Al Neuharth, USA Today Founder, Dies at 89

Al Neuharth Portrait - P 2013
AP Images

Al Neuharth Portrait - P 2013

The former Gannett head and newspaper innovator championed the hiring women and minorities.

Al Neuharth, who created USA Today and changed the newspaper industry in the process, has died, the paper reported Friday. He was 89.

Neuharth died in Cocoa Beach, Fla., after suffering injures in a fall in his home.

Neuharth's idea for a national newspaper, printed on the presses of Gannett's newspapers across the country, was considered a radical technical marvel in 1982. Its reliance on an unprecedented amount of computers and satellites set it apart in what was still largely a cut-and-paste-up industry.

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The newspaper's use of large photos and information graphics (derided by critics as "McPaper") took a full five years to turn a profit. But eventually, newspapers across the country, from metro dailies like the Los Angeles Times to The New York Times, would emulate its formula. Its "Life" section has long been a staple for movie ads — at one point a key part of its profitability, though recent cuts in print advertising have drastically reduced those pages.

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. He would go on to work as a reporter for the Associated Press for two years before abandoning the job to seek fame and fortune as the founder of his own newspaper. He founded the short-lived SoDak Sports in his native state.

He then moved to Florida and the Knight-owned Miami Herald, where he found success as a reporter and rose through the newsroom ranks. He later joined Gannett in 1963 after working at the Knight-owned Detroit Free Press for three years. While Gannett was not as big as the Knight newspaper chain, he saw no family hierarchy in place, as was the case at Knight, to obstruct his rise.

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.

In addition to wheeling and dealing to make USA Today a success, in 1989 he published an autobiography, Confessions of an S.O.B. The book presented him in a somewhat negative light, with Neuharth chronicling such machinations as rigging a college election and eavesdropping on a corporate rival. His two ex-wives each wrote less-than-flattering chapters about him.

The same year, Neuharth turned 65 and retired from Gannett. He dedicated his retirement to philanthropic works, heading the Gannett Foundation and renaming it Freedom Forum in 1991. He expanded the foundation’s reach from promoting "free speech, free press and free spirit" to include international affairs. In 1997, Freedom Forum opened the much-lauded Newseum in Washington. He also continued to write his "Plain Talk" column, published Fridays in USA Today.

In 1993, Neuharth was married for a third time. With his wife Rachel Fornes, a chiropractor and adoption agency founder 26 years his junior, he adopted six children — Alexis, Karina, twins Andre and Ariana and twins Ali and Rafi.

"As a journalist, I had a wonderful window on the world,'' Neuharth wrote in his final "Plain Talk" column, which he specified should be published after he died. "For nearly 50 years as a reporter and editor, I tried to tell stories accurately and fairly, without opinion."