On Friday, media trailblazer, Al Neuharth died at the age of 89 in Cocoa Beach, Fla. How did a poor kid from rural America achieve so much in his 89 years?
In 1982, Al Neuharth dared to challenge media moguls with a fresh approach to news reporting when he launched USA Today. His concept was simple: give the customers factual news reporting in a format that is appealing. The articles were easy to read and he used bright graphics throughout the paper to keep the reader’s attention.
Critics were quick to eviscerate USA Today by calling it the “McPaper.” By the late 1990’s, USA Today became the nation’s most-circulated newspaper and his critics started to copy USA Today.
Neuharth was born in Eureka, S.D. When he was 2, his father was killed in an accident and his mother moved the family 3 hours to Alpena, S.D., where they lived in the house formerly owned by the local news publisher. By the time he was 11, he took his first job as a paper-boy. While still in high school, he worked in the composing room of the weekly Alpena Journal.
Like most men of his generation, he served in WWII (and earned a bronze star) then attended the University of South Dakota on the GI Bill where he studied journalism and became the editor of the college newspaper. After graduation, he worked for Associated Press for a couple of years then left in 1952 to start his own publication dedicated to sports called SoDak Sports. It was a colossal failure that cost Neuharth $50,000 and gave him the best experience which led to his future success.
In his autobiography, “Confessions of an S.O.B.” Neuharth stated, “Everyone should fail in a big way at least once before they’re forty. The bigger you fail, the bigger you’re likely to succeed later.”
And succeed he did when he returned to corporate media. At age 30, he moved to Florida and started as a reporter for the Miami Herald. From there, he worked his way through the ranks of Knight Newspapers before joining Gannet Co.
By 1973, he was CEO of Gannett Co. which eventually became the largest newspaper company in the nation. In 1979 he was named chairman of the company and he retired from Gannett in 1989.
When discussing the failure of SoDak Sports, Nueharth stated, “Failure shouldn’t stop your drive to succeed. How you respond to failure makes all the difference.”
In the early 1980’s, a new idea began to take shape that enabled Gannet to reach an untapped demographic — college age people. After careful research and planning, USA Today was launched in 1982.
Unlike other papers, USA Today broke the black and white print color rules and changed the appearance of news. Color was used throughout the paper causing many to speculate that the color print costs alone would send the paper into oblivion. Alas, Neuharth knew his target demographic and stuck with the basics they planed for: each section had its own color code; the logo was big, blue, and grabbed the reader’s eye from a distance; each state had a section for their top headlines; and, a full page weather map graced the back page of the news section (full color, not black and white).
In 1995, Neuharth stated, “Our target was college-age people who were non-readers. We thought they were getting enough serious stuff in classes. We hooked them primarily because it was a colorful newspaper that played up the things they were interested in — sports, entertainment, and TV.”
He made news interesting.
Not only did Neuharth blaze a trail when he changed the look of media, he also blew the newsroom doors wide open for women and minorities thereby representing virtually every segment of our country in his workforce. By the time he left Gannett, he had taken an all-white, all male boardroom to a board that included 4 women, 3 black people, and one Asian. During a speech later in life, Neutharth stated, “Staffing USA Today from scratch offered a unique opportunity to prove that a diverse workforce could indeed be built and that it would work just fine.”
The staffing also included equal pay for all. Growing up, Neuharth watched his widowed mother try to make ends meet by washing dishes and taking in laundry for $10 per week while men were earning $5 per day under programs funded by FDR’s Work Progress Administration. In his book “Free Spirit,” Neuharth disclosed, “Those childhood memories made me determined as an adult to work for equal treatment, equal pay, and equal opportunity for people of every age, race, sex, and religion.”
To officially launch USA Today, Neuharth held a celebration in Capital Hill and invited then President Regan who stated, “Forgive me but I can’t help but feel that this is a testimony to the kind a dreams free men and women can dream and turn into a reality here in America.”
Neuharth remained active after his retirement in 1989. In 1991, he founded The Freedom Forum, a non-partisan group committed to our First Amendment rights - freedom of the press and free speech. Their web-page tracks journalists who have died while reporting the news.
In 1997, through the Freedom Forum and Neuharth’s vision, the Newseum was opened in Arlington, Va., then moved to the heart of our nation’s capital, Washington D.C. in 2008, after a four year closure and planning session. During a speech at the re-launch of the Newseum, Neuharth stated, “This Newseum, here on America’s main street, makes an impression on young people and helps them to understand why free press is important and why the first amendment is important.”
Colleagues already miss the journalistic entrepreneur. Tom Curley, former AP CEO stated, “He was a great leader. 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 those who worked with him. His hardscrabble life, poverty in South Dakota, and fighting in WWII prepared him for any battles in a competitive arena, and he loved to compete and he loved to win.”
CEO and president of the Freedom Forum stated, “Al will be remembered for the many trailblazing achievements in the newspaper business, but one of his most enduring legacies will be his devotion to educating and training new journalists. He taught them the importance of not only a free press but a fair one.”