It seems that whenever anyone wants to trash a newspaper, USA Today supplies the easy target. It’s colorful, it’s given away free at hotels, it specializes in short news. What’s not to hate?

Unfortunately, the facts just don’t support the criticism.

First off, a bit of honesty. USA Today is no New York Times nor a Wall Street Journal. But, what newspapers do compare with those venerable titles? The Times and the Journal sit in a category unto themselves. After all, they are the only two papers in the country that take an entire morning to read.

That said, USA Today rests squarely in the 2nd-tier category — as do other papers with national prestige such as the Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune and the L.A. Times. But, when searching for a large newspaper to trash, nobody launches undefended criticisms at those three papers.

In essence, the four newspapers compare equally. They cover international news well — all have numerous foriegn correspondents. They cover Washington politics well — all have well-staffed Washington bureaus. And they all cover the nation well.

USA Today, in fact, does the latter much better than the others. Why? Because USA Today is owned by Gannett, which in turn owns a kaboodle of daily newspapers. (Including the Jackson Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi where this author once worked as a copy editor on the news desk. But if you worked for Gannett, you usually don’t go around defending them, so please don’t read any bias into that fact.) These local dailies give Gannett great access into many U.S. cities, a benefit USA Today uses wisely.

USA Today holds several other qualities above the other papers.

As someone who has lived in North Carolina, Mississippi, Massachusetts and Georgia, I enjoy reading the news roundup from those states. I’m sure others get a kick out of reading local news from their former haunts as well. When I pick up a Washington Post, I receive no such joy.

USA Today provides easy-to-digest graphic information. Sometimes certain data (e.g., the ratio of catfish to alligators in Louisiana) proves interesting but doesn’t merit a whole story. USA Today’s infographics provide the information, quickly and in entertaining fashion. Some sneer at this “dumbing down” of information; I’m just happy they took the time to provide the data in a fun manner.

USA Today has one of the best sports sections in the country. I dare you to find more raw sports information in any other daily newspaper. (The Atlanta-Journal Constitution’s sports pages are the best I’ve read in the country, but they appeal more to the Southern sports fan.)

USA Today provides an incredibly wide swath of news. Yes, the articles may not be long (though the cover stories on each section front each devote more than 60″ of copy per day), but they derive from a variety of locales and cover a host of subjects. Most articles are relatively short, but if you need more information you can go to the New York Times or Wall Street Journal. USA Today’s articles are no shorter than any other 2nd-tier newspaper.

The bottom line? The L.A. Times, Chicago Tribune and Washington Post don’t exceed USA Today in coverage regarding the latest violence in Haiti, the pending action of the Federal Reserve or the devastation of hurricanes in Florida. Yet, when we’re searching for a whipping boy, my beloved USA Today always seems to suffice.