Remembering Al Neuharth
By Sharon Shahid, online managing editor, Newseum
Allen H. Neuharth, founder of USA Today, the Freedom Forum and the Newseum, died Friday, April 19, 2013, in Cocoa Beach, Fla. He was 89.
For more than half a century, Neuharth was a driving force in newspaper innovation, journalism education and newsroom diversity.
“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,” said Jim Duff, president and chief executive officer of the Freedom Forum, and CEO of the Newseum and the Diversity Institute. “He taught them the importance of not only a free press but a fair one.”
Neuharth was born March 22, 1924, in Eureka, S.D. He got his first job at age 11, delivering newspapers in Alpena, S.D. At Alpena High School, he was editor of the Echo, which he said made him “feel like the most powerful kid in school.”
He served in World War II as a combat infantryman in both Europe and the Pacific and was awarded a Bronze Star. After the war, he attended the University of South Dakota under the GI bill and majored in journalism. He was editor of the student newspaper, The Volante, and graduated cum laude in 1950. His first job after graduation was as a reporter for The Associated Press in Sioux Falls. A high-definition media center at USD is named for him.
Despite those accomplishments, failure was the catalyst for Neuharth’s success.
In 1952, he and a friend raised $50,000 to launch SoDak Sports, a statewide weekly newspaper printed on peach-colored paper. The publication failed to attract advertisers and went bankrupt in two years. Neuharth often said SoDak Sports failed “because I had mismanaged it.”
Broke and in debt, Neuharth “ran away” to Florida at age 30, where he was hired as a reporter for The Miami Herald.
“Failure shouldn’t stop your drive to succeed,” Neuharth said. “How you respond to failure makes all the difference.”
During the next few years, Neuharth rose from reporter to management positions in the Knight newspaper group in Miami and Detroit. He joined Gannett Co. Inc. in 1963. From 1976 to 1989, he was Gannett’s chairman, CEO and president. Under his leadership, an unprecedented number of women and minorities were promoted to top newsroom and corporate positions. He said his widowed mother’s struggle to earn a living during the Depression was the impetus.
In his 2000 book “Free Spirit,” Neuharth explained that his mother earned $10 a week washing dishes and taking in laundry, while men earned $5 a day under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration.
“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,” he said.
Perhaps one of the biggest achievements in Neuharth’s professional career was the founding of USA Today, the nation’s No. 1 newspaper in print circulation.
In 1979, Neuharth began thinking about a national newspaper “so different, so advanced in design and appearance and content that it would pull the rest of the industry into the 21st century.”
The idea grew in part from his role in the 1966 launch of “Florida’s Space Age Newspaper” Today — now Florida Today — that became the first successful new newspaper of any size since World War II. Armed with that experience and surveys that said readers were ready for bold, new ideas, Neuharth launched USA Today in 1982.
Traditionalists scoffed at the tightly written newspaper, calling it fast-food journalism — “McPaper.” Within a decade, USA Today’s graphics, short stories and full-color sections all were widely imitated.
Neuharth retired from Gannett in 1989 and wrote a weekly column called “Plain Talk,” which appeared in USA Today and other newspapers. He loved to ignite debate on subjects ranging from politics to sports to family matters. He insisted that a “Feedback” segment accompany each column, to give those he mentioned in the column a chance to agree or disagree with him. He never missed writing a column in 24 years.
In 1991, two years after his retirement from Gannett, Neuharth founded the Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan foundation dedicated to free press, free speech and free spirit for all people. The Freedom Forum is the major funder of the operations of the Newseum.
Neuharth authored eight books, including his autobiography, “Confessions of an S.O.B.,” which was a national best-seller and was translated into five languages.
He is survived by his third wife, Dr. Rachel Fornes, and their six adopted children: Alexis, Karina, twins Andre and Ariana, and twins Aliandro and Rafaelina; his two children by his first marriage to Loretta Helgeland: Dan, a psychotherapist, marriage counselor and author in California; and Jan, a lawyer, businesswoman and author in Middleburg, Va., and chairwoman of the Freedom Forum Board of Trustees; his son-in-law, Joseph Keusch; and his two grandchildren: Dani, and AJ. His second wife was Lori Wilson, a former Florida state senator.
An exhibit on Neuharth’s career is on display in the News Corporation News History Gallery at the Newseum.