COCOA BEACH, Fla. — Al Neuharth changed the look of American newspapers when he founded USA Today, filling the newspaper with breezy, easy-to-comprehend articles, attention-grabbing graphics and stories that often didn’t require readers to jump to a different page.
Critics dubbed USA Today “McPaper” when it debuted in 1982, and they accused Neuharth, of dumbing down American journalism with its articles and graphics. 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, which he also founded.
Jack Marsh, president of the Al Neuharth Media Center and a close friend, said Neuharth died at his home. Marsh said Neuharth fell last week and never quite recovered.
Sections of USA Today were denoted by different colors. The entire back page of the news section had a colored weather map of the 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,” 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 Katharine Graham said in 2000.
The launch of USA Today was 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. Neuharth became CEO of the company in 1973 and chairman in 1979. He retired in 1989.
As Gannett chief, 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.,” Neuharth made no secret of his hard-nosed business tactics, such as taking advantage of a competitor’s conversation he overheard.
He also recounted proudly how he beat out 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 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 Graham to become the first female chairman of the American Newspaper Publishers Association.
“He was a great leader,” said former AP president and CEO Tom Curley, who worked closely with Neuharth for many years. “He certainly was one of the pioneers on moving women and people of color into management positions. He was a very strong manager who commanded respect, I think, throughout the industry as well as from those who worked with him. His hardscrabble life, poverty in South Dakota and fighting in World War II prepared him for any battles in a competitive arena, and he loved to compete and he loved to win.”
Before joining Gannett, Neuharth rose up through the ranks of Knight Newspapers. He went from reporter to assistant managing editor at The Miami Herald in the 1950s, then became assistant executive editor at the Detroit Free Press.
Allen H. Neuharth was born March 22, 1924, in Eureka, S.D. His father died when he was 2. 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.