retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Our news has been full lately with some spectacular failure, whether it was the debacle at JC Penney or Fresh and Easy’s failure to launch. So against that backdrop I’d like to offer us a wonderful quote on the challenge of any new endeavor that came from the late, great television series "The West Wing." It involved an argument about a new missile defense system that continually managed to disappoint, and chief of staff Leo McGarry said the following:

“There's been a time in the evolution of everything that works when it didn't work."

In short, the road to success is paved with lots of failure and lots of guts. Once in my career, I witnessed such an event on a grand scale and I think the story speaks to the power of vision and leadership.

It happened in 1982, when I was an overnight editor for the suburban New York newspapers owned by the Gannett Company. Gannett was feverishly preparing for the launch of USA Today, a newspaper that promised to be unlike anything we had ever seen. It would have shorter stories, blazing colors and a weather map of the US that would make everyone’s eyes pop out.

While it was only 31 years ago, technology was very different and the thought of beaming newspaper pages off satellites and down to printing presses in offices like mine was staggering. I was there the night they tried and the result was, to put it mildly, a mess.

What makes color work in newspapers and other printed material is the alignment of four colors that combine to produce every other color. When it works, it’s incredible. I got to see what happened when it didn’t. It was so bad, in fact, that security guards checked the overnight crew to ensure we weren’t smuggling a copy of the weather map with us.

As a lowly copy editor on the overnight shift, I couldn’t possibly understand the bigger picture, but a guy named Al Neuharth did. He was the chairman of our company and save for one late night when he and the board of directors stunningly appeared in our newsroom, he was someone with whom I had no personal contact. All I knew was what I read. Honestly, I wasn’t sure I liked his ideas.

Neuharth had a vision of a new way of communicating the news. He rightly understood that our collective national attention span was growing shorter and that those long stories that people like me wrote were simply outdated. He understood that television news had changed the rules and that newspapers had to keep up or die.

Considering the ascendancy of 140-character Tweets as a way to share information, I think it’s fair to say that Neuharth was onto something. It’s hard to know if newspapers will continue to survive, yet it’s also possible that market forces will erode the industry to local newspapers and a few great national brands like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. Oh yes, and USA Today.

Because the simple truth is that Neuharth’s vision filled a void no one even knew existed. It’s why USA Today is such a welcome read on the road. It’s a quick chance to catch up, check out the state-by-state review to make sure things are okay at home, read the sports…and check out that fabulous weather map.

I actually had a story in one of the first issues of USA Today that involved the bombing of an IBM office related to a protest against South Africa’s racist Apartheid policies. I was given 200 words to explain the whole issue and thought that was inane. But that too was Neuharth’s vision: get to the point and be done.

Just as it was his vision to debut the paper nationally with a lead story about the death of Grace Kelly on the same day most news stations focused on a key assassination in war torn Lebanon. Six months later (forget about 31 years) no one could recall that killing in Beirut, but Grace Kelly is still remembered. Neuharth saw that one too.

Al Neuharth died last weekend, leaving behind a world of journalism he changed forever. He probably never remembered meeting me and would have cared less about my review of his vision. But I remember him, his vision and the weather map that looked like spaghetti spilled on a page.

I hope that given the opportunity I’d have his guts and maybe even a little of his vision. And the willingness to look at really messed up weather pages and see something that someday would work.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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