Why I've been to USA Today more in the last month than the rest of my life combined

By Sarah Lacy , written on March 21, 2013

From The News Desk

I have never heard so much about USA Today than I have in the past few weeks.

The paper -- known for colorful charts, short articles, hotel rooms, and little else -- has found at least one way to be insanely digitally relevant in 2013: Launch a contest around high school mascots.

My high school, St. Mary's Episcopal School in Memphis, has the Turkey as its mascot, and it is solidly in the running to be the wackiest high school mascot in the country. Big deal, right?

Apparently, it is. My Facebook feed has been clogged with updates about the voting, and it has taken over the lives of my sister and niece (who teach and go there respectively). They had an emergency all hands during Spring Break, because the rival school was taking the lead, and there was a glitch on USA Today's site that meant Turkey votes weren't getting counted. After plenty of outrage, USA Today did a revote. The school went crazy again getting the vote out. I got more emails. Videos were produced to drive more votes.

Of course, a Harlem Shake video with Turkeys was made. There's a chaplain in there. And I think that's the headmaster in the front. I also spotted my third grade teacher.

And, yes, I VOTED! Stop asking, entire city of Memphis!

The Turkey received more than 1.3 million votes in the second regional round, narrowing edging out the Key West Conchs. I gather this means the Turkeys go on to the next round. Which mean more emails, videos and the like, particularly now that the school is competing with other schools adept at getting out the vote.

This is one of the most brilliant examples of being America's national hometown newspaper I've seen in digital action. It's a campaign that offers next to nothing in terms of prizes or rewards -- or, to be fair, journalism -- but gets right to the heart of mid-sized town school pride. It showers attention on high school sports -- something utterly neglected as local news has withered. And it brilliantly goes on and on and on because of the bracket-style tournament.

The schools seemingly get more intense with each round, not less. The Turkeys won Tennessee in the first round with just 37,545 votes. It took 1.3 million to narrowly win in round two. The school has amassed 31,052 votes already for the third round and isn't winning so far.

Okay, this isn't an example of great journalism. But it is replicating some of the hometown pride and local joie de vivre that has been lost with the decline of the local paper. It couldn't be done without an interactive media, so it's a clever use of the Web and social media. And it's a way to get page views that isn't hopelessly link-baity and cynical -- it's somewhat heartwarming, in fact. It's also bringing an influx of young people to what I imagine is a greying franchise.

I'm sure the Turkeys would appreciate more support if you are so inclined. They will probably give me the key to the city or let me speak at graduation if our readers won this thing.

[Copyright, The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN. Used with permission.]