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Al Neuharth's Legacy Lives On

Al Neuharth's Legacy Lives On

By Richard Benedetto - April 21, 2013

In a USA Today column written a little over week ago, Al Neuharth commented on the death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whom he met in London in 1988.

He said he was impressed by her “politeness and firmness.” And he quoted Thatcher as saying, “I'm always looking ahead. I'll be looking ahead until the day I die."

Neuharth died Friday at age 89 after a fall in his home in Florida. He left behind a powerful legacy as a Gannett newspaper tycoon, creator and spirit of USA Today and founder of the Freedom Forum and its Newseum, a museum of news.

Like Thatcher, he too, was always looking ahead until the day he died, never glancing back at his critics and detractors who charged that he was brash, flamboyant, abrasive and vain. He liked picking fights and sticking thumbs in the eyes of big guys such as Donald Trump and former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.

He once had a bronze bust of himself installed on a pedestal in the USA Today lobby. The newspaper’s employees irreverently referred to it as “The Al Head” and would stick quarters in its eyes, much to Al’s irritation. But he reveled in his notoriety and titled his autobiography “Confessions of an S.O.B,” allowing his two ex-wives to write uncensored chapters of their own -- giving new meaning to the phrase “Fair and Balanced.”

Many have described Neuharth as a visionary and an innovator. He certainly was both. When he completed one project, he was always ready to tackle another. He never let the prospect of failure discourage him. As a young World War II veteran -- an Army infantryman who won the Bronze Star -- just out of college, he founded in 1952 a weekly tabloid newspaper, SoDak Sports. Printed on peach-colored paper, it covered high school sports across his home state of South Dakota. It flopped for lack of ads, but he didn’t give up.

“Failure shouldn’t stop your drive to succeed," he once said. “How you respond to failure makes all the difference.”

He responded by sticking with journalism. He took various reporting jobs, rose through the ranks to become a top editor of Knight Ridder newspapers in Detroit and Miami, and topped out as chairman of the Gannett Co. Through the relentless acquisition of newspapers and TV stations, he built Gannett into one of the nation’s largest media conglomerates.

In 1982, Al envisioned a need for a national newspaper, something we never had. And through sheer force of powerful personality and perspicacious persuasion -- Al always liked alliteration -- squeezed start-up money from a reluctant Gannett board of directors. The result was USA Today.

It was dubbed “Neuharth’s Folly” by media analysts who predicted it would be a flop. Many thought they were right. In its first four years in existence, the maverick newspaper bled red ink -- losing millions of dollars a month. Readers liked its lively color, tightly written stories and extensive use of charts and graphics to explain complicated concepts. But advertisers were wary. Undeterred, Al, hung in there. He scoffed at stuffed-shirt newspaper elitists who looked down their noses and pooh-poohed USA Today as “McPaper,” fast-food journalism at its worst.

But Al had the last laugh. The advertisers, as well as the readers came around and some 30 years later USA Today is the nation’s second-largest newspaper (just behind the Wall Street Journal) and has one of the most widely read Internet news sites in the world. His vision and tenacity created thousands of jobs that supported, and continue to support, thousands of families. So you can add job creator to his accomplishments.

Still looking ahead when he retired as chairman of Gannett in 1989, Neuharth founded the Freedom Forum, an educational institution dedicated to the global promotion of the First Amendment’s principles of free press and free speech. He believed that freedom to speak out is a fundamental human right throughout the world and the key to true liberty. He also founded the Newseum, a 250,000-square-foot museum of news on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. One of the capital’s most popular tourist attractions, the Newseum recently opened an exhibit marking the 50th anniversary of the death of John F. Kennedy.

As a reporter on the founding staff of USA Today, I had many encounters with Al, most of them friendly. But he could be tough on someone who made a factual error or showed political bias. It made us all better reporters.

One of my most intense interactions with him came when I was chosen to write the first cover story for the first front page of USA Today. Al and USA Today’s first editor-in-chief, John Quinn, were directly involved every step of the way, offering ideas and suggestions, rewordings and rearrangings, shortenings and lengthenings, cuts and additions. With our deadline fast approaching and the tension near the breaking point, I sat typing the final version of the story with Neuharth and Quinn reading and kibitzing over my shoulders, often arguing with each other over a comma or a period.

Later, Al joked that he and Quinn should have received bylines along with me for their editing efforts.

“We bugged the hell out of him,” Al said.

They sure did.

Later that night, the entire USA Today staff was bused out to the Springfield, Va., printing plant to receive the first editions of the new paper as it rolled off the presses. Waiters in tuxedos, in true Al Neuharth flamboyant style, served champagne and hors d’ouevres on the buses. Seated across the aisle from me was Al, who had eschewed his chauffeured stretch limousine to ride with the rest of the staff. As the buses headed back to the office, Al tapped the front page of the first edition of USA Today, said, “Benedetto, this cover story is going to make you famous.” Every time I saw him after that I would say, “I’m still waiting,” and we would laugh.

What I admired most about Al and his newspaper was his belief in real people, his crusade to try to communicate with everyone -- rich and poor, young and old, immigrant and citizen -- and provide them with good, solid, factual information. He insisted that the information had to sparkle with clarity, fairness and objectivity, concepts that sometimes get short shrift in this new media age. He steadfastly refused to have his newspaper endorse political candidates, lest it mar that reputation for fairness and objectivity.

Moreover, he was a bold champion of women’s and minority rights, putting them into greater positions of power than they had had in most news media organizations up to the time that he came along. He also made sure women and minorities did not get short shrift in news coverage, urging reporters to get more women and minorities into their stories.

Al Neuharth believed in and lived the slogan he created that has appeared in USA Today every day since its inception:

“USA Today hopes to serve as a forum for better understanding and unity to help make the USA Today truly one nation.”

It might sound corny to some sophisticates, but he loved America. He came from the heartland and unity was his vision. It is his legacy to all of us in the news business, if we can keep it. 

Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He now teaches politics and journalism at American University and in The Fund for American Studies at George Mason University. You can follow him on Twitter at @benedettopress.

 

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