USA Today Founder, Al Neuharth, Dies in Florida at 89

Allen H. Neuharth, the newspaper visionary and former Gannett chairman who founded USA Today, died Friday at his home in Cocoa Beach, Fla. He was 89.

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. Photo: Dave Eggen/AP

Allen “Al” Neuharth, who created USA Today and changed the newspaper industry in the process, has died at the age of 89.

Family members said the cause was complications of a recent fall, informs the NY Times.

Critics dubbed USA Today “McPaper” when it debuted in 1982, and they accused Neuharth, of dumbing down American journalism with its easy-to-read articles and bright 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, reports ABC News.

Mr. Neuharth’s influence on American journalism extended well beyond the 93 daily newspapers he amassed for Gannett.

Born in 1924 to a German-speaking household, Neuharth was only 2 when his father died. His family struggled in the rural South Dakota towns of Eureka and Alpena, where his mother provided for Neuharth and his older brother as a dishwasher.

After serving in the infantry in World War II, Neuharth wed his first wife, Loretta Neuharth, and earned a degree from the University of South Dakota on the G.I. Bill. For two years he worked for the Associated Press, but he wanted more.

He quitted the job and founded the short-lived SoDak Sports in his native state.

Lated he moved to Florida and focused on his work as reporter. In 1963 he joined Gannett after working at the Knight-owned Detroit Free Press for three years.

In 1970, Neuharth became president of Gannett and was named CEO in 1973. In addition to overseeing the organization as it became the most profitable newspaper company in history, Neuharth made it a priority to help break industry barriers by placing women and minorities in jobs within the company.

Mr. Neuharth founded USA Today, the nation’s largest newspaper by circulation, in 1982. USA Today’s pioneering use of bright colors and bite-size articles was mimicked by newspapers across the country seeking to compete with television.

Sections were denoted by different colors. The entire back page of the news section had a colored-weather map of the entire 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.

“Neuharth’s innovations had a revolutionary impact,” said Bill Kovach, former editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and founding chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists.

“Virtually no newspaper in the country, nor many around the world, have not been deeply affected by USA Today in terms of look, color, graphics and brevity.”

He served as chairman, chief executive and president of Gannett Co. (GCI), the nation’s largest newspaper group, from 1976 to 1989. Following his retirement, he wrote a weekly column, “Plain Talk,” which appeared in USA Today and other newspapers.

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, says the Washington Post.

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.

His business model, characterized by stripped-down costs and generous margins, reshaped the industry, tilting the balance between profits and public service and turning Gannett into a darling of Wall Street.

Mr. Neuharth’s admirers applauded him for rethinking the American newspaper and streamlining the business in a way that would make print media more nimble and competitive in the Internet age.

“As a journalist, I had a wonderful window on the world,” Neuharth wrote in “Plain Talk,” a final column he said should be published in USA TODAY after his death.

“For nearly 50 years as a reporter and editor, I tried to tell stories accurately and fairly, without opinion.”

Even in retirement, long after USA Todayhad become one of the nation’s most entrenched news brands, Neuharth’s views were keenly sought by Gannett’s top leaders.

“Al’s passing is a great loss for all of us in the Gannett family,” said Gannett President and Chief Executive Gracia Martore.

“Al was many things- a journalist, a leader, a serial entrepreneur, and a pioneer in advancing opportunities for women and minorities. But above all, he was an innovator with a unique sense of the public taste.”

He has received several professional awards, including the Horatio Alger Association award in 1975.

He was also the first man to receive the Women in Communications Headliner Award, for his efforts in newsroom diversity. He received similar honors from the National Association of Black Journalists and the Native American Journalists Association.

Mr. Neuharth wrote eight books, including an autobiography, and founded the Newseum, an interactive museum of news in Washington, D.C. He also founded the Freedom Forum in 1991.

Mr. Neuharth will be buried in a family plot in Eureka.

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