By David Colton and Rick Hampson, USA TODAY
Allen H. Neuharth, the newspaper visionary and former Gannettchairman who founded USA TODAY, helped create a museum dedicated to newsand became one of the industry's most influential and sometimescontroversial figures, died Friday at his home in Cocoa Beach, Fla. Hewas 89.
"As a journalist, I had a wonderful window on the world''Neuharth wrote in "Plain Talk," a final column he said should bepublished in USA TODAY after his death. "For nearly 50 years as areporter and editor, I tried to tell stories accurately and fairly,without opinion."
It was fitting that Neuharth would try to havethe last word, even on the topic of his own passing. The longtimenewspaperman, media executive and columnist died after sustaininginjuries in a fall at his home.
Newsroom smart and board roomsavvy, Neuharth was audacious, flamboyant and a self-described "dreamerand schemer." He used all those talents, and a dose of Midwest charm andcommon sense, to help build Gannett into one of America's largest mediacompanies.
He picked fights with the likes of Donald Trump, BenBradlee and Betty Friedan, usually with a wink of satisfaction for theattention it drew. He invited himself to palaces and board rooms to meetwith world and business leaders such as Margaret Thatcher.
Morememorably, he championed the careers of women and minorities insideGannett and on its front pages, and - against all odds - battled his ownboard of directors to give the nation its first general interestnational newspaper in 1982.
So deeply did he believe in USA TODAYthat he decked out a bus in 1987 and criss-crossed the USA (which heinsisted was the only proper name for America), to interview all 50governors and promote the struggling daily.
Even in retirement, long after USA TODAY had become one of thenation's most entrenched news brands, Neuharth's views were keenlysought by Gannett's top leaders.
"Al's passing is a great loss forall of us in the Gannett family," said Gannett CEO Gracia Martore. "Alwas many things - a journalist, a leader, a serial entrepreneur, and apioneer in advancing opportunities for women and minorities. But aboveall, he was an innovator with a unique sense of the public taste. ... Iwill miss his counsel, and I will miss the man. But as with all greatpeople, what Al built will live on."
When USA TODAY was ready tomark 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'shome in Cocoa Beach eager for his opinion - and hopefully his blessing.
"Youshould have done this five years ago," Neuharth said plainly after aslide presentation of the changes. The relief in the room was palpable.
"AlNeuharth reinvented news,'' said USA TODAY Publisher Larry Kramer."Even in our recent efforts to translate his vision into the modernworld of digital journalism, we relied on him to tell us if we weregoing in the right direction. His advice was, not surprisingly, the bestand most practical we heard.''
Dave Callaway, editor in chief ofUSA TODAY, said Neuharth "was, is and always will be USA TODAY. He holdsa remarkable place in the history of American journalism, and thespirit and passion which he brought to our industry will never beextinguished."
As a leader, Neuharth's style "rubbed some peoplethe wrong way, but you never had any doubt who was in charge," saidCharles Overby, former chairman of the Freedom Forum, which opened a$435 million Newseum across from the Capitol in Washington, D.C., in2008. "He was a big picture guy - a new national newspaper, a new museumabout news.''
ROAD TO WASHINGTON
Neuharthrose from a poor, fatherless childhood in the Depression Dustbowl ofSouth Dakota to become rich, powerful and famous - jetting to Gannett'sproperties across the nation, sharing a Yankee skybox with GeorgeSteinbrenner and raising quality control to a new level in the newspaperbusiness..
USA TODAY, widely dismissed as Neuharth's follywhen it appeared in 1982, virtually reinvented the American newspaperwith splashy color and bold graphics, shorter articles, expanded sportscoverage and a big, colorful weather map. The entirety of the Americanexperience was boiled down to four sections - News, Money, Sports andLife.
Some derided it as "McPaper'' - junk-food journalism for television viewers who didn't like to read. Newsweek once described its founder as "the man who shortened the attention spans of millions of Americans."
Butwithin five years USA TODAY had its first profitable month, and is nowthe nation's second-largest daily newspaper with an expanding mediafootprint both online and internationally.
"The editors who called us McPaper," Neuharth liked to say, "stole our McNuggets.''
TheUSA TODAY gamble was "an act of enormous imagination and courage andrisk-taking," said media critic Geneva Overholser, who as a Gannetteditor sparred with Neuharth for years over cutbacks at local papers asthe national newspaper took center stage.
"Al's legacy was tojumpstart newspapers when they were beginning to lose favor withreaders," said Overby. "He made color and graphics routine innewspapers, and he changed editors' ideas about what belongs on pageone."
The mad scientist behind this experiment in journalism was as colorful as his creation.
Hewrote on an old manual typewriter sitting in a treehouse he builtoverlooking the Atlantic; he commissioned larger-than-life busts ofhimself; he dressed exclusively in black, white and gray, and stillmanaged to look garish - "like a Vegas pit boss dressed up for WayneNewton's funeral," wrote Henry Allen of The Washington Post.
He entitled his autobiography Confessions 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," saidhis 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.
AsSeigenthaler observed, "Every time you thought you had him typecast, hedid something to chip the mold. Which is why he was forever young."
A POOR CHILDHOOD
BornMarch 22, 1924, Allen Harold Neuharth grew up in a German-speakinghousehold in the rural South Dakota towns of Eureka and Alpena. Hisfather died when Al was 2, and his mother raised him and his olderbrother Walter by washing dishes and taking in laundry.
Afterserving in the infantry in World War II, Neuharth married, graduatedfrom the University of South Dakota on the G.I. Bill, and took a job as areporter with the Associated Press. But he quit two years later becausehe'd decided that starting a newspaper was the way "to get rich andfamous." So he and a partner launched a weekly called SoDak 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 Sports ran out of capital before it could turn a profit. So in 1954 he moved to Florida to take a job as a reporter at the Miami Herald, where he rose quickly in the newsroom hierarchy.
In 1960 he was named assistant executive editor of the Detroit Free Press, which Knight Newspapers owned along with the Herald.
In1963 he accepted an offer to join Gannett, which owned a small group of16 newspapers in five northeastern states. It was not as big orprestigious a company as the Knight newspaper chain, but no familymembers blocked his route to the top.
"He was the first of themajor media barons who didn't own the company," recalled MichaelGartner, former president of NBC News. "Unlike Pulitzer or Hearst, hewas a hired hand."
When Neuharth arrived, Gannett executivesalready knew that newspapers in small- and medium-sized markets wereexcellent investments. Gannett typically would buy a family-ownednewspaper, often after the death of a patriarch with several heirs, andrealize sizable profits by cost controls and bulk purchases of newsprintand supplies.
He convinced Gannett CEO Paul Miller to let himbegin a daily in Cocoa, Fla. The new paper, TODAY (later renamed FLORIDATODAY), opened in 1966 and became the first successful new daily innearly a generation.
Neuharth became president of Gannett in 1970and CEO three years later. In the years that followed, Gannett becamethe most profitable newspaper company in history. But Neuharth wasinterested in more than the bottom line.
He said newspapers mustreflect all their readers. He'd seen his own mother work for less paythan men. His Gannett, accordingly, put unprecedented numbers of womenand minorities in important jobs. In the Gannett executive suite, peoplejoked, there was a waiting line for the ladies' room.
Neuharthtried to shatter those barriers from inside the newsroom, and in thepages of the newspaper itself, where diversity in images and content wasstressed from the top.
"There's been this sort of hardbittennewsman image that really hasn't served newspapering very well,especially for women and people of color who couldn't find themselves innewspapers," Overholser said. "Al Neuharth had a belief in America andits people. USA TODAY, whether it's too formulaic or not, made animportant advance in diversity."
WHAT SUCCESS LOOKS LIKE
Gannett'sCEO liked to "do business with pleasure," and he believed "first classcosts only a few dollars more and is a smart investment for a smartcompany on the climb." He maintained sprawling suites at the WaldorfTowers in New York City and the Capital Hilton in Washington, and hetraveled on a corporate jet with its own shower.
In 1987,he convinced President Reagan to speak at the newspaper's fifthanniversary on the 31st floor of the Gannett headquarters overlookingthe Potomac River. "God bless you, and I'll be waiting for your paper inthe morning," Reagan told Neuharth and his executives, who sat in adining room with a gold-leafed fountain.
Critics scoffed at theopulence, but it served an inner need for the man from South Dakota. Thehigh-spending ways also were an effort to convince a skeptical WallStreet and a wary Madison Avenue that the company's near billion-dollargamble on USA TODAY was going to pay off, no matter the cost.
WhenNeuharth visited a Gannett newspaper, he expected to be met at theairport by the publisher and lodged in a first-class hotel suite stockedwith fruit (but no grapes), Kleenex brand tissue, ice and a bottle ofPouilly Fuisse wine. Local newspapers, USA TODAY and the Wall StreetJournal were to be at his door by 6 a.m., even if the publisher had todeliver them himself.
Selling USA TODAY to Gannett's board of directors wasn't easy in the shaky economy of the early 1980s.
"Ifyou had taken a vote of all the executives who were involved, itprobably would have gone against the project," then-Gannett director WesGallagher observed. "But there was only one vote that mattered, andthat was Al's."
"We weren't opposed. We wanted to be realistic,"said former Gannett CEO Doug McCorkindale, who as chief financialofficer often sparred with Neuharth over the cost of USA TODAY. "Ialways thought the idea Al had for the product, and then using ourprinting facilities around the countryside, just made a lot of goodsense."
Neuharth in an interview said the tensions within theGannett board over USA TODAY had a "good balancing effect. They were inthe 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. Hechose the name and picked the editors and approved the newspaper box,which was designed to look like a television set.
The newspaper'sobituary was written before it was born. John Morton, a respectedindustry analyst, said a national newspaper "seems like a way to lose alot of money in a hurry."
The new newspaper did not impress theold order. "It doesn't rub off on your hands, or your mind," saidtelevision commentator Linda Ellerbee. Asked if USA TODAY should beconsidered a good newspaper, Ben Bradlee, editor of The 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."
Yearslater, both men waved off any animosity. "We laugh about how we used tofight with each other," Neuharth recalled. "I don't think (Bradlee)thinks he was wrong. But at least he and others recognize that the thinghas worked, even though they were sure it wouldn't."
Bradlee in2007 called his criticism "just some wise-ass remark. I wish I'd learnto shut up." He added: "I don't feel badly about the paper at all. TakeNeuharth out of the equation, and you don't have a story!"
At onenewsroom meeting, Neuharth yanked a copy of that day's USA TODAY fromthe news box he kept in his office and pointed angrily to the photo onpage one of a high school cheerleader.
"The next time you run apicture of a nice, clean cut All-American girl in a tight sweater," heshouted at his editors, "make sure you get her chest above the fold!"Only he didn't say "chest.''
"When Al was riding high at USATODAY, he could be a local terror," Overby recalled. But "he didn't yellat everybody. Somehow he instinctively knew who needed to be yelled atand who just needed to be encouraged."
The newspaper was an immediate hit with readers, but advertisers were leery. Losses began to mount.
ByNovember 1984, the newspaper was losing $340,000 a day. Neuharthsummoned his senior executives to Pumpkin Center. After a grim meetingon how to cut costs, he told them to report that evening to a nearbyrestaurant.
They entered a private dining room to find their bossdressed in a robe and crown of thorns; a wooden cross leaned against thewall. Neuharth served kosher wine and unleavened bread, declaredhimself "the crucified one" and warned that those at the table who didnot 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."
But15 years later Cathleen Black, by then head of Hearst magazines, wouldstill cite "Neuharth's Last Supper" as an effective - if radical -motivational tactic.
Neuharthpromoted his newspaper relentlessly. In 1987 he and a support staff setoff on BusCapade, a 50-state, six-month, jaunt across the nation. Itwas followed in 1988 by JetCapade for Neuharth and company to cover148,261 air miles and visit 32 countries in seven months.
Then he published his autobiography, Confessions of an S.O.B.
Noneof his critics hit Neuharth as hard as Neuharth. The book depicted theauthor as a driven, cold, manipulative, conniving corporate climber wholooked out almost exclusively for No. 1.
"Al isn't confessing," Fortune magazine noted. "He's boasting."
Neuharthadmitted to manipulating a college election with dirty tricks; toeavesdropping on a corporate rival and using the information to get theupper hand, to forcing out Paul Miller, the popular CEO who had broughthim into Gannett and promoted him.
The most damning chapters were those written by his two ex-wives.
LorettaNeuharth, with whom Neuharth had two children - Dan and Jan - describedhow he neglected her for his career. They divorced in 1972 after 26years of marriage. He and his second wife, Lori Wilson, divorced in 1982after nine years. In the book, she called Neuharth "a snake. He'ssneaky 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.
Therehad been failures. A joint venture with television producer GrantTinker formed in 1986 lasted only three years and was remembered mostlyfor a costly, unpopular program called USA TODAY, The Television Show.An attempt to merge with CBS in 1985 also stalled. Neuharth later saidhe'd tried to push it too fast.
But when Neuharth had joinedGannett in 1963, it was a company with yearly revenue of about $62million. 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.
Hisvehicle was the Gannett Foundation, which he headed. The foundation hadbeen established by Frank Gannett, the company's founder, and heldabout 10% of Gannett stock. It mostly funded projects in communitieswith Gannett newspapers.
In 1991, Neuharth renamed the foundationthe Freedom Forum, changed its mission to promoting "free speech, freepress and free spirit" and broadened its focus to include internationalaffairs. He also put its Gannett stock on the market - to increaseincome, he said.
Neuharth's successors at Gannett were forced tobuy back the foundation stock to avoid a potential takeover. Somethought he had betrayed the Gannett executives who struggled with him tocreate USA TODAY.
Although the Freedom Forum was criticized forits lavish spending on travel and facilities, in 1997 it opened theworld's first museum devoted to journalism - the Newseum, which in 2008relocated just a few blocks from the Capitol. The words of the FirstAmendment are carved in stone for all visitors to see from the street.
WhatNeuharth liked to call "the gradually retiring years'' also brought hima new family. In 1993 at the age of 68, he married Rachel Fornes, aCocoa Beach chiropractor and founder of an adoption agency. She was 26years his junior. Over the next seven years, the couple adopted sixchildren of varying races and ethnicities - Alexis, Karina, twinsAndre and Ariana, and twins Ali and Rafi.
Neuharthremained officially hands-off after he left the company. Even thoughhis column, "Plain Talk," continued to run every Friday, he had noofficial connection with Gannett or the newspaper. But phone calls ornotes 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.
Duringthe scandal over Jack Kelley in 2004, a USA TODAY reporter who wasfound to have falsified dozens of stories from overseas, Neuharth wentpublic with criticisms of the newspaper's leadership and its new, moresophisticated direction which had boosted sales and advertising in thelate 1990s. USA TODAY had lost its way, he complained. Stories weregetting longer, more traditional and the newspaper was concentrating toomuch on international events. "We got away from our basic approach," hesaid. "It took that unfortunate Jack Kelley episode to remind us whatthe hell we were all about."
Not everyone agreed with Neuharth'sassessment, but it was clear the paper's founder was always ready toremind people who came first.
Neuharth remained, to the end, USATODAY's biggest booster. He acknowledged the need for USA TODAY toexpand its brand into usatoday.com, mobile devices and beyond.
"Ourreaders," 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.
"Idon't think that has changed. If anything, that mobile society - ourreaders -may be in even more of a hurry to learn what they want to knowthan they were back then."
During the newspaper's 25th anniversary in 2007, Neuharth was asked about the newspaper and how it had changed.
"I'mgenerally 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 agreat feeling to get USA TODAY wherever you are. It's a wonderfulfeeling on airplanes to see a lot of people reading it, and in otherlocations as well," said Neuharth, his dream of a national newspaperfulfilled. "It feels good."