Al Neuharth: Ebullient newspaperman who founded 'USA Today'

 

If ever there was a real, modern-day Citizen Kane, it was Al Neuharth, the founder of USA Today who, for better or worse, may have had a greater impact than any single individual on America's newspaper industry in the second half of the 20th century.

Flamboyant, abrasive, vain and autocratic, Neuharth turned the small Gannett chain into the country's largest and most profitable newspaper group. In 1982, taking advantage of the new satellite transmission technology he launched USA Today, a genuinely national daily that became America's most widely circulated paper, pioneering the bold use of colour, shorter articles and easy-to-read layouts, unabashedly middlebrow in its catering for the heartland, not the big city coastal elites.

For years the paper lost money – up to $1bn – before it turned profitable in the early 1990s. Critics derided it as a "McPaper", and Newsweek mocked Neuharth as "the man who shortened the attention spans of millions of Americans." Even one of its own editors joked that USA Today "brought new depth to the word shallow".

But its influence on its peers was huge. Its section format was widely copied, as were its innovative graphics and snappier lay-out. It even attracted foreign imitators, like Britain's Today, launched by Eddie Shah in 1986. Across the Atlantic, in the cut-throat universe of UK national papers, Today foundered, but in America where national papers barely existed, USA Today took solid root. Its current distribution of 1.8m copies is matched only by the Wall Street Journal. "The editors who called us McPaper," Neuharth liked to comment, "stole our McNuggets."

Al Neuharth was born into a German-speaking family in rural South Dakota. After service in the Second World War, he took a first job in journalism as a reporter with the Associated Press. He gave that up to found his own paper, covering sport in his native state. But SoDak Sports ran out of money, so Neuharth moved on, to The Miami Herald and then to the Detroit Free Press, both then owned by Knight Newspapers.

In 1963 he switched from Knight to Gannett. The latter was then much smaller, owning just 16 local papers in the US North-east. But unlike most US press groups, Gannett was not family-owned. For an ambitious newcomer, the path to the very top was open, and Neuharth seized the opportunity.

By 1970 he was president, and three years later became CEO. By the end of his tenure Gannett owned over 90 papers. With his policy of paring back costs, seeking economies of scale, and exploiting the local monopolies enjoyed by local papers in the pre-internet age, he turned the group into a profit machine and a darling of Wall Street.

In fact it needed to be, to support Neuharth's vision of a national newspaper version of the cable network CNN that launched about the same time. USA Today's early losses were huge; at one point in 1984 he summoned editors to a dinner in a private room at a restaurant. They arrived to find their chief executive decked out in a crown of thorns like Jesus before the crucifixion, serving them wine and kosher bread. Those who did not step up their performance, he warned, would be "passed over."

That "last supper" was only part of the Neuharth legend. He had busts of himself installed in the lobbies of USA Today and Florida Today, another of his creations. He was a showman who dressed, The Washington Post once wrote, as flashily as "a Vegas pit boss" and he leapt on satellite technology. Yet he typed the weekly columns he contributed to USA Today on a manual typewriter.

There were mistakes too, notably a failed merger with CBS in 1985, where his arrogant demands wrecked the negotiations. "My ego outran my brain," Neuharth admitted to The Boston Globe. Yet amid the vainglory and the self-promotion, Neuharth also did much to advance the presence of women and minorities in America's newsrooms. His 1989 autobiography, Confessions of an S.O.B., was typically no-holds-barred – to the point of featuring two chapters written by his ex-wives. One of them described him as "a snake" who "slithers around and sheds his old skin as he grows." But four years after retiring, the "snake" remarried a chiropractor 26 years his junior and adopted six children.

Neuharth left Gannett Co in 1989, but not the public spotlight. He took over the group's philanthropic arm, the Gannett Foundation, and turned it into the Freedom Forum, a vehicle to promote press freedom. In 1997 the Forum opened the Newseum, the world's first museum devoted to the news. In 2008 it moved from modest initial premises in suburban Virginia to a glitzy site on Pennsylvania Avenue midway between the White House and Capitol Hill, where it has become a Washington, DC tourist attraction in its own right.

Neuharth's professional legacy is likely to remain contentious. For some he brought long-overdue innovation, helping America's papers gird themselves for the internet onslaught. For others though, he was a bombastic "dumber-down" whose desire to maximise profits and reward investors, rather than strengthening the industry, ultimately weakened it.

Rupert Cornwell

Allen Harold Neuharth, newspaper executive: born Eureka, South Dakota 22 March 1924; President, Gannett Co 1970, CEO 1973-1989; married three times (eight children); died Cocoa Beach, Florida 19 April 2013.

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