Al Neuharth, the free spender and practical jokester who built Gannett Co. into the largest U.S. newspaper publisher and created the country’s biggest-selling daily in USA Today, has died. He was 89.
Neuharth died yesterday of complications from a recent fall at home in Cocoa Beach, Florida, with his family by his side, according to a statement by the Newseum, a museum of journalism in Washington.
Gannett bought dozens of U.S. newspapers, including the Detroit News, and moved into radio, television and billboards during Neuharth’s 13 years as chief executive officer. He also boosted the role of women and minorities in newsrooms.
USA Today, a national general-interest publication, made its debut in 1982. While critics called it “McPaper” because of its relatively short stories and reliance on color and graphics, circulation exceeded 1 million in seven months.
“I became a much-discussed and cussed media mogul,” he wrote in “Confessions of an S.O.B.,” his 1989 autobiography. “People often called me an S.O.B. Some to my face, with a smile. Others behind my back, with a smirk.”
USA Today lost hundreds of millions of dollars before turning profitable in 1993. At a meeting with the newspaper’s managers to push for cost cuts, Neuharth once staged a version of the Last Supper, as he recounted in “Confessions.”
A newspaper-industry collapse, triggered by the Internet, eroded his legacy. Gannett’s shares tumbled in 2009 to their lowest price since the 1970s as advertising dried up, hurting revenue and dragging down profits.
Neuharth “pioneered the idea that a public newspaper company could show increased earnings every quarter,” John Walter, a USA Today founding editor, wrote in an essay published after his death in 2008. “It carried no threat of ever having to face the day when maybe there wasn’t going to be any more growth, a day when Wall Street wasn’t going to love you.”
Allen Harold Neuharth was born on March 22, 1924, in Eureka, South Dakota, to Daniel and Christina Neuharth. He had a brother, Walter, who was seven years older.
When Neuharth was 22 months old, his father, who ran a creamery, died of tuberculosis. The family relocated to Alpena, South Dakota, about 125 miles south of Eureka, to be near relatives of Neuharth’s mother. She worked as a dishwasher and took in laundry.
At the age of 8, Neuharth collected cow chips on his grandfather’s farm for use as fuel. He had his first newspaper-related job, delivering the Minneapolis Tribune, at 10. He later worked as a butcher boy and drugstore soda jerk.
Neuharth attended Alpena High School and edited the Echo, the school newspaper, which consisted of a quarter page in the weekly Alpena Journal. He graduated in the midst of World War II, joined the Army and served as an infantryman in France, Germany and the Philippines. He was awarded a Bronze Star.
After the war, he enrolled at the University of South Dakota, whose media center now bears his name. He edited the Volante, the school newspaper, and had summer internships at papers in Mitchell and Rapid City, South Dakota.
The Associated Press hired him as a sportswriter in 1950, when he graduated with a degree in journalism. He left after two years to start SoDak Sports, a weekly tabloid, with Bill Porter, a colleague at the Volante.
SoDak folded within two years. Neuharth rebounded by joining the Miami Herald, then owned by Knight Newspapers. He stayed there for six years, ending in 1960, and worked his way up to assistant managing editor.
Knight sent him to Detroit as an assistant to Lee Hills, executive editor of the city’s Free Press as well as the Herald. He left after three years to become general manager of Gannett’s two papers in Rochester, New York, its headquarters at the time.
Space Coast Experiment
Neuharth persuaded his bosses to start a newspaper on Florida’s Space Coast, a region near the Kennedy Space Center. The company bought a paper in Cocoa Beach -- where he later lived in a log cabin, known as the Pumpkin Center -- and transformed it into Today.
Today, later renamed Florida Today, broke with industry practice by putting the main features in the same position and using color daily. Within 2 1/2 years, Today recorded its first profit. The Florida paper foreshadowed USA Today, which Neuharth described this way in “Confessions”:
“Wrapped in color. Four sections. Everything organized and in a fixed place. Short, easy-to-read stories. Lots of them. Heavy use of graphics and charts. Heavy emphasis on sports, TV, weather. News every day from every state.”
Neuharth spent four years as an executive vice president of Gannett and three more as president before being named CEO, his job from 1973 to 1986. He served on the board for 25 years and was chairman from 1979 to 1989, when he left after turning 65.
From the beginning of his tenure as president until his departure as chairman, Gannett made deals to acquire 69 daily papers, 16 TV stations and 29 radio stations, by his count. The company became North America’s biggest billboard owner by buying Combined Communications Corp. in 1979.
Gannett made an unsuccessful bid for CBS Inc. in 1985 after Ted Turner offered to buy the television network. The company left the radio and outdoor-advertising businesses in the 1990s.
Gloria Biggs, the first woman publisher of a Gannett paper, was named to the post at Florida’s Melbourne Times in Neuharth’s first year as CEO. He later linked the bonuses of executives to their success in implementing equal-opportunity programs.
After leaving the board, he wrote Plain Talk, a weekly column published in USA Today and elsewhere. He also took over the Gannett Foundation, started by Frank Gannett, the company’s founder. The organization became the Freedom Forum in 1991 after Gannett paid $650 million for its stake in the company.
Under his leadership, the foundation broadened its focus beyond communities served by Gannett and promoted journalistic values and newsroom diversity. Its spending was so lavish that the New York state attorney general conducted an investigation, which prompted the nonprofit to rein in its outlays.
The foundation opened the Newseum, an interactive museum, in 1997 at a site near USA Today’s then-headquarters in Rosslyn, Virginia. Neuharth retired as chairman that year and left the board of trustees two years later. The Newseum later relocated to Washington and USA Today moved to McLean, Virginia.
“Free Spirit,” the last of Neuharth’s eight books, was published in 2000. All the others, including “Confessions,” came out from 1987 to 1989.
Neuharth was married three times. He met his first wife, Loretta Helgeland, in high school and married her in 1946. They had two children during their 26-year marriage: Daniel J. II, a therapist and former journalist named for his grandfather, and Janet Ann, or Jan, an attorney and equestrian-center president.
Lori Wilson, an attorney and Florida state senator, became his second wife in 1973. During their marriage, she worked as a consultant to Gannett, where she helped encourage and monitor diversity programs. They divorced after eight years.
Neuharth wed Rachel Fornes, a chiropractor in Cocoa Beach, Florida, who founded the Home at Last Adoption Agency, in 1993. The couple adopted six children: Alexis Rae, Karina Rae, Ariana, Andre, Rafaelina and Aliandro.
Another woman, Rosamunda Neuharth Ozgo, said she was his daughter as well. Her mother, Betty Moore, met him in 1962 at an Associated Press convention and gave birth to her the next year. He denied being the father, although he acknowledged the meeting and paid $100 a month in court-ordered child support until 1984.