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DANUTA OTFINOWSKI FOR TIME

TOMORROW'S TODAY: Editor Jurgensen has a "third-generation" plan for her newspaper

When Karen Jurgensen became editor of USA Today in 1999, she became news herself. Several competing papers did stories on her, in part because she was one of few women to run a major newspaper. ("It was like I had three heads," says Jurgensen, who thinks the gender angle was overblown.) In nearly every piece, she noticed an error—nothing huge, she says, but enough to make her think, No wonder people don't like the media. So Jurgensen instituted an "accuracy program." USA Today began selecting at random stories it had published, then checking back with sources to find mistakes-and, of course, discourage errors in the first place.

At the time, it might have seemed an overreaction to a little publicity. Now—after New York Times reporter Jayson Blair was caught in a string of plagiarisms and fabrications, ultimately leading to a staff revolt and the resignation of Times executive editor Howell Raines—it seems prescient. It also underscores Jurgensen's dual challenge. In the post-Blair era, any editor wants to avoid negative attention. On the other hand, she would like to raise the profile of the nation's largest paper, which has never called attention to itself in proportion to its size. For most Americans, USA Today is like the airport Starbucks: a staple of life on the road (only about 300,000 of the 2.3 million copies sold a day go to subscribers, and it publishes only on weekdays), familiar, reassuring and, mostly, unremarked on.

The Times (weekday circulation 1.1 million), in contrast, makes headlines with every journalism prize, mini-scandal and intrastaff squabble. Journalists will tell you all this attention is justified because the Times is the nation's most important newspaper. And this is true, if you keep in mind that the journalist's definition of important is "important to journalists." USA Today is not in an urban hot spot. In 2001 it moved (along with corporate parent Gannett) to spacious new digs, complete with fitness club, in the remote office-park suburbs of Washington. Its comparatively quiet newsroom culture doesn't make for juicy media gossip. Rather, it just discreetly makes its way into the hands, and consciousness, of more Americans than any other newspaper. Says Mark Halperin, political director for ABC News: "The media élites in Washington and New York who don't read USA Today unless they're traveling underestimate its influence in the lives of Americans." Walter Shapiro, a USA Today political columnist, says, "There's no greater feeling than being out somewhere in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and realizing that one has a choice of two newspapers for the entire press corps and the entire campaign: the local paper and USA Today."

That's not to say there is no longer prejudice against the paper's what-the-news-means-to-you populism, quickly read articles and heavy graphics, which may explain why the paper has never won a Pulitzer Prize. But the knee-jerk conception of USA Today as a vapid, happy-news paper has been an outdated cliché for more than a decade. True, early versions of the paper, founded in 1982, were known for columns like Offbeat USA ("The Human Side of the News")—glib news bits that sent the message "Hey, we know this is news, but don't be scared. We'll make it easy on you."

But in the late '80s and '90s, the paper began to run more in-depth, multipage articles and to focus on breaking news rather than just summarizing it. The paper won praise for reporting, such as its investigation into the 1998 Swissair Flight 111 crash. Its Page One news choices became more serious (as opposed to, say, Jan. 5, 1983, when it led with skiers soar in west, make snow in east). The paper, once known as a farm team for other major papers, began poaching reporters from its competition, such as the Washington Post's Supreme Court reporter Joan Biskupic in 2000. And reporter Jack Kelley last year was a Pulitzer finalist for reporting on terrorism.

By the time Jurgensen took over USA Today, she says, it had become so gray that it was losing its distinctiveness, especially as many print media—not to mention cable news and the Internet—began to ape its colorful, graphics-heavy approach. Today Jurgensen, 54, says her goal is to usher in the third generation of the newspaper, combining the accessibility of the frothy early era with the heft of the gray second era. She points, for instance, to the day's lead story, about troops in Iraq, accompanied by a graphic snaking the length of the column, listing by date U.S. casualties in recent months. She also notes the paper's Market Trends graphic, which uses a 3-D image to indicate whether a stock sector beat or trailed the market, and by how much, over a week, a month and a quarter—an example of a sophisticated visual idea that packs in information that text can't convey well.

USA Today's populism is also reflected in its policy of making sure stories on different subjects include diverse sources—a salient point after the Times scandal, which illustrated the ongoing struggle by newspapers to bring diversity to both their newsrooms and their coverage. (Some charged that Blair was cut too much slack because he was black.) "If you're doing a story on used-car dealers," says Jurgensen, "not all of them are 40-year-old white guys, so find some who aren't." Also germane to the Blair affair—which included his inventing not only details but also quotes from unattributed "anonymous sources"—USA Today once banned, and still strongly discourages, the use of unattributed quotations.

USA Today came to look and read the way it does, however, as much because of its business model as any editorial philosophy. It relies heavily on single-copy sales, which means grabbing attention with color pictures, catchy headlines and, essentially, a mini-summary of the paper's contents on the front page. This also means catering to travelers—hence the extensive sports section and travel-issues coverage. It sells nearly a million copies each day in bulk to hotels, who give them to guests. Hotels pay less than home subscribers, and some critics and competitors have charged that readers may not give as much attention to newspapers (and their ads) they didn't ask for. But media analysts say the attractiveness of the traveler audience—younger and richer than most newspaper readers—outweighs any disadvantage. Amid a poor period for print advertising, says Kevin Calabrese, a media analyst at Argus Research, USA Today "is off a little bit slightly from last year, but it still looks head and shoulders above the competition."

USA Today's market is attractive enough so that both the Times and the Wall Street Journal have launched initiatives to appeal to a broader national audience-initiatives that include such USA Today-esque features as weekend travel and leisure sections and color, color, color. (National newspapers also compete for advertisers with newsweekly magazines like TIME.) Media analysts, however, generally do not see these moves—or the Times's woes—affecting USA Today's business for good or bad. "I really view the market (for each paper) as very separate," says Doug Arthur, publishing analyst at Morgan Stanley. Says Calabrese: "Frankly, as they say, the New York Times doesn't play as well in Peoria as USA Today does."

And USA Today may never play as well on Park Avenue. It is not the erudite, exhaustive—sometimes exhausting—Times, but neither is it trying to be, any more than CNN Headline News is trying to be the PBS News Hour. And for all the praise USA Today has got for its longer investigative stories—that is, for being like "respectable" newspapers—reaffirming its commitment to accessible news is just as laudable. The paper helped broaden the definition of news beyond the preoccupations of élites: the lead story in its Money section is more likely to be about rising cable rates than about the latest deal struck by a cable corporation, and it doesn't look down on readers who want to read about new food-labeling regulations before, say, the U.S. stance on Liberia. Granted, the paper still sometimes runs ditsy articles that seem like parodies out of the Onion. For instance, last Monday it ran strong investigations of the undercovered Bush nuclear-weapons policy and of how budget cutbacks may have been a factor in the space-shuttle disaster—but also a feature asking blond lawyers the burning question, Is Legally Blonde 2 true to life? (Answer: It totally is, kind of!) But in general, USA Today does better than ever a hard thing that looks easy—making news brief but not dumb-through efficient, informed stories that lay out the facts without calling attention to themselves.

Not calling attention to oneself is something of an institutional trait at USA Today, for better and worse. The paper hasn't cultivated many star columnists or strong editorial voices, which can help give a paper an identity. The fact that many staffers, like Jurgensen, remember the paper's tentative early days helps it maintain an underdog attitude even now. But while modesty is nice, confidence—oh, let's just call it arrogance—is what makes people dream big and reach high. Competent, reliable USA Today may have become a good newspaper by trading off the swagger that makes a great newspaper. Of course, as the Times's recent experience has shown, there's a case to be made for quiet toil. At least in this sense, for one big yet oft overlooked newspaper, no news really is good news.

—With reporting by Andrea Sachs/ McLean, Va., and Amanda Bower/New York