By David Colton and Rick Hampson
Allen H. Neuharth, the newspaper visionary and former Gannett chairman who founded USA TODAY, helped create a museum dedicated to news and became one of the industry's most influential and sometimes controversial figures, died Friday at his home in Cocoa Beach, Fla. He was 89.
"As a journalist, I had a wonderful window on the world'' Neuharth wrote in "Plain Talk," a final column he said should be published in USA TODAY after his death. "For nearly 50 years as a reporter and editor, I tried to tell stories accurately and fairly, without opinion."
It was fitting that Neuharth would try to have the last word, even on the topic of his own passing. The longtime newspaperman, media executive and columnist died after sustaining injuries in a fall at his home.
Newsroom smart and board room savvy, Neuharth was audacious, flamboyant and a self-described "dreamer and schemer." He used all those talents, and a dose of Midwest charm and common sense, to help build Gannett into one of America's largest media companies.
He picked fights with the likes of Donald Trump, Ben Bradlee and Betty Friedan, usually with a wink of satisfaction for the attention it drew. He invited himself to palaces and board rooms to meet with world and business leaders such as Margaret Thatcher.
More memorably, he championed the careers of women and minorities inside Gannett and on its front pages, and - against all odds - battled his own board of directors to give the nation its first general interest national newspaper in 1982.
So deeply did he believe in USA TODAY that he decked out a bus in 1987 and criss-crossed the USA (which he insisted was the only proper name for America), to interview all 50 governors and promote the struggling daily.
Even in retirement, long after USA TODAY had become one of the nation's most entrenched news brands, Neuharth's views were keenly sought by Gannett's top leaders.
"Al's passing is a great loss for all of us in the Gannett family," said Gannett CEO Gracia Martore. "Al was many things - a journalist, a leader, a serial entrepreneur, and a pioneer in advancing opportunities for women and minorities. But above all, he was an innovator with a unique sense of the public taste. ... I will miss his counsel, and I will miss the man. But as with all great people, what Al built will live on."
When USA TODAY was ready to mark its 30th anniversary last September with a dramatic redesign (replacing the time-tested USA TODAY rectangle with a round blue logo), Gannett executives, some nervous about the change, flew to Neuharth's home in Cocoa Beach eager for his opinion - and hopefully his blessing.
"You should have done this five years ago," Neuharth said plainly after a slide presentation of the changes. The relief in the room was palpable.
"Al Neuharth reinvented news,'' said USA TODAY Publisher Larry Kramer. "Even in our recent efforts to translate his vision into the modern world of digital journalism, we relied on him to tell us if we were going in the right direction. His advice was, not surprisingly, the best and most practical we heard.''
Dave Callaway, editor in chief of USA TODAY, said Neuharth "was, is and always will be USA TODAY. He holds a remarkable place in the history of American journalism, and the spirit and passion which he brought to our industry will never be extinguished."
As a leader, Neuharth's style "rubbed some people the wrong way, but you never had any doubt who was in charge," said Charles Overby, former chairman of the Freedom Forum, which opened a $435 million Newseum across from the Capitol in Washington, D.C., in 2008. "He was a big picture guy - a new national newspaper, a new museum about news.''
ROAD TO WASHINGTON
Neuharth rose from a poor, fatherless childhood in the Depression Dustbowl of South Dakota to become rich, powerful and famous - jetting to Gannett's properties across the nation, sharing a Yankee skybox with George Steinbrenner and raising quality control to a new level in the newspaper business..
USA TODAY, widely dismissed as Neuharth's folly when it appeared in 1982, virtually reinvented the American newspaper with splashy color and bold graphics, shorter articles, expanded sports coverage and a big, colorful weather map. The entirety of the American experience was boiled down to four sections - News, Money, Sports and Life.
Some derided it as "McPaper'' - junk-food journalism for television viewers who didn't like to read.Newsweekonce described its founder as "the man who shortened the attention spans of millions of Americans."
But within five years USA TODAY had its first profitable month, and is now the nation's second-largest daily newspaper with an expanding media footprint both online and internationally.
"The editors who called us McPaper," Neuharth liked to say, "stole our McNuggets.''
The USA TODAY gamble was "an act of enormous imagination and courage and risk-taking," said media critic Geneva Overholser, who as a Gannett editor sparred with Neuharth for years over cutbacks at local papers as the national newspaper took center stage.
"Al's legacy was to jumpstart newspapers when they were beginning to lose favor with readers," said Overby. "He made color and graphics routine in newspapers, and he changed editors' ideas about what belongs on page one."
The mad scientist behind this experiment in journalism was as colorful as his creation.
He wrote on an old manual typewriter sitting in a treehouse he built overlooking the Atlantic; he commissioned larger-than-life busts of himself; he dressed exclusively in black, white and gray, and still managed to look garish - "like a Vegas pit boss dressed up for Wayne Newton's funeral," wrote Henry Allen ofThe Washington Post.
He entitled his autobiographyConfessions of an S.O.B., and gave both his ex-wives chapters to tell their side of his story. "His life was turned inside out, and he did most of it himself," said his colleague, John Seigenthaler.
Neuharth was full of surprises:
The CEO who promoted women executives once wrote a column calling for younger, slimmer airline stewardesses.
The innovator who used satellite technology to create his national newspaper never learned to use a personal computer.
A reluctant father of two in his 30s, he adopted six children in his 60s and 70s.
As Seigenthaler observed, "Every time you thought you had him typecast, he did something to chip the mold. Which is why he was forever young."
A POOR CHILDHOOD
Born March 22, 1924, Allen Harold Neuharth grew up in a German-speaking household in the rural South Dakota towns of Eureka and Alpena. His father died when Al was 2, and his mother raised him and his older brother Walter by washing dishes and taking in laundry.
After serving in the infantry in World War II, Neuharth married, graduated from the University of South Dakota on the G.I. Bill, and took a job as a reporter with the Associated Press. But he quit two years later because he'd decided that starting a newspaper was the way "to get rich and famous." So he and a partner launched a weekly calledSoDak Sports, which would cover South Dakota sports in unprecedented detail.
Despite Neuharth's energetic efforts - he would cover up to four basketball games on a Friday night in as many towns -SoDak Sportsran out of capital before it could turn a profit. So in 1954 he moved to Florida to take a job as a reporter at theMiami Herald, where he rose quickly in the newsroom hierarchy.
In 1960 he was named assistant executive editor of theDetroit Free Press, which Knight Newspapers owned along with theHerald.
In 1963 he accepted an offer to join Gannett, which owned a small group of 16 newspapers in five northeastern states. It was not as big or prestigious a company as the Knight newspaper chain, but no family members blocked his route to the top.
"He was the first of the major media barons who didn't own the company," recalled Michael Gartner, former president of NBC News. "Unlike Pulitzer or Hearst, he was a hired hand."
When Neuharth arrived, Gannett executives already knew that newspapers in small- and medium-sized markets were excellent investments. Gannett typically would buy a family-owned newspaper, often after the death of a patriarch with several heirs, and realize sizable profits by cost controls and bulk purchases of newsprint and supplies.
He convinced Gannett CEO Paul Miller to let him begin a daily in Cocoa, Fla. The new paper, TODAY (later renamed FLORIDA TODAY), opened in 1966 and became the first successful new daily in nearly a generation.
Neuharth became president of Gannett in 1970 and CEO three years later. In the years that followed, Gannett became the most profitable newspaper company in history. But Neuharth was interested in more than the bottom line.
He said newspapers must reflect all their readers. He'd seen his own mother work for less pay than men. His Gannett, accordingly, put unprecedented numbers of women and minorities in important jobs. In the Gannett executive suite, people joked, there was a waiting line for the ladies' room.
Neuharth tried to shatter those barriers from inside the newsroom, and in the pages of the newspaper itself, where diversity in images and content was stressed from the top.
"There's been this sort of hardbitten newsman image that really hasn't served newspapering very well, especially for women and people of color who couldn't find themselves in newspapers," Overholser said. "Al Neuharth had a belief in America and its people. USA TODAY, whether it's too formulaic or not, made an important advance in diversity."
WHAT SUCCESS LOOKS LIKE
Gannett's CEO liked to "do business with pleasure," and he believed "first class costs only a few dollars more and is a smart investment for a smart company on the climb." He maintained sprawling suites at the Waldorf Towers in New York City and the Capital Hilton in Washington, and he traveled on a corporate jet with its own shower.
In 1987, he convinced President Reagan to speak at the newspaper's fifth anniversary on the 31st floor of the Gannett headquarters overlooking the Potomac River. "God bless you, and I'll be waiting for your paper in the morning," Reagan told Neuharth and his executives, who sat in a dining room with a gold-leafed fountain.
Critics scoffed at the opulence, but it served an inner need for the man from South Dakota. The high-spending ways also were an effort to convince a skeptical Wall Street and a wary Madison Avenue that the company's near billion-dollar gamble on USA TODAY was going to pay off, no matter the cost.
When Neuharth visited a Gannett newspaper, he expected to be met at the airport by the publisher and lodged in a first-class hotel suite stocked with fruit (but no grapes), Kleenex brand tissue, ice and a bottle of Pouilly Fuisse wine. Local newspapers, USA TODAY and the Wall Street Journal were to be at his door by 6 a.m., even if the publisher had to deliver them himself.
Selling USA TODAY to Gannett's board of directors wasn't easy in the shaky economy of the early 1980s.
"If you had taken a vote of all the executives who were involved, it probably would have gone against the project," then-Gannett director Wes Gallagher observed. "But there was only one vote that mattered, and that was Al's."
"We weren't opposed. We wanted to be realistic," said former Gannett CEO Doug McCorkindale, who as chief financial officer often sparred with Neuharth over the cost of USA TODAY. "I always thought the idea Al had for the product, and then using our printing facilities around the countryside, just made a lot of good sense."
Neuharth in an interview said the tensions within the Gannett board over USA TODAY had a "good balancing effect. They were in the minority, but they were vocal. It pissed a lot of people off, including me occasionally, but I don't think it hindered us very much. We had the decision-making power."
Indeed, it was his baby. He chose the name and picked the editors and approved the newspaper box, which was designed to look like a television set.
The newspaper's obituary was written before it was born. John Morton, a respected industry analyst, said a national newspaper "seems like a way to lose a lot of money in a hurry."
The new newspaper did not impress the old order. "It doesn't rub off on your hands, or your mind," said television commentator Linda Ellerbee. Asked if USA TODAY should be considered a good newspaper, Ben Bradlee, editor ofThe Washington Post, said, "If it is, I'm in the wrong business."
To which Neuharth responded: "Bradlee and I finally agree on something. He is in the wrong business."
Years later, both men waved off any animosity. "We laugh about how we used to fight with each other," Neuharth recalled. "I don't think (Bradlee) thinks he was wrong. But at least he and others recognize that the thing has worked, even though they were sure it wouldn't."
Bradlee in 2007 called his criticism "just some wise-ass remark. I wish I'd learn to shut up." He added: "I don't feel badly about the paper at all. Take Neuharth out of the equation, and you don't have a story!"
At one newsroom meeting, Neuharth yanked a copy of that day's USA TODAY from the news box he kept in his office and pointed angrily to the photo on page one of a high school cheerleader.
"The next time you run a picture of a nice, clean cut All-American girl in a tight sweater," he shouted at his editors, "make sure you get her chest above the fold!" Only he didn't say "chest.''
"When Al was riding high at USA TODAY, he could be a local terror," Overby recalled. But "he didn't yell at everybody. Somehow he instinctively knew who needed to be yelled at and who just needed to be encouraged."
The newspaper was an immediate hit with readers, but advertisers were leery. Losses began to mount.
By November 1984, the newspaper was losing $340,000 a day. Neuharth summoned his senior executives to Pumpkin Center. After a grim meeting on how to cut costs, he told them to report that evening to a nearby restaurant.
They entered a private dining room to find their boss dressed in a robe and crown of thorns; a wooden cross leaned against the wall. Neuharth served kosher wine and unleavened bread, declared himself "the crucified one" and warned that those at the table who did not improve their performance would be "passed over."
Overby, Neuharth's aide at the time, called it "the most offensive thing I have ever seen in my adult life."
But 15 years later Cathleen Black, by then head of Hearst magazines, would still cite "Neuharth's Last Supper" as an effective - if radical - motivational tactic.
Neuharth promoted his newspaper relentlessly. In 1987 he and a support staff set off on BusCapade, a 50-state, six-month, jaunt across the nation. It was followed in 1988 by JetCapade for Neuharth and company to cover 148,261 air miles and visit 32 countries in seven months.
Then he published his autobiography,Confessions of an S.O.B.
None of his critics hit Neuharth as hard as Neuharth. The book depicted the author as a driven, cold, manipulative, conniving corporate climber who looked out almost exclusively for No. 1.
"Al isn't confessing,"Fortunemagazine noted. "He's boasting."
Neuharth admitted to manipulating a college election with dirty tricks; to eavesdropping on a corporate rival and using the information to get the upper hand, to forcing out Paul Miller, the popular CEO who had brought him into Gannett and promoted him.
The most damning chapters were those written by his two ex-wives.
Loretta Neuharth, with whom Neuharth had two children - Dan and Jan - described how he neglected her for his career. They divorced in 1972 after 26 years of marriage. He and his second wife, Lori Wilson, divorced in 1982 after nine years. In the book, she called Neuharth "a snake. He's sneaky and slithers around and sheds his old skin as he grows."
Meanwhile, Neuharth was, in his phrase, "gradually retiring" from Gannett. In 1989 Neuharth turned 65 and retired.
There had been failures. A joint venture with television producer Grant Tinker formed in 1986 lasted only three years and was remembered mostly for a costly, unpopular program called USA TODAY, The Television Show. An attempt to merge with CBS in 1985 also stalled. Neuharth later said he'd tried to push it too fast.
But when Neuharth had joined Gannett in 1963, it was a company with yearly revenue of about $62 million. When he retired, it had 85 newspapers, 26 broadcast stations, 37,000 employees and revenue over $3 billion.
In retirement, Neuharth - who spent the previous 40 years making money - now focused on giving it away.
His vehicle was the Gannett Foundation, which he headed. The foundation had been established by Frank Gannett, the company's founder, and held about 10% of Gannett stock. It mostly funded projects in communities with Gannett newspapers.
In 1991, Neuharth renamed the foundation the Freedom Forum, changed its mission to promoting "free speech, free press and free spirit" and broadened its focus to include international affairs. He also put its Gannett stock on the market - to increase income, he said.
Neuharth's successors at Gannett were forced to buy back the foundation stock to avoid a potential takeover. Some thought he had betrayed the Gannett executives who struggled with him to create USA TODAY.
Although the Freedom Forum was criticized for its lavish spending on travel and facilities, in 1997 it opened the world's first museum devoted to journalism - the Newseum, which in 2008 relocated just a few blocks from the Capitol. The words of the First Amendment are carved in stone for all visitors to see from the street.
What Neuharth liked to call "the gradually retiring years'' also brought him a new family. In 1993 at the age of 68, he married Rachel Fornes, a Cocoa Beach chiropractor and founder of an adoption agency. She was 26 years his junior. Over the next seven years, the couple adopted six children of varying races and ethnicities - Alexis, Karina, twins Andre and Ariana, and twins Ali and Rafi.
Neuharth remained officially hands-off after he left the company. Even though his column, "Plain Talk," continued to run every Friday, he had no official connection with Gannett or the newspaper. But phone calls or notes to editors or publishers were common in the final years.
"Neuharth never retired and certainly never faded away,'' said Ken Paulson, a former editor of USA TODAY.
During the scandal over Jack Kelley in 2004, a USA TODAY reporter who was found to have falsified dozens of stories from overseas, Neuharth went public with criticisms of the newspaper's leadership and its new, more sophisticated direction which had boosted sales and advertising in the late 1990s. USA TODAY had lost its way, he complained. Stories were getting longer, more traditional and the newspaper was concentrating too much on international events. "We got away from our basic approach," he said. "It took that unfortunate Jack Kelley episode to remind us what the hell we were all about."
Not everyone agreed with Neuharth's assessment, but it was clear the paper's founder was always ready to remind people who came first.
Neuharth remained, to the end, USA TODAY's biggest booster. He acknowledged the need for USA TODAY to expand its brand into usatoday.com, mobile devices and beyond.
"Our readers," he said, "want to know a little bit about a lot of things, and they don't want to waste a hell of a lot of time finding it out.
"I don't think that has changed. If anything, that mobile society - our readers -may be in even more of a hurry to learn what they want to know than they were back then."
During the newspaper's 25th anniversary in 2007, Neuharth was asked about the newspaper and how it had changed.
"I'm generally very, very pleased with what I read," Neuharth said. "Occasionally I gripe a little that I would have done it differently, but I'm not the editor so I realize how tough it is.
"But it's a great feeling to get USA TODAY wherever you are. It's a wonderful feeling on airplanes to see a lot of people reading it, and in other locations as well," said Neuharth, his dream of a national newspaper fulfilled. "It feels good."