Al Neuharth, 89, founder of USA Today

Al Neuharth
Al Neuharth
Posted: April 22, 2013

COCOA BEACH, Fla. - Critics dubbed USA Today "McPaper" when it debuted in 1982, and they accused its founder, Al Neuharth, of dumbing down American journalism with its easy-to-read articles and bright graphics.

Mr. Neuharth had the last laugh when USA Today became the nation's most-circulated newspaper in the late 1990s.

The hard-charging founder of USA Today, 89, died Friday in Cocoa Beach. The news was announced by USA Today and the Newseum in Washington, which he also founded.

Jack Marsh, president of the Al Neuharth Media Center and a close friend, confirmed that Mr. Neuharth died Friday afternoon at his home. Marsh said he fell earlier in the week.

Mr. Neuharth changed the look of U.S. newspapers by filling USA Today with breezy, easy-to-comprehend articles, attention-grabbing graphics, and stories that usually didn't require readers to jump to a different page. Sections were denoted by different colors. The entire back page of the front section had a color weather map of the United States.

"Our target was college-age people who were nonreaders. We thought they were getting enough serious stuff in classes," he said in 1995.

USA Today was unlike any other newspaper when it debuted. Its style was widely derided but widely imitated. Many news veterans initially gave it few chances for survival. Advertisers were at first reluctant to place their money in a newspaper that might compete with local dailies. But circulation grew. 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.

The launch of USA Today was Mr. Neuharth's most visible undertaking during more than 15 years as chairman and CEO of Gannett Co. During his helm, Gannett became the nation's largest newspaper company and the company's annual revenue increased from $200 million to more than $3 billion. He became CEO in 1973 and chairman in 1979. He retired in 1989.

Mr. Neuharth was proud of his record in bringing more minorities and women into Gannett newsrooms and the board of directors.

Before joining Gannett, Mr. Neuharth rose up through the ranks of Knight Newspapers Inc., a former owner of The Inquirer. 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.

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

He also founded the Freedom Forum, dedicated to free press and free speech, which holds conferences, offers fellowships, and provides training.

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