The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
"USA TODAY Hits the Streets"
The Making of McPaper: The Inside Story of USA TODAY
Peter S. Prichard (New York: Andrews, McMeel & Parker, 1987)
Getting a national newspaper on the streets required special tactics. Frank Vega and his people were USA TODAY's shock troops. They acted as if they were charging Normandy Beach; they burst out of the backs of rented trucks and suddenly, more than one hundred thousand newsracks were bolted to the sidewalks of America. Nothing could stop them: not lawsuits, not thugs with crowbars, not angry mayors or worried competitors. And when it was over, the unique newsrack was ubiquitous, "McPaper's" blue-and-white boxes were as recognizable as McDonald's golden arches.

On Monday morning Neuharth looked out of the window of his hotel room, expecting to see the happy sight of a new reader discovering USA TODAY. As Neuharth watched, a customer put a quarter in and opened the door. But the quarter didn't stay in the machine; it dropped right through the coin return and bounced into the gutter. Neuharth saw other buyers insert quarters, open the door and retrieve their money from the coin return -- "Hey, they're giving away newspapers here." The racks were defective.

This was not Vega's only problem: Driving around the city, he discovered that vandals had ripped the doors off many newracks with crowbars. They had poured pancake syrup down the coin slots. They had backed trucks up to racks and run over them; the pretty blue-and-white boxes looked like crumpled toadstools. Hundreds were damaged.

Many of the union drivers who delivered the Pittsburgh papers felt threatened by USA TODAY's non-union operation, and Vega suspected they were behind the vandalism. He arranged a metting with the circulation director of those newspapers, and dropped a few hints that showed he knew how to damage racks, too. Vega mentioned that newsrack manufacturers were working overtime to fill USA TODAY's demand for racks. If any of the racks that belonged to the Pittsburgh newspapers were to get damaged, it would take a long, long time to get new ones. After that, Vega said, the trouble quieted down.

The cross-country invasion of the newspaper racks was enough to confuse some people. A Minneapolis woman wrote to the USA TODAY circulation department complaining that she had put a quarter into an empty rack and nothing happened. She said she put in another quarter -- and then another. Still, despite the "via satellite" boast on the rack, the satellite did not deliver. She said she wanted her money back. USA TODAY refunded her seventy-five cents, no questions asked. Another person complained that the post office had suddenly put out these weird-looking boxes that charged twenty-five cents to mail a letter.

Neuharth was USA TODAY's premier rack-checker. Just after the Washington, D.C., launch, Neuharth and Editorial Director John Seigenthaler were riding through Georgetown. Neuharth saw a man buy a copy of USA TODAY from a rack at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street. He stopped the limo and asked the man why he bought the paper.

"I put my quarter in the slot. I paid for the paper," the man said, unsettled by the question.

"I know, but why did you but it?" Neuharth asked.

"I only took one."

"Okay, but I'd just like to know what caught your attention about USA TODAY. I'm curious."

"Sports," the man said, and walkedaway. Neuharth liked doing these man-on-the-street surveys; as a CEO, he was often skeptical of what subordinates told him, and it was fun to play reporter again.

When Neuharth found something wrong with a rack -- and he checked thousands -- he never let it pass unnoticed. On October 28, 1982, he wrote Vega:

This morning, at 9 A.M., the vending machine kitty-corner
across from the White House at Pennsylvania and Executive
Avenue still had yesterday's USA TODAY in the window and
in the box. Directly across the street, the vending machine
had its door ripped off, stashed alongside, and the machine
was empty. This is the second consecutive day it has been
in this condition. I did not report it yesterday because I wanted
to see how quickly your efficient street crew would repair it.
This is one hell of an impression to make on those hundreds
of Americans who mill around the White House every day, many
of whom get their first impression of USA TODAY on those
street corners. Some swift and solid ass-kicking is necessary
around here -- and probably elsewhere. I have started mine.
Now it's your turn.

Neuharth's P.S. warned that "the lazy, the sloppy, the unenthusiastic, the uninspired will not be working around USA TODAY very long."

The scale of the project was so mind-boggling that it was impossible to avoid mistakes. Vega and his crew of people were racing from market to market bolting down racks. They left behind them brand-new circulation crews to supervise sales, distribution and rack maintenance. Many of these new Gannett employees were new to newspapers; some were good, some were not. Vega's rack blitzkrieg left him little time to manage a market once it had been launched.

Neuharth sensed the problem and enlisted the help of a secret rack-checker -- Bill Schmick, then a Gannett News Service editor. Schmick made two-day bisits to Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco. Traveling in a rented limousine, he inspected racks, newsstands and convenience stores. The limo would pull into a 7-11 parking lot and take up half the spaces, and the dramatic arrival helped.

"I would say, 'Let me see your books on newspaper sales,'" Schmick recalls, "and they'd open them up. They didn't know whether I was from the Mafia, the IRS, or what." He found a lot of problems: large numbers of returns, racks selling yesterday's newspapers, airport vendors running out of papers or not getting them early enough. Sometimes a store owner would open a door and show Schmick a tall stack of unsold USA TODAYs. "Take these off my hands, will ya? I don't want 'em."

Union opposition was a problem in Pittsburgh, but in Philadelphia the confrontation turned into a war. Wherever it could, Gannett hired nonunion workers to distribute USA TODAY. Neuharth knew that the newspaper was not going to get launched if it was held hostage to restrictive union work rules. In Philadelphia, the union came out swinging and kept on fighting.

When Gialanella, Vega, and their people arrived in Philadelphia, the Teamsters had sent their people into the streets. "It looked like a scene from the 1940s," Vega recalls. "Pickets and people with clubs standing around fires burning in fifty-five gallon drums. Everybody was singing 'Look for the union label.'"

Teamsters curcled USA TODAY trucks and wouldn't let the drivers unload papers. There was some violence, too. Someone threw rocks through windshields. Firecrackers -- big cherry bombs and M-80s -- were used to blow up racks. One vandal mangled his hand when he couldn't get it out of the box before the explosion. Street vendors were afraid to carry USA TODAY.

Gannett had brought in fifty loaners from circulation departments in places like Marietta, Ohio and Huntington, West Virginia. "After the first day, forty-six of the fifty wanted to go home," Vega says. Some papers for Philadelphia were printed at Gannett's newspaper in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. Bill McKinney, Jr., the Lansdale publisher, was so worried about violence he had the building's windows boarded up and hired one hundred extra security guards. A few were packing pistols. Other copies were printed in Bridgewater, New Jersey, and some of those trucks were run off the road on the way to Philadelphia.

"The "drop sites," spots where bundles of newspapers were dropped for distribution to racks and newsstands, were the battleground. "We'd get to a drop site and there would be ten or twelve Teamsters there with clubs trying to intimidate our people," Vega says. A police captain called and asked for the locations of drop sites so he could "protect" USA TODAY's people. Vega and Vince Spezzano didn't trust the police officer, so they gave him a bogus list. "At first the Philadelphia police were more help to the Teamsters than they were to us," Vega says.

Then Vega developed his "television incentive program." The security guards Vega had hired for USA TODAY's downtown headquarters were told that there was a reward for information leading to the arrest of anyone vandalizing a USA TODAY newsrack or harassing a driver -- a free color TV. "We gave away twelve TVs," Vega says proudly. He considers the television incentive program a turning point in USA TODAY's relations with the powers-that-be in the City of Brotherly Love.

The Philadelphia launch was no fund for Randy Chorney, Neuharth's executive secretary. At 4 A.M. when Neuharth got to his hotel, he found an urgent note from Chorney. It said: "I've lost your briefcase. Please call me."

The briefcase contained a couple of thousand dollars in cash, all of Neuharth's credit cards, the only copy of his revised will, and the only copy of his latest contract -- his first $1 million a year contract with Gannett, which the board had approved the day before.

Neuharth called Chorney at about 4:15 A.M. and asked, in very precise, measured words, "What does your note mean?"

What it meant was that in the middle of the night when Chorney had arrived on the corporate jet with all of Neuharth's luggage, luggage for other USA TODAY executives, and her own bags, there was only one cab. Its driver was asleep. She woke him up and talked him into taking her downtown. They loaded up and took off; the cab was filled with aroma of marijuana.

The driver never stopped for a single red light. Once he reached across the seat, his hand dangling near Chorney's legs, and asked if she wanted a cigarette. She was ready to jump out. They got to the hotel in one piece, and in her rush to get out, Neuharth's briefcase was left behind. Chorney called Vega for help, sobbing. He told her to calm down, they would find it.

To get it back, Vega turned toJoe Mancuso, also known as Knuckles, who had worked in The Philadelphia Inquirer's circulation department for twenty-seven years before joining USA TODAY. Vega figured in Philadelphia, he could use a little muscle. With his slicked-back hair and veneer of sophistication, Knuckles looked a little like George Raft. But there were a few unexpected turns to his nose that suggested he had learned to take care of himself in a dark alley. Knuckles asked Chorney a few questions and then told her: "Don't worry. We've put the reach out."

Knuckles had a hunch it was an independent cab. He told an acquaintance at the cab company he would make it worth the effort to find the briefcase. Within a few minutes, Knuckle's contact called back: He had found the briefcase. Knuckles gave him forty dollars.

Fifteen minutes after Neuharth had called Chorney, Vega was at his door with the briefcase. Everything -- cash, cards, will, contract -- was still in it. Vega bragged, "When we wire a city, Al, it's wired."

The morning of the Philadelphia launch, Neuharth decided to do a little rack-checking. He told his friend Barbara Whitney that the only way to find out what was happening with the Teamsters was to go out and check. To blend in, Neuharth donned a white sweatsuit, Nike sneakers, and Porsche sunglasses. He was planning to hop in the limo, hit the streets, and mingle with the Teamsters.

Whitney said, "Allen, they're going to think you're a screaming fag. They're going to beat you up."

She talked him out of it.