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The editor who escaped from the lifestyle ghetto

Karen Jurgensen has just been appointed the first woman editor of `USA Today', the largest circulation newspaper in America.
KAREN JURGENSEN raises her eyes as she is asked the question for what must be the millionth time. "Insofar as my appointment says to young women, `you can do this too', I think that's wonderful, but I didn't set out to be the first woman editor of USA Today," she says, somewhat wearily.

But the first woman editor of USA Today, and only the second woman editor of a national title in America, is precisely what Ms Jurgensen is, at the age of 50. Sitting in her office with its commanding view of the city of Washington, she is at the top of the largest-circulation newspaper in America, a country where (as in Britain) the newspaper industry has a relentlessly male culture.

There was warm comment in the other papers at her appointment, but she plays it down. "This is just the natural progression of women in the workplace," she says. Women are no longer limited to the style sections, as they were in the 1970s. "They were not taken particularly seriously." Since then, they have worked their way "through the ranks", she says, just as she moved from the Life section, through special projects editor, managing editor and, for the past eight years, editor of the editorial page, to the editor's office.

USA Today has a more balanced mix of men and women than some of its rivals. It targeted women readers before many US papers had got around to thinking about the changing demographics of the workplace. On the day she was interviewed, last Friday, 40 per cent of the articles in the news section of the paper were written by women, compared to 30 per cent in The Washington Post and 25 per cent in The New York Times.

Yet perhaps the most surprising thing about that comparison is that it can be made at all. At its birth, USA Today was ridiculed by the rest of the industry as "McPaper". It was said to be insubstantial, dominated by quick bites of stories matched with "infographics". Heavens, it had colour! Most observers did not expect it to survive, let alone flourish.

But Gannett, the owners, pressed on, sinking money into a project that looked to many like a surefire loser. Since then, the paper has come on by leaps and bounds. It has made money for the last five years, it has steadily added bureaux around the country, and the stories have got longer, heavier, more newsy.

And while the industry as a whole has contracted in America, USA Today has steadily expanded to the point where its five-day circulation now stands over 2 million when bulk sales are included, and 1.65m by the standards of the Audit Bureau of Circulation, just behind The Wall Street Journal.

It is Ms Jurgensen's job to build on the achievements of David Mazarella, editor for the last four years. Her aim, she says, is to turn what is already a successful product into a "lasting institution". When she was asked about the job last summer, she says, she "sat and thought about it and made lots of lists" of positive and negative factors. "I looked at what I'd already done and decided it was a wonderful offer."

She has a reputation for being calm and cool-headed, say colleagues. Her office and her desk are meticulously ordered, with just the family pictures to give a personal touch. She is a very disciplined person, she says, one of the things that helps protect her against the debilitating pressures of editing. "I tend to be pretty organised and I tend to be a delegator." She will need to be: running a machine with dozens of print sites in the US and abroad, that covers a market with three time zones from the Pacific to the Atlantic, makes it a huge management task.

She hit the headlines herself briefly in 1990, when she described in a moving piece an incident that happened in her 20s. "I am a rape victim," she wrote, describing the episode in horrifying detail. "I want you to know the police treated me as though I was the criminal. I thought, we can't be silent. We have to let people know that we're here." It brought many warm letters of support and much appreciation by those on the paper and among readers.

Part of the job will be to continue to build on the relationship the paper has built with its readership. "I would like to discover the kind of newspaper readers will care about," she says. She also wants closer links between the paper and the online product which, according to notices pinned up in the office, is now the largest general-interest news site on the Internet.

There is justifiable pride among the paper's older hands about what has been achieved. "We built it from nothing in less than 17 years," says Ms Jurgensen. "But do I think we're perfect? No." And if there was one thing that she could change about the paper overnight, just by clicking her fingers? She thinks for a while and then says: "Authority."

It is true that while the paper has achieved huge things, it is still not seen as a heavyweight in the same league as The New York Times. Yet that is, partly, a factor of its vast nationwide readership, the diversity of which is reflected in its pages.

It is a formidable task, but one that Ms Jurgensen clearly relishes. "You try to do the best you can," she says wryly.