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Darth Vega to the Rescue 

New Chronicle Publisher Frank Vega has been cast as a villain, but he may be just what the Hearst empire needs to defeat the dark forces of the new economy

Wednesday, May 4 2005
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"What I think was remarkable about it," Johnson says, "was that we were given 59 days to do this, from the day we got notified to the day the paper had to go on the street. We were inventing a new product, from the newsprint to the placement of the coin racks, to the design, the color -- everything. It was a remarkable project, and very successful." No one but a handful of people knew that this was a test run for a new national newspaper; Vega certainly didn't, but he immersed himself in the project nonetheless, learning every detail of every step of a newspaper's production and distribution, which is a lengthy and complicated sort of peristalsis. The planning was "extremely detailed," Johnson says. "How fast the press runs, how long it takes copies to run through the production system, to go through the mailroom, to be loaded in the truck." Vega rode the routes himself with a stopwatch, then drew up charts that showed each route and drop point and precisely how long a truck would need to get from point to point. (Eastbay Today folded in 1982 when the Tribune switched to morning publication.)

In a presentation, Vega showed these charts to Neuharth, guaranteeing that the papers would be delivered on time. Neuharth quickly waved him off. "That's bullshit, Vega," he said, a moment that's recounted in Peter Prichard's book The Making of McPaper: The Inside Story of USA Today. "You circulation guys never deliver what you say you will."

Vega had read all about his boss, how he liked to gamble a bit, and here the young executive decided to rise to Neuharth's challenge.

"I understand you like to bet with your employees," Vega remembers saying. "Why don't we make a bet? I'll bet you a month's pay of mine against a month's pay of yours. I know what you make; I've read the proxy statements. And you know what I make. If I lose, it's gonna hurt me more than it's gonna hurt you."

Neuharth's eyes closed to slits, as they tended to at moments of high irritation. "I don't want all your money," he told Vega, so he bet $5 instead. The night of the launch, in November 1979, Neuharth ducked out of a party early and took his limo past several drop locations. "The papers were there exactly when I said they would be," Vega says, still proud today. Three months after the paper's debut, with Eastbay Today's circulation cresting, he was asked to join a small, secretive research team -- "the young geniuses," as Neuharth took to calling its four members -- that was exploring the idea of a new national newspaper.


Today, Vega keeps a home in Cocoa Beach, Fla. Neuharth is his neighbor. His youngest son is named Joseph Allen, after Neuharth. "Al gave me the opportunity to do what I do," Vega says. "He's the guy who said I could get into general management and become a publisher." Vega's three years at Neuharth's USA Today were a formative experience. As the young genius in charge of circulation, Vega faced perhaps the biggest logistical problem of starting a national newspaper (simultaneously, no less, in several different markets) -- finding and counting customers who didn't yet exist for a paper that didn't yet exist and for which no model really ever existed. The questions piled on top of one another. How do you distribute a new national paper in established, and often hostile, markets? What kind of box do you put the newspaper in? Should it be round and different? Should the coin slot rest on top of the newsrack, as required by the laws of gravity, or underneath, as demanded by Neuharth? Should the newsrack be plastic? Should it have a robot voice that thanks you for buying the paper? "One night I woke up in a cold sweat," Vega recalls. "I'm 30 years old. How am I gonna start a national paper? There's no book on how to do this. No one's done it.

"Then I thought about it and said, 'You know, I'm just gonna do Oakland 17 times. I'm just gonna go into a city and have people set up routes, and we're gonna time them, and we're gonna figure out where we ought to be. I'm just going to use that model 17 times in 17 cities.' And you know what? It worked." (According to Johnson, Vega's predictions for how much each market would sell were "right on the button.")

In McPaper, Prichard describes Vega's circulation crew as "USA Today's shock troops." In some cases, during the paper's launch, they'd be bolting down newsracks -- a distinctive blue-and-white box, with a tilted display window and a coin slot in the middle -- just hours before delivery. There were problems, of course. In Pittsburgh, vandals were popping the handles off newsracks; Vega suspected the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's union drivers, who were hostile to USA Today's nonunion operation. He scheduled a meeting with the man in charge of the paper's circulation. At the time, USA Today had put in an order for some 100,000 newspaper racks, and the country's newsrack manufacturers were scrambling to fill that request. "There weren't any for anybody else to buy for two years," he says. He told the circulation guy as much, and then explained what a squirt of pancake syrup could do to his newsracks.

Once the paper found its feet, Vega was deemed expendable, at least as far as USA Today was concerned. He was a start-up guy, not a maintenance guy, something he disputed in only the most colorful language in the office of his successor. Today, Vega confesses that he's "not a great maintenance guy." He realized it years later in Detroit. "I got bored in Detroit," he says. "I was there 14 years, and the place was running well, as well as can be expected in that market. I think I'm better at fixing stuff and starting stuff up than I am at running something 10 years into it."

About The Author

Tommy Craggs

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