Al Neuharth, 89; creator of USA Today helped reshape journalism

Al Neuharth built Gannett from a regional newspaper chain into a national media company, revamping the journalism business model in the process.
Reuters/File 1987
Al Neuharth built Gannett from a regional newspaper chain into a national media company, revamping the journalism business model in the process.

NEW YORK — Al Neuharth, the brash and blustery media mogul who built Gannett Co. into a communications leviathan and created USA Today, for years America’s best-selling newspaper, died Friday at his home in Cocoa Beach, Fla. He was 89.

USA Today announced his death. Family members said the cause was complications of a recent fall.

Mr. Neuharth’s influence on US journalism extended well beyond the 93 daily newspapers he amassed for Gannett. USA Today’s pioneering use of bright colors and bite-size articles in the early 1980s was at first ridiculed, then mimicked by newspapers across the country seeking to compete with television.


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.

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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.

‘‘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.’’

But his critics said the cost-cutting he championed was draconian and would only dumb down journalism and hasten the industry’s decline. They mocked USA Today as ‘‘McPaper’’ and said Neuharth’s editorial approach resulted in a profusion of fluff.

In an industry long dominated by white men, Mr. Neuharth led the way in the hiring and promotion of women and minorities, tying compensation to hiring goals. By 1988 the proportion of minorities in Gannett newsrooms was 47 percent higher than the national average. Women accounted for nearly 40 percent of the company’s managers, professionals, technicians, and sales agents and an unheard-of quarter of its newspaper publishers.


As Gannett’s chairman from 1973 to 1989, Mr. Neuharth transformed a regional group of mostly small, northeastern newspapers based in Rochester, N.Y., into a multimedia empire comprising the nation’s largest newspaper chain, 10 television and 16 radio stations, and the nation’s largest outdoor advertising company, now based in McLean, Va.

Mr. Neuharth relished the role of larger-than-life tycoon. Even as he squeezed newspapers to plump share prices, he lived royally, maintaining luxurious executive suites in New York and Washington and five homes around the country. He crisscrossed the world in his corporate jet and was known to ride by limousine even for just a few blocks.

He was openly contemptuous of the journalistic establishment, reserving particular scorn for Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post, a rival across the Potomac with whom he feuded publicly.

“If USA Today is a good newspaper, then I’m in the wrong business,’’ Bradlee once said.

Mr. Neuharth shot back: ‘‘Bradlee and I finally agree on something. He is in the wrong business.’’


He made his boldest move in 1982, when he gambled Gannett’s fiscal success on the dream of a national newspaper. His goal was nothing less than to reinvent the American newspaper, and to a great extent he succeeded.

USA Today featured brief articles, bright colors, bold graphics, and light news. Modeled on television, it sought a market of business travelers, transplants and anyone for whom six paragraphs about the Middle East was sufficient and anything less than every last sports score was not.

Mr. Neuharth was born on March 22, 1924, in Eureka, S.D. He traced his drive and ambition to early privation. His father, who ran a creamery, died before Mr. Neuharth was 2. At 10, he was forced to become a breadwinner, as a paperboy for The Minneapolis Tribune.

After graduating from the University of South Dakota in 1950, he and a classmate founded a weekly sports newspaper, which went bankrupt in two years. Mr. Neuharth began his career as a reporter for The Miami Herald in 1954, moved to The Detroit Free Press as executive editor in 1960, and was hired by Gannett as a general manager in 1963. He became president in 1970 and chief executive in 1973.

At 65, Mr. Neuharth retired from Gannett in 1989 and took control of the Gannett Foundation, the company’s charitable arm.

Mr. Neuharth’s first two marriages, to Loretta Helgeland and Lori Wilson, ended in divorce. He is survived by his third wife, Rachel Fornes; two children from his first marriage, Dan and Jan Neuharth; six children he adopted with Fornes — Alexis, Karina, Andre, Ariana, Rafaelina, and Aliandro; and two grandchildren.