, politically motivated charges. Editors "did put some stock in the notion that the White House wouldn't distribute documents it believed to be forgeries," Paulson says. The paper also faxed the documents to a person familiar with Guard files, who said they appeared to be consistent with the type of memos Guard commanders write.
USA Today's story, published on page 4A on September 9, 2004, cited "newly disclosed documents" and reported the information as though the paper had a scoop, citing "memos, obtained by USA Today and also reported Wednesday on the CBS program 60 Minutes."
Paulson calls that phrasing "bravado," noting his staff had no story in the works until the CBS report aired. He says his paper "absolutely should have" described CBS as being first to obtain the documents and should not have appeared to vouch for their authenticity. "We certainly should have applied more vigilance that night."
But as questions surfaced about the documents, the paper covered the story aggressively, hiring experts to evaluate them, explaining to readers why they probably were fraudulent and publishing a timeline showing how the story unfolded in the news media, including behind the scenes at USA Today. The paper also broke the news that CBS had arranged for Burkett to talk to a top aide in John Kerry's campaign.
"All you can do at that point is get the story as right as you possibly can," Paulson says. "We stumbled on this story, and then we did everything we could to get it right."
Bob Zelnick, a longtime correspondent at ABC News who now chairs the journalism department at Boston University, says USA Today handled the story "better than CBS, but not well enough." While the paper's response to questions about the documents' authenticity was timelier, "you want to be as positive as you can about the authenticity of sources before you go with the item, not afterward," particularly when such an explosive charge surfaces in the midst of a presidential campaign.
Paulson's policy requiring approval of unnamed sources by a managing editor was about three weeks old, and the guidelines had not yet been written. In the wake of the National Guard story, those guidelines now state, in part: "It is not enough to know and sign off on the identity of the source of the documents. The managing editor must be satisfied that the documents are authentic and trustworthy and the chain of custody of the documents can be traced to their originators."
When education reporter Greg Toppo made national news with his disclosure that the Bush administration paid commentator Armstrong Williams $240,000 to promote the "No Child Left Behind" education law, editors vetted the story vigorously.
"One of the things that made people comfortable with that story and made it a good story for us at the time is that it was well-sourced, incredibly transparent; we got the goods in a FOIA request, and there it was in black and white," Toppo says. The story started with a tip from one of his sources that something was going on with Williams, and a Freedom of Information Act request netted the details.
Toppo's January 7 front-page scoop--at a classic USA Today length of 548 words--attributed his information to the FOIA documents, quoted Williams as admitting critics could find the arrangement unethical and created a furor that prompted government investigations and criticism of the contract from President Bush. Paulson calls the story, which won the daily Hainer, "almost the perfect USA Today story."
As Toppo worked on a follow-up story, another source sent him a memo from then-Education Secretary Rod Paige outlining the creation of a public relations team to promote the education law. Toppo received the memo via fax and recognized Paige's signature. But at his editor's behest, he also confirmed it with two top education officials. "It sort of goes without saying after the whole National Guard memo business [that you take such steps] when somebody sends you a memo," Toppo says. "I think it's just prudent."
Prudence is a hallmark of the post-Kelley USA Today. On March 27, a copy editor was checking a date for a page-one story about armored Humvees by Pentagon reporter Tom Squitieri, a 16-year veteran of the paper.
The editor came across an August 30, 2004, story on the online news site InsideDefense.com that contained an identical quote from a congressman and five identical words leading into the quote. He alerted Squitieri's assignment editor, who rewrote the words around the quote and notified Managing Editor for News Carol Stevens. The story was published the next day.
Paulson asked Adell Crowe to review earlier versions of the story Squitieri had submitted to his editors; the article had been in the works for some time and had gone through several edits. A few days later, Dennis Ryerson, editor of the Gannett-owned Indianapolis Star, e-mailed Paulson to say there was a quote in the story that was identical to one his paper had printed last year from Brian Hart, a Bedford, Massachusetts, resident whose son had been killed in Iraq.
These tips and Crowe's research unearthed five "troubling" instances in the story: the InsideDefense.com quote; the Hart quote; a quote from Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., that appeared in the Star as two separate quotes; a quote from a third person in the Star article; and a quote from a December Washington Times story. Of these, only the quotes from Hart and Bayh appeared in the published article; the others were stripped from earlier drafts. Each quote was presented as original reporting.
In addition, in a Squitieri story not yet published about an Army unit's new mascot, Crowe found a quote identical to that in a December 28 AP story. A cursory search of Squitieri's work over the last year turned up no other quotes without proper attribution, although Paulson later learned that in February an editor had seen a paragraph taken from Reuters in one of Squitieri's stories, added the attribution and cautioned him to source everything.
Stevens and two other editors then met with Squitieri for two hours. Stevens says the reporter did not adequately explain the identical quotes. He acknowledged failing to attribute the Washington Times quote but said he had done the other reporting--an assertion confirmed by Crowe's investigation, which found he had contacted the individuals he quoted or their spokespeople.
On Thursday, May 5, Squitieri came in for a meeting with Paulson with a resignation letter in his pocket. He handed it to Paulson, apologized, "and said he really couldn't explain what had happened, but that he felt very badly about it," Paulson recalls. Squitieri then wrote a note to the staff saying he had fallen short of the standards of the newspaper.
"When you looked at that pattern" in his work, "there was no way that Tom could continue to be the Pentagon reporter for USA Today," Paulson says. "I was probably leaning toward dismissal, but I needed to hear him out, and instead he handed me his letter of resignation." Squitieri offered to walk into the newsroom and personally apologize to the staff, but Paulson told him that wasn't necessary.
Squitieri, 51, referred my questions to his attorney, Joseph Cammarata, who described management's response as an "overreaction." "They're hypersensitive to any criticism that anyone might raise," Cammarata says.
He says Squitieri--an early and vocal critic of Kelley--called the sources he had found during his research and read their previous statements to determine their accuracy. The lawyer says Squitieri asked whether he should use new quotes or the old quotes, and they told him to use the old ones. "At the end of the day, who owns the words that come out of the mouth of a source?" asks Cammarata. "The source or the reporter?"
Cammarata says Squitieri, while on assignment for USA Today, was wounded in Sarajevo when a rocket-propelled grenade blew up a truck he was riding in; a year later, he was beaten by a mob in Haiti. "This is a guy who's dedicated to his craft, to his profession and his paper," his lawyer says.
Brian Hart, the father whose words were recycled, wrote to Jim Romenesko's media blog to say his quote was accurate and he had talked extensively with Squitieri. "Of the many times I've been misquoted by reporters, not once has an editor volunteered to fire the reporter," Hart wrote. "Yet here is a quote I endorsed which evidently has gotten a reporter fired because he didn't attribute it to a reporter I also worked with at a sister publication of his! Madness."
But the story faded quickly from the headlines and from discussion on Romenesko's site, indicating that management's no-nonsense response squelched what could have become a prolonged controversy. Among staffers I talked to, no one defended Squitieri's actions, and many felt management's reaction was appropriate. But I also heard sadness that "Squit," a popular colleague, had departed in such a fashion, and I heard some anxiety that a paper battered by criticism has lost its sense of proportion.
Washington and Lee's Wasserman, whose newspaper career began in 1972 and includes stints as a Miami Herald columnist and deputy city editor, took a similar tack. "Squitieri did not cover himself with glory on this. What he did was tacky. But that said, what he did has been standard practice for practically the whole time I've been involved in newspapering." Most news organizations have long helped themselves to reporting originating elsewhere and, particularly if they confirmed the information, rarely acknowledged its origin. "Now, not only is it considered bad, but it's considered a capital offense," Wasserman says. "If they want to make this a policy, they could probably do that without sending him out back and shooting him."
In an e-mail, he later added the "kind of backchecking they did on his work comes perilously close to looking for reasons to punish him for doing his job," and the industry needs to adopt sensible guidelines for the type of information that warrants attribution.
The incident involving Squitieri gave Paulson an unwelcome opportunity a year after the Kelley debacle to show his staff how he handled potentially divisive employee issues. When news of Kelley's resignation broke, the previous editors had sparked anger among staffers by refusing to discuss what they termed a "personnel matter."
After Squitieri left his office, Paulson called his Washington bureau to explain what had happened and, at Squitieri's request, read the reporter's statement. Paulson then went to each section of the newspaper to explain what had transpired and to answer any questions; he returned to his office to call his other bureaus. He invited any member of the staff who had a concern to come talk to him; none did.
Paulson released a terse statement that said Squitieri's March 28 article included quotes taken from the Star from Bayh and Hart that were not attributed to that paper. "Squitieri's actions violated USA TODAY's standards on sources and attribution. USA TODAY apologizes to its readers. Squitieri has apologized and resigned," the statement said.
The brief statement made the paper's action appear more drastic than it was, as though Squitieri had been ousted for failing to attribute only two quotes, including one from a senator whose words are arguably in the public domain.
But Paulson, who provided somewhat greater detail in stories the next day in the Washington Post and the New York Times, says he had no desire to denigrate Squitieri. Rather than issue a "six-point indictment," he decided he only needed to inform readers about the two published quotes from the Star, not the quotes stripped from unpublished versions of Squitieri's story. He gave additional details at the May staff meeting and tried to reassure nervous staffers that if they did their jobs, they didn't need to worry.
"The culture of fear is not at all the story of USA Today these days," he told me.
The presence or absence of fear in a newsroom is easy to misinterpret or overstate. There were staffers even in the News section who disagreed with the "climate of fear" characterization of the previous regime that became so widely quoted after the panel's report. It's also difficult to discern a particular level of fear at USA Today, as opposed to the general paranoia that afflicts nearly all reporters and the widespread anxiety in the industry as a whole.
Many staffers I interviewed credited Paulson and Hillkirk--a former managing editor of the Money section who led the investigative team that reviewed Kelley's work--with creating a more open newsroom. "I think overall morale is quite a bit better," says Bob Davis, a reporter in the Life section, who says the duo have "set a very good tone for good, aggressive journalism" and emphasized greater cooperation across sections. For a March series on teen driving, Davis worked with automotive writer Jayne O'Donnell and several database editors. "It was just fun, which had never happened before in my experience with projects," he says.
Davis thinks the departure of Squitieri, a close friend, was handled in a straightforward manner, although he'd have liked to have heard more details. When Paulson made the announcement in the Life section, Davis was too stunned to ask questions but felt he could have. "That's one thing Ken has consistently driven home: He wants to hear from us," Davis says.
The Money section's Horovitz says Paulson "loves hearing from people who want to beat up on him." The classic illustration of this, told to me repeatedly during my research, including by Paulson himself, involves Jim Cox, a veteran reporter who opened the paper's first foreign bureau.
A few months after Paulson started as editor, Cox sent him a note very pointedly asking when he was going to bother to turn his attention to the paper's world coverage, the place where most of the problems related to Kelley originated. Cox concluded by saying the staff was anxiously waiting to hear from him.
Paulson called Cox to his office and told him, "I'm not calling you in here because your note was rude and condescending, which it was," but to answer the questions Cox had posed. "I was sort of a horse's ass, I guess, for writing the note," Cox says now. "His response to me was put up or shut up." Paulson later gave Cox a chance to put up, appointing him as foreign editor in December.
Paulson certainly creates the impression of openness. While I was reporting a story on the paper during the height of the Kelley imbroglio (see "The Next Generation," April/May 2004), I was escorted to and from each interview by a press handler and was permitted to dine alone in the cafeteria only after I promised to stay put. This time I communicated with Paulson directly; he himself fetched me from the security desk the day I first visited for this story, and I found my own way to the exit when I was finished in the newsroom.
But a number of respected staffers also told me that reporters feel second-guessed and mistrusted by editors in the post-Kelley era.
Reporter Kathy Kiely doesn't take the questions personally, but she feels there's an unhealthy level of doubt and hand-wringing. "It's like the editors have lost all faith in their reporters because they had this horrible, traumatic experience," Kiely says. "Stories have gone through one, two, three editors, and then at 10:00 [p.m.] someone has more questions. You can't carry home enough notebooks or files to back yourself up."
Patrick O'Driscoll, a correspondent in the paper's Denver bureau, echoes Kiely's sentiments regarding repeated checking of facts and figures in stories and late callbacks from the copy desk on matters that aren't just about copy editing. "There does seem to be this sort of sense that we aren't really trusted," he says.
I heard similar sentiments expressed by six other staffers who did not feel comfortable speaking on the record. They cited a range of reasons from fear of losing their jobs to worry they wouldn't be seen as team players to leftover raw feelings in the newsroom a year after Kelley's dismissal. One staffer, who feels the environment is causing people to be less courageous in their reporting, says "everybody is presumed guilty until proven innocent" when an outsider raises a complaint.
Their opinion-based concerns, which wouldn't appear here if I were writing this article for USA Today, offer some additional insight into the difficult balance between shoring up credibility and supporting ambitious journalism.
Paulson says no one would face retribution for speaking out, declaring, "I spent seven years working on First Amendment issues. I respect free speech." Later, when I told him some reporters didn't feel trusted, he said, "That couldn't be farther from the truth."
"When a newspaper has faced its darkest hour, I think there are a lot of people trying to make sure it never happens again," Paulson says, adding, "We're all in this together."
He and Hillkirk sat patiently as we discussed the presence or absence of a climate of fear, anonymous sources, Squitieri's departure and the National Guard memo for nearly two hours. But when I asked Paulson if he wanted to add anything, he seemed eager to talk about guiding his paper into the future.
He has not radically altered the content of USA Today, the traveler's bible that gradually shed its lightweight "McPaper" reputation. Despite raising its single copy price from 50 cents to 75 cents on September 7, 2004, the self-proclaimed "Nation's Newspaper" held circulation steady at 2.3 million during a bleak year for the industry as a whole.
Paulson and Hillkirk have emphasized exclusive stories and enterprise, urging reporters to submit project ideas and encouraging more narrative approaches and ambitious writing at a paper known for its sparse, even simplistic, style.
"I Saw It In USA Today," Paulson's version of a mission statement, instructs employees that "we're looking for stories that have not been reported before or that can be told in a distinctly different way. This means we are not going to obsess over a good story in The New York Times or Washington Post that we didn't get."
He's also pushing more breaking news coverage and a somewhat harder-edged front page. In February, he vetoed a planned above-the-fold cover story about "pampered pooches" and relegated the story and accompanying photo of a Boston terrier in a pink ski suit to the bottom strip on page one. "We aspire to many things, but cute is not one of them," says Paulson, who wants hard news above the fold. (Cute reigned supreme in the paper's early years, when one front-page headline chirped: "MEN, WOMEN: We're still different.")
He's also relied on outside partnerships to fill gaps at a paper that staffers have long complained needs more resources and more bodies. He reached an agreement last October with the Christian Science Monitor to open a joint bureau in Mexico City and publish foreign reports from the Monitor staff. "USA Today has a domestic focus, but we need to make sure that our readers understand the world," says Paulson, who may pursue additional joint bureaus with the Monitor, long a strong source of foreign reporting.
USA Today has foreign bureaus in Beijing, Hong Kong, Brussels and Baghdad and plans to fill a vacancy in its London bureau by September. A permanent Baghdad bureau, opened in April, has a correspondent who stays for six weeks, then returns to the paper's suburban Virginia headquarters outside Washington, D.C., for three; during his rest and recovery period, other reporters substitute in the war zone.
Paulson, who has served as editor of Gannett papers in Westchester County, New York; Brevard County, Florida; and Green Bay, Wisconsin, also is forging closer ties with sister papers to "make sure we stay in touch with the heartland." Historically, there has been tension between Gannett's other papers and USA Today, which sucked staff and resources from other dailies and hemorrhaged nearly $1 billion before turning its first annual profit in 1993. (Gannett doesn't disclose profits for individual properties, but John Morton, a media analyst and AJR columnist, says USA Today has become the company's largest single profit center.)
Paulson's desire to strengthen cooperation dates to 1982, when he was working temporarily at USA Today on loan from Gannett's Courier-News in Bridgewater, New Jersey. He approached Carl Sessions Stepp, then the paper's national editor and now a journalism professor at the University of Maryland and an AJR senior editor, with the idea that USA Today create an "army of eyes and ears" by appointing a liaison to all the Gannett papers.
The goal was to "tap into regional stories that were about to break but we wouldn't have known about," Stepp recalls two decades later. Paulson, who doesn't remember pitching the plan, says of Gannett's properties in 43 states: "That's a resource we have that no other paper has."
His team is tapping Gannett reporters to help with stories such as 50-state roundups on the flu-vaccine shortage and phasing in a "correspondents program." Editors at papers such as the Arizona Republic and Des Moines Register have chosen a senior reporter who gets a monthly stipend to send story tips to USA Today and also files about five stories per year to the paper.
Paulson acknowledges the partnerships are economical ways to stretch coverage without pumping resources into the paper but says they will not come at the expense of his 419 staff positions. (As of June, the News section had six staffed domestic bureaus; ME Stevens was in the process of filling a vacancy in Chicago and hoped to hire someone to reopen the Texas bureau by year's end.)
Paulson also has speeded perpetually late staff evaluations--a sore point during the previous administration--and emphasized minority hiring. When we talked in early June, Paulson told me proudly that five of his eight hires since January 1 were minorities.
"He is to USA Today what Gerald Ford was to the United States," says Christine Brennan, a sports columnist under contract with the paper. "Ken's a solid citizen at a time when journalism seems to be going through these major controversies and these throes of agony."
In its devastating indictment of the paper, the outside panel concluded: "This is not a culture that promotes the give-and-take that sharpens and refines thought, the collegiality that magnifies the impact of resources, the spirit that shares rewards and ameliorates distress, out of which great journalism arises."
These are high standards, and perhaps no newsroom in the country meets them. By some of those measures, USA Today has improved markedly a year after those findings brought down its former leaders. Paulson and his managers have worked to create a more open, upbeat environment and rightly have trained their energy on repairing the paper's tattered credibility. But complaints from some journalists that editors don't trust them or are overly fearful of making mistakes signal barriers to aggressive reporting and potential minefields for the new team.
"You hire journalists who are good and smart and tenacious and thorough, and you set standards, but you don't over-regulate the process and the people to death," Zelnick says. "Most of the trouble the press has gotten into in my experience didn't involve these little tricky rules that are being passed. They were stupid or in some cases intentional mistakes."
He's concerned the industry may be overreacting to recent embarrassments. "You want reporters who are aggressive; you want reporters who push the envelope a bit," Zelnick says. "Right now they're all operating under a cloud, and I think there's a lot of journalism that's being driven by fear."
If reporters choose not to pursue important stories in the spheres of national security, intelligence, or corporate practices because getting them in the paper is too arduous, Kelley's legacy will be even more distressing. Paulson's challenge will be to make sure the focus on credibility promotes bold journalism, and doesn't stifle it.
"Bottom line: Am I glad Ken's here?" asks Horovitz. "Yeah, I'm glad Ken's here. Has he fixed the paper? No. You need the paper to fix the paper. But you've got to start somewhere. Might as well start at the top."