COCOA BEACH, Fla. – 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.
Critics dubbed USA Today “McPaper” when it debuted in 1982, and they accused Neuharth of dumbing down American journalism with the paper’s 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 at his home in Cocoa Beach, Fla. He was 89.
Jack Marsh, president of the Al Neuharth Media Center and a close friend, said Neuharth fell earlier in the week and never quite recovered.
“Our target was college-age people who were non-readers. We thought they were getting enough serious stuff in classes,” Neuharth said in 1995. “We hooked them primarily because it was a colorful newspaper that played up the things they were interested in — sports, entertainment and TV.”
USA Today was unlike any newspaper before it when it debuted in 1982. Its style was widely derided but later widely imitated. Many news veterans gave it little chances of 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.
“Everybody was skeptical and so was I, but I said you never bet against Neuharth,” the late Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham said in a 2000 interview.
The launch of USA Today was Neuharth’s most visible undertaking during more than 15 years as chairman and CEO of the Gannett Co. During his tenure, Gannett became the nation’s largest newspaper company and the company’s annual revenues increased from $200 million to more than $3 billion. Neuharth became CEO of the company in 1973 and chairman in 1979. He retired in 1989.
Allen H. Neuharth was born March 22, 1924, in Eureka, S.D.
After earning a bronze star in World War II and graduating with a journalism degree from the University of South Dakota, Neuharth worked for the AP for two years.
Before joining Gannett, Neuharth rose up through the ranks of Knight Newspapers.