It's part of his job, whether he's giving a presentation to his newspaper staff or lecturing to journalists and media executives about First Amendment issues. Thursday night, however, after receiving the Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media, he was, for a moment, speechless.
"This is … beyond belief, to be part of this truly special event," he said after being introduced to a capacity crowd in Slagle Auditorium by Neuharth, "particularly because this award bears Al Neuharth's name."
Paulson said he has learned a great deal about leadership and readership from both Neuharth and John C. Quinn. Earlier in the evening Quinn, who was chief news executive for Gannet Co. when USA TODAY was launched a quarter century ago, also was honored by Neuharth.
Quinn and Paulson are the 20th and 21st recipients of Neuharth's award that recognizes individuals who have made noteworthy accomplishments in the field of journalism.
"This is a great honor to be added to this illustrious list of celebrated journalists," Quinn said. "Any recognition that we have tonight must be shared with the staff that helped USA TODAY survive and ultimately succeed."
The newspaper became a reality, he said, thanks to a group of young editors from across the country "who gave up comfortable lives to take on a new adventure, they lived with some tough circumstances and family inconvenience. That staff is the foundation of what USA TODAY is today," he said.
Quinn humorously noted that he has lived through, and survived, 40 years of working with Neuharth. Neuharth, he said, has "an outstanding vision on not only USA TODAY but on every day operations, and his outrageous vicissitude, one after the other, he had a new idea, but it has been a remarkable journey."
Paulson also noted that part of his remarkable experience with "the nation's newspaper" came from his direct dealings with Neuharth.
"I worked for him as his chief of staff for two years, and he was certainly the toughest boss I have ever had," Paulson said. "Some people have said they have had a love ? hate relationship with Al. In 1987-88, I had a love ? conspiring-to-kill-him relationship."
Neuharth called Quinn and Paulson "the best 'old' and 'young' editors that USA TODAY have ever had." Quinn was Gannett's chief news executive, Neuharth said, when the decision was made to attempt to launch the national newspaper.
"John put together a staff of the best young men and women from across the country," Neuharth said. "He directed the makeup and the re-makeup of literally thousands of prototypes for USA TODAY every day. We'd make (them) up every day, and then tear them up and throw away start over before the first 'real' USA TODAY. "And then he'd put out a better newspaper every day, day after day," he said. "But those snobby journalists east of the Potomac and east of the Hudson labeled that paper, 'McPaper,' " he said. "But before long, those snobs began stealing 'McPaper's McNuggets.' Then we knew the game was over, and we had won."
Quinn and Neuharth agreed to staff USA TODAY with a diverse group of journalists who already were employed at Gannett newspapers. "Some of our business-side people talked about hiring a couple big names from the journalism world, and my view was that the big names would do the same thing for us as they are doing now, and we were not intending to imitate anyone else," Quinn said. "Our intent from the beginning was to try to relate to readers from across the USA."
Paulson was a founding staff member of USA TODAY when the newspaper launched in September 1982. On the first night of publication, he stood next to Neuharth to watch the first edition of the newspaper roll off the presses. It was an ultimate moment in both his and Quinn's journalism careers.
"When USA TODAY came off it the press, it represented three years of planning and fighting and listening to Al Neuharth's brilliance, and trying to put out a good newspaper in spite of it," Quinn said. "Once you were able to hold that newspaper in your hand … that had to be my greatest moment."
"Coincidentally, my greatest moment is John Quinn's greatest moment," Paulson said. "That night, being part of the birth of USA TODAY, is unlike anything else. It felt like the start of something big, and we're gratified that it turned out to be exactly that."
News consumers had never seen anything quite like USA TODAY when it first hit newsstands 25 years ago. "We have a couple of realities to deal with," Paulson said. "We have an entire generation that's accustomed to getting its news and information online digitally, and I would think it is not realistic to expect to convert all of them to newspaper readers." An experiment, for lack of a better term, is demonstrating however, that young people do read newspapers.
"Ten years ago, USA TODAY, the New York Times, and the local newspaper became part of a common project in which we provided daily newspapers to the entire student body," Paulson said. The young people paid a modest fee to receive the newspapers. "Based on a survey, the results of which were released just this last week, 94 percent of the student body at Penn State University has read a newspaper in the last week," he said. "We're absolutely confident that if young people are exposed to what newspaper have to offer, they will respond very positively, and will use that as a vehicle for news and information."
USA TODAY has recently launched its own Web site, and is exploring other alternatives to take advantage of a wide array of multiple platforms.
"We are reaching out to draw and build new audiences, so we're very optimistic," Paulson said.