Obituary: Al Neuharth / USA Today founder who changed the look of American newspapers

March 22, 1924 - April 19, 2013


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Critics dubbed USA Today "McPaper" when it debuted in 1982, and they accused its founder, Al Neuharth, of dumbing down American journalism with its easy-to-read articles and bright graphics.

Mr. Neuharth had the last laugh when USA Today became the nation's most-circulated newspaper in the late 1990s.

The hard-charging founder of USA Today died Friday in Cocoa Beach, Fla. He was 89. The news was announced by USA Today and by the Newseum in Washington, D.C., which he also founded.

Jack Marsh, president of the Al Neuharth Media Center and a close friend, confirmed that he passed away Friday afternoon at his home. Mr. Marsh said Mr. Neuharth fell earlier this week and never quite recovered.

Mr. Neuharth changed the look of American newspapers by filling USA Today with breezy, easy-to-comprehend articles, attention-grabbing graphics and stories that often didn't require readers to jump to a different page. Sections were denoted by different colors. The entire back page of the news section had a colored-weather map of the entire United States. The news section contained a state-by-state roundup of headlines from across the nation. Its eye-catching logo of white lettering on a blue background made it recognizable from a distance.

"Our target was college-age people who were non-readers. We thought they were getting enough serious stuff in classes," Mr. Neuharth said in 1995. "We hooked them primarily because it was a colorful newspaper that played up the things they were interested in -- sports, entertainment and TV."

USA Today was unlike any newspaper before it when it debuted in 1982. Its style was widely derided but later widely imitated. Many news veterans gave it few chances for survival. Advertisers were at first reluctant to place their money in a newspaper that might compete with local dailies. But circulation grew. In 1999, USA Today edged past The Wall Street Journal in circulation with 1.75 million daily copies, to take the title of the nation's biggest newspaper.

"Everybody was skeptical and so was I, but I said you never bet against Neuharth," the late Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham said in a 2000 Associated Press interview.

The launch of USA Today was Mr. Neuharth's most visible undertaking during more than 15 years as chairman and CEO of the Gannett Co. During his helm, Gannett became the nation's largest newspaper company and the company's annual revenues increased from $200 million to more than $3 billion. Mr. Neuharth became CEO of the company in 1973 and chairman in 1979. He retired in 1989.

As Gannett chief, Mr. Neuharth loved making the deal. Even more so, the driven media mogul loved toying with and trumping his competitors in deal-making.

In his autobiography, "Confessions of an S.O.B.," Mr. Neuharth made no secret of his hard-nosed business tactics.

He also recounted proudly how he beat out Ms. Graham in acquiring newspapers in Wilmington, Del. He said the two were attending a conference together in Hawaii, and he had already learned that Gannett had the winning bid, but he kept silent until he slipped her a note right before the deal was to be announced.

During the mid-1980s, Gannett unsuccessfully attempted to merge with CBS in what would have been the biggest media company at the time. The deal fell apart, something that Mr. Neuharth considered one of his biggest failures.

Neuharth was proud of his record in bringing more minorities and women into Gannett newsrooms and the board of directors. When he became CEO, the company's board was all white and male. By the time he retired, the board had four women, two blacks and one Asian. He also pushed Ms. Graham to become the first female chairman of the American Newspaper Publishers Association.

Before joining Gannett, Mr. Neuharth rose up through the ranks of Knight Newspapers. He went from reporter to assistant managing editor at The Miami Herald in the 1950s and then became assistant executive editor at the Detroit Free Press.

Allen H. Neuharth was born March 22, 1924, in Eureka, S.D. He grew up poor but ambitious in Alpena, S.D., and had journalism in his blood from an early start. At age 11 he took his first job as a newspaper carrier, and later as a teenager he worked in the composing room of the weekly Alpena Journal. His ambition already was noticeable.

"I wanted to get rich and famous no matter where it was," Mr. Neuharth said in a 1999 Associated Press interview. "I got lucky. Luck is very much a part of it. You have to be at the right place at the right time and pick the right place at the right time."

After earning a bronze star in World War II and graduating with a journalism degree from the University of South Dakota, Mr. Neuharth worked for the AP for two years. He then launched a South Dakota sports weekly tabloid, SoDak Sports, in 1952. It was a spectacular failure, losing $50,000, but it was perhaps the best education Mr. Neuharth ever received.

"Everyone should fail in a big way at least once before they're forty," he said in his autobiography. "The bigger you fail, the bigger you're likely to succeed later."

After he retired from Gannett, Mr. Neuharth continued to write "Plain Talk," a weekly column for USA Today.

He also founded the The Freedom Forum, a foundation dedicated to free press and free speech that holds journalism conferences, offers fellowships and provides training.

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