Karen Jurgensen Biography

Former editor of USA Today

Born c. 1949, in NC; daughter of Kai (a drama teacher) and Peggy Jurgensen; married first husband (divorced); married Bill Leary (an attorney); children: Kirsten (from first marriage). Education: University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, B.A., 1971.


Home —Virginia.


Began journalism career as editorial and features writer, columnist, and layout editor of the editorial page, Charlotte (North Carolina) News, 1972–75; became writer and editor at the University of North Carolina, Raleigh, Sea Grant College Program, 1976–79; assistant lifestyle editor and then lifestyle editor, Miami News, 1979–82, assistant city editor, 1982; joined USA Today, 1982, held several posts, including topics editor, 1982, special projects editor, 1983–85, managing editor, life department, 1985–86, managing editor, cover stories department, 1986–87, senior editor, special projects, 1987–91, editorial page editor, 1991–99, editor of newspaper, 1999-2004.


American Society of Newspaper Editors, future of newspapers committee, 1988–90, 1991; writing awards board, 1989–91; vice chair, literacy committee, 1989–91; convention committee, 1991–94; chair/vice chair press bar committee, 1993–95; vice chair convention committee, 1995–96.


Association for Women in Communications' Matrix Professional Achievement Award for outstanding contributions to the field of communications, 2000.


As the first female editor of the largest–circulation newspaper in the United States, Karen Jurgensen is among the most influential women in the industry. Yet, the former USA Today editor refuses to see herself as a trailblazer and believes her achievement is merely a part of the natural progression of women through the workforce.

Following her 1999 appointment to become USA Today 's editor, Jurgensen downplayed the role of gender as media outlets across the world lauded her promotion as a great advancement for women. For Jurgensen, it was no big deal. As she told Washington Post writer Howard Kurtz, "It's only appropriate that a newspaper that calls itself the nation's newspaper reflect that diversity in its staffing."

Raised in North Carolina, Jurgensen was born around 1949 to Kai and Peggy Jurgensen. Her Danish roots run deep and are reflected in her name, Karen, which she pronounces in the Danish style of CAR–in. Jurgensen's father taught drama at the University of North Carolina; her mother died when she was in her teens.

As early as eighth grade, Jurgensen got involved with her first newspaper and followed that passion through college. In 1971, she earned an English degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. By 1972, Jurgensen was employed by the Charlotte News in North Carolina. She stayed there until 1975, working as both an editorial and features writer, as well as a columnist and layout editor.

In 1976, Jurgensen joined the Sea Grant College Program at the University of North Carolina at Raleigh. She was a writer and editor for the program, which worked to promote the sustainable use of the state's marine resources. In 1979, Jurgensen headed back to the newsroom, becoming the assistant lifestyle editor at the Miami News. While there, Jurgensen worked her way up to lifestyle editor but yearned for a change of pace. In the 1970s, women were entering journalism in greater numbers, but, as Jurgensen found out, they were mostly kept in the lifestyle section. In time, Jurgensen took a demotion to become a metro editor assistant so she could gain hard news experience.

By the early 1980s, plans for the launch of USA Today were well under way, and Jurgensen was offered a job. With the job came great opportunity, but also risk. Jurgensen was a single mother with a five–year–old daughter. She wrestled with the idea of leaving her stable job in Miami, Florida, to relocate 1,000 miles away to work at a paper that did not even exist. In the end, she decided to head to Arlington, Virginia, where USA Today would be produced. "It was a leap of faith," Jurgensen told Bob Dart of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. "I thought then and still think that USA Today is the most exciting thing going on in journalism in the country, and I wanted to be a part of it."

Jurgensen began at USA Today as a topics editor in the life section. Later, she became special projects editor and was also deputy managing editor in the life section. By 1991, Jurgensen was in charge of the editorial page and on May 1, 1999, she became the paper's fifth editor. She had just turned 50. At the time, publisher Tom Curley said Jurgensen was selected for her leadership skills. As Curley told the Washington Post 's Kurtz, "I was most impressed with the transformation she led on the editorial page. She has really boosted the quality of writing, subject matter, approach.… She has an expansive vision for what the newspaper should be." Colleagues refer to her as a calm, cool–headed, and highly organized leader.

During her tenure at USA Today, Jurgensen initiated many changes. One change included a new accuracy program, prompted by the coverage Jurgensen read about herself upon her appointment to editor. Papers across the world carried her story, but she said she noted minor mistakes in many of them. In her accuracy program, the paper chose random stories, then called the sources to see if any mistakes had been made. Naturally, the program discouraged errors in the first place. Other changes included the addition of page–one ads, which first appeared in October of 1999.

Jurgensen's success, however, was not without consequences and sacrifices. From the beginning, Jurgensen told the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, "I had my daughter in a day–care center that closed at 6 o'clock and was, at minimum, a 45–minute drive away at rush hour. Well, it very soon became obvious that there was no way this was going to be a workable plan, so I hired someone to come and be at the house with my daughter." In the end, Jurgensen said her daughter is proud of her achievements.

Jurgensen also made headlines in 1990 when she wrote a chilling, first–person account of her experience as a rape victim when she was 26 and lived in Charlotte. Jurgensen wanted to be counted among the victims, to put a face to the crime since most papers reported rapes, but left out victims' names. Recalling the event in USA Today, she wrote, "I want you to know the police treated me as though I were the criminal. The case went nowhere. I was the bad one because I hadn't gone to the hospital for yet another invasion to prove the first one had occurred."

While USA Today makes its way into more hands than any other paper, it still struggles to be taken seriously by long–established papers, such as the New York Times. Over the years, USA Today has taken a beating for its colorful graphics and quick–fix articles meant to appeal to a broad national audience. It was nicknamed a "McPaper."

But the paper's writers know their influence is far–reaching. Mark Halperin, political director for ABC News, explained it this way to James Poniewozik of Time, "The media elites in Washington and New York who don't read USA Today unless they're traveling underestimate its influence in the lives of Americans." USA Today political columnist Walter Shapiro told Poniewozik, "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. " Jurgensen's goal as editor is simple: to turn a successful product into a lasting institution. She hopes that someday, the paper will carry more authority and can be viewed as a heavyweight by peers.

On April 20, 2004, Jurgensen abruptly resigned, "citing her failure to intercept what were apparently fabrications in articles by Jack Kelley, who was the newspaper's star foreign correspondent," according to Jacques Steinberg in the New York Times. Jurgensen resigned a week after Craig Moon, the paper's publisher, received a confidential report from three outside journalists who had been asked to find out how Kelley's fabrications had gone into the paper unnoticed. The managing editor of news, Hal Ritter, who oversaw Kelley's work most directly, also resigned.



American Journalism Review, April 1999, p. 9.

Atlanta Journal and Constitution, May 4, 1999, p. 2C.

Independent (London, England), March 23, 1999, p. 13.

New York Times, April 21, 2004, p. A1.

Time, July 21, 2003, pp. 48–50.

USA Today, April 4, 1990, p. 8A.

Washington Post, March 10, 1999, p. C1; May 6, 1999, p. C3.


"Eight Women To Watch," Washingtonian, http://www.washingtonian.com/people/powerfulwomen/womentowatch.html (February 26, 2004).

"Women in the News," Association for Women in Communications, http://www.awic–dc.org/womennews_jurgensen.shtml (February 18, 2004).

Lisa Frick

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