Paulson replaces Karen Jurgensen, who resigned abruptly last week just before executives released a report by a panel of journalism experts that faulted management for not catching Jack Kelley's misdeeds. Kelley was found to have committed many acts of fabrication and plagiarism over the course of the past decade.
USA Today, the nation's top-selling newspaper, also made several other senior-level editorial appointments Thursday.
Paulson was an editor and reporter for 18 years and held several senior editing positions within Gannett Co., USA Today's parent company and the largest newspaper publisher in the country. He was also one of USA Today's founding staff members.
Most recently Paulson was executive director of the First Amendment Center, a free speech education organization that is part of the Freedom Forum. Paulson, who is also a lawyer, wrote a column and hosted a weekly public television show on free expression issues.
"The newspaper and its staff have faced some trying weeks, but the lessons learned from those challenges will help us build a stronger news operation," Paulson said in a statement.
The newspaper's managing editor for news, Hal Ritter, also resigned last week and executive editor Brian Gallagher said he would remain in his current position only long enough to make the transition to the next editor.
On Thursday USA Today announced that John Hillkirk, formerly managing editor of the newspaper's business section, would succeed Gallagher as executive editor, and that Carol Stevens, former editor of the editorial page, would become managing editor for news.
Gallagher was named editor of the editorial page, and Jim Henderson, the deputy managing editor in the business section, was named to replace Hillkirk.
The announcements were made at an afternoon staff meeting by Craig Moon, the newspaper's publisher. Moon said in a statement he believed Paulson's "news judgment and management expertise make him a perfect fit to move USA Today forward following this difficult period."
Kelley resigned under pressure in January after admitting to trying to deceive a team of editors examining the veracity of his work. A subsequent review by the outside experts found that he had engaged in extensive fakery and plagiarism dating back as early as 1991.