i-878fb56d1443e836a422296c0a2cc8ed-usatoday-logo.gifPressThink blogger and NYU professor Jay Rosen asks a good question of me: “If there’s a Media Shift, what is it shifting from and what is it shifting to?” In the case of newspapers, it’s easy to say that the shift is from costly newsprint to less costly Internet and new media delivery options such as email newsletters, mobile devices and anything else that might not stain your fingers.

How much work does it take to get you a print newspaper? First they cut down the trees, then they make the paper, then the reporters go out and interview people or sit and entertain themselves in front of movies, TV or webcast press conferences they watch on their computer, then they write something, then a bunch of people edit that, then some photographers take photos, then some other people lay out the page, then more people edit it, then someone writes a headline, then they have a news meeting and decide to put it off a day, then the reporter screams bloody murder and they relent, then the newspaper gets printed up, then it gets loaded onto delivery vehicles, then it’s delivered to your home or to a newsstand. My fingers are tired just writing about it.

So it’s all going online, right? Not so fast. I’ve been traveling a lot lately, and for some reason, every time I travel, I gravitate not to the New York Times, not to the Wall Street Journal, not to my hometown San Francisco Chronicle, but like a Pavlov’s Dog wagging his tail I go straight to USA Today. The colorful McPaper is simple in its premise: Give me the news, give it to me straight, give it to me right down the middle (politics-wise). How simple is it? It’s color-coded! Even the paint-by-numbers crowd can find Money in green and Life in purple and Sports in red.

Reading USA Today while traveling is like reading the Bible in church, like watching football in Texas, like eating bagels in New York City. If old-time vittles like mashed potatoes and roast beef are considered comfort food, then USA Today is a kind of comfort media. There are lots of silly graphical charts, which easily become the butt of jokes on the humor site, The Onion. There’s a massive weather chart of the USA (you must call it the USA, not the United States or U.S. but USA, you must!).

You can almost hear the Olympic chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” reverberating in the airport walls as you plunk down your 75 cents, tear through the color-coded sections, glance at the big, bright photos of celebrities and sports stars alongside Osama Bin Laden, and wonder, “Is that an ad for Sprint or is it a story about the Super Bowl?” It’s very easy to say that there isn’t a lot of real substance to USA Today, but it isn’t true. It’s the perfect amount of substance for reading in an airport, on a plane or train, and it lets you dip into many subjects just enough for the moment. It has news bites from each state of the USA, and box scores from every professional game.

So when I’m traveling, why don’t I just pull up news on my laptop? Why can’t I just listen to podcasts on my iPod? Why can’t I receive scores on my cell phone? There might be a “wow” factor in doing some of those new media marvels, but there’s little comfort there. The comfort is knowing I can get my news in bite-sized morsels, in bright color, in a convenient package that requires no plugs or battery power.

So while media is shifting in many ways — print to online, radio to satellite and podcasts, TV to online streaming video and DVDs — some media might not shift at all. Of course, the USA Today newspaper did represent a shift when it launched in the early ’80s, with national distribution via satellite and expensive color printing throughout. And it has aggressively been marketed by Gannett, its corporate owner, in hotels, airports and other travel hubs. (Read a timeline of USA Today’s history here.)

For listening to music while traveling, nothing beats a portable MP3 player such as an iPod. It represents the new comfort media for traveling with music, a step beyond the Walkman, the Discman and other portable music devices. But will there be a shift from the comfort of USA Today, some new format that will fit hand in glove for travelers? Share your thoughts on what you’d like to see, or tell us about your comfort media for traveling.

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