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Article updated: 4/19/2013 6:57 PM

USA Today founder Neuharth dies

By

COCOA BEACH, Fla. -- USA Today founder Al Neuharth died Friday in Cocoa Beach, Fla. He was 89.

The news was announced by USA Today and by the Newseum, which he also founded.

Neuharth launched USA Today, the nation's most widely read newspaper, in 1982 as chairman and CEO of the Gannett Co. newspaper group. He wanted to create a bright, breezy, fun newspaper that would catch people's attention and not take itself too seriously.

Jim Duff, president and chief executive officer of the Freedom Forum, said, "Al will be remembered for many trailblazing achievements in the newspaper business, but one of his most enduring legacies will be his devotion to educating and training new journalists," according to the post on the Newseum website. He added, "He taught them the importance of not only a free press but a fair one."

During Neuharth's more than 15 years at the helm of Gannett, the company became the nation's largest newspaper company and the company's annual revenues increased from $200 million to more than $3 billion. He became president and CEO of the company in 1973 and chairman in 1979. He retired in 1989.

"I wanted to get rich and famous no matter where it was," Neuharth said in a 1999 Associated Press interview. "I got lucky. Luck is very much a part of it. You have to be at the right place at the right time and pick the right place at the right time."

With its blue masthead, shorter-than-usual stories and use of color graphics, USA Today was unlike any other newspaper before it. Its style was widely criticized and later widely imitated.

"USA Today drew more criticism -- and more chaff -- in volume and intensity than any media venture in the history of the USA," Neuharth said in his 1989 autobiography, "Confessions of an S.O.B."

Critics dubbed it the "McPaper" and accused it of dumbing-down American journalism. Many news veterans gave it few chances for survival. Neuharth's only previous experience with a startup newspaper was the founding of Florida Today in Melbourne, Fla., in 1966.

"Everybody was very skeptical and so was I, but I said, you never bet against Neuharth," the late Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham said in a 2000 Associated Press interview.

Advertisers at first were reluctant to place their money in a new newspaper that might compete with local dailies. But Neuharth made constant promotional appearances and met with company executives around the country to pitch the newspaper, and it developed into a profitable enterprise.

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, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

"When we started USA Today 13 years ago this month," Neuharth said in 1995, "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."

After he retired from Gannett, Neuharth continued to write "Plain Talk," a weekly column for USA Today.

He also founded The Freedom Forum, a foundation dedicated to free press and free speech that holds journalism conferences, offers fellowships and provides training. It was begun in 1991 as a successor to the Gannett Foundation, the company's philanthropic arm.

With his entrepreneurial flair, Neuharth put the Freedom Forum on the map with Newseum, an interactive museum to show visitors how news is covered. The first museum, in Arlington, Va., was open from 1997 to 2002. It was replaced by a $450 million facility in Washington that opened in spring 2008. There was also the Newscapade, a $5 million traveling exhibit.

In a June 2007 interview in Advertising Age, Neuharth was asked about the future of printed newspapers amid the upheavals in the news business.

"The only thing we can assume is that consumers of news and information will continue to want more as the world continues to become one global village," he said. "The question is how much will be distributed in print, online and on the air. I don't know how much will be delivered on newsprint. Some will be delivered by means we can't even think of yet."

He also said he thought more newspapers would "begin to charge what they're worth," making readers pay more instead of relying so heavily on advertising revenue.

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, 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 at 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.

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 and then became assistant executive editor at the Detroit Free Press.

Neuharth was born March 22, 1924, in Eureka, S.D. 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.

After earning a bronze star in World War II and graduating with a journalism degree from the University of South Dakota, Neuharth worked for The Associated Press for two years. He then launched a South Dakota sports weekly tabloid, SoDak Sports, in 1952. It was a spectacular failure, losing $50,000, but it was perhaps the best education Neuharth ever received.

"Everyone should fail in a big way at least once before they're forty," he said in his autobiography. "The bigger you fail, the bigger you're likely to succeed later."

Neuharth married three times. His first marriage to high school sweetheart Loretta Neuharth lasted 26 years. They had a son, Dan, and daughter, Jan. He married Lori Wilson, a Florida state senator, in 1973; they divorced in 1982. A decade later, he married Rachel Fornes, a chiropractor. Together, they adopted six children.

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