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Newspaperman Al Neuharth, Founded ‘USA Today,’ Dies at 89

FILE- in this Thursday, Sept. 25, 2003 file photo provided by the Freedom Forum, Al Neuharth, founder of the USA Today and the Freedom Forum listens as former U.S. Sen. George McGovern speaks during the dedication of the Al Neuharth Media Center on the campus of the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, S.D. Neuharth has died in Cocoa Beach, Fla. He was 89. The news was announced Friday, April 19, 2013 by USA Today and by the Newseum, which he also founded. (AP Photo/Freedom Forum, Dave Eggen,  File)

FILE- in this Thursday, Sept. 25, 2003 file photo provided by the Freedom Forum, Al Neuharth, founder of the USA Today and the Freedom Forum listens as former U.S. Sen. George McGovern speaks during the dedication of the Al Neuharth Media Center on the campus of the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, S.D. Neuharth has died in Cocoa Beach, Fla. He was 89. The news was announced Friday, April 19, 2013 by USA Today and by the Newseum, which he also founded. (AP Photo/Freedom Forum, Dave Eggen, File)

Cocoa Beach, Fla. — Allen Neuharth, 89, whose drive, energy and enterprise helped him write an American success story as he rose from delivering the daily paper to presiding over a giant publishing empire and achieving recognition as one of the most influential figures in modern journalism, died Friday in Florida.

Neuharth’s death came after he suffered injuries in a fall at his home in Cocoa Beach, Fla., according to a story in USA Today, the national newspaper he founded.

Neuharth, the onetime chief of the Gannett, a huge newspaper chain, also helped found the Newseum in Washington, and he achieved widespread recognition for the columns he wrote in USA Today, expressing his pungent views on public issues.

Neuharth — a 5-foot-7 World War II combat veteran with wavy white hair — once dressed only in black and white, but he was a pioneer in filling newspaper pages with vivid color.

Known for his abilities in newsroom and boardroom, he was the recipient of many journalism honors. But he was probably best known to the public at large for creating USA Today, the first American newspaper pitched at providing information of general interest to millions of readers throughout the nation. Its striking presentation of news and statistical information led to changes throughout journalism.

In particular, the paper’s use of color, its lively design and the brevity of many of its stories were studied, sometimes scorned and often imitated in newsrooms across the nation.

Fault was sometimes found with efforts to cram complex matters into the limited space of a USA Today account. But the newspaper’s vast reach and circulation suggested that Neuharth understood the reading habits of many Americans.

“Above all, he was an innovator with a unique sense of the public taste,” Gannett Chief Executive Gracia Martore said in USA Today.

His hands-on leadership extended to sitting down and rewriting headlines and stories until they satisfied him, and watching to see that the paper was delivered to doorsteps, not thrown into garden hedges.

His columns in USA Today brought his opinions to the public, and were sometimes used to engage with other prominent individuals, verbal fencing that ultimately seemed to convey a sense of mischief rather than malice.

In its obituary of Neuharth, USA Today excerpted what was described as his final column, one that he said should be published after his death. In it he wrote: “For nearly 50 years as a reporter and editor, I tried to tell stories accurately and fairly, without opinion.”

In its early years, USA Today was reported to have lost $400 million. But a 1987 profile of Neuharth in People magazine said that by the paper’s fifth anniversary, in September of that year, he had led it into the black, with a readership of 5.5 million. The paper could be found each weekday in the most remote parts of the nation, purchased from circulation boxes that also seemed designed for visual impact.

According to the profile in People, USA Today was a newspaper that he had “conceived, designed, packaged and sold.”

In reference works, Neuharth was given credit for leading the Gannett chain, once a group of small-town papers of largely regional impact, into a conglomerate valued in the billions. He was also honored for his determination to provide newsroom opportunities for women and members of minority groups, and he had a leading role in founding the Freedom Forum, a foundation that works to protect a free press, free speech and other liberties.

Accounts of his life and career, depicted him as someone who saw a symbiotic relationship between gathering news and making money. A tabloid he founded as a young man, SoDak Sports, helped give him a sense of the realities of the American marketplace. By all accounts, it was a fine newspaper, but it failed nevertheless.

It was “great for my ego,” he was quoted as saying in the People profile, because he was able to print what he wrote. But, he added, “I learned one very important lesson. If you don’t sell it, nobody’s gonna read it.”

Allen Harold Neuharth was born March 22, 1924, in the South Dakota town of Eureka, and his life story resembled one of the rags-to-riches tales of 19th-century American author Horatio Alger Jr.

When he was 2 years old, his father died in an accident on the family farm in Alpena, S.D., and the family struggled to make ends meet. By the age of 11, Neuharth was supplementing the family income by delivering the Minneapolis Tribune. At 13, he was at work in the composing room of the Alpena Journal, and he held other jobs as well. He became editor of his high school paper.

He went to college on a scholarship, but World War II intervened, with overseas service in the Army infantry. He won the Bronze Star Medal for valor.

After the war, he used the GI Bill to attend and graduate from the University of South Dakota, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and edited the campus paper. He worked summers for local newspapers.

After the collapse of his sports tabloid, he went to work as a reporter for The Miami Herald, where he proved an able reporter with a talent for investigation and expose. Rising rapidly, he moved through jobs as a copy editor, a Latin American correspondent and a member of the Washington bureau before entering the executive ranks.

After he worked as assistant managing editor of the Herald, part of the Knight newspaper chain, the company sent him to an executive job at The Detroit Free Press. Then Gannett hired him as general manager of its two papers in Rochester, N.Y.

Climbing steadily, he became executive vice president of the Gannett chain and head of Gannett Florida. Those jobs took him away from the newsroom, but he recognized the advantages.

“If you’re running the place, you have greater opportunities to accomplish things than if you’re a reporter or editor,” he told Fortune magazine. “The guy who controls the purse strings controls the whole show.”

In Florida, he was credited with founding Cocoa Today, to serve the Cocoa-Cape Canaveral area. Its success had been described as fundamental to his continued ascent at Gannett. In 1970, he was named the chain’s president and chief operating officer.

According to published accounts, he had a knack for organization — streamlining operations, cutting costs and building good balance sheets. He also strengthened coverage in areas perceived to be weak, including national and foreign news, added to editorial budgets and saw many of the chain’s papers win prizes.

In 1978, he became Gannett’s chairman, supervising mergers and acquisitions, among other duties. Soon, corporate revenue surpassed $1 billion. A five-year period that ended in 1979 showed impressive profitability for the chain.

“Wall Street didn’t give a damn if we put out a good paper in Niagara Falls,” he explained to a reporter. “They just wanted to know if our profit increases would be in the 15 to 20 percent range. Now they know.”

Several times, a business publication, the Wall Street Transcript, named him “Chief Executive of the Year” in newspaper publishing.

“People say Al’s ruthless,” People quoted John Curley, a top Gannett executive, as saying. “I don’t think he’s ruthless. I just think he’s tough.”

Then came the creation of USA Today, which Neuharth championed despite boardroom doubts and in the face of scoffing elsewhere in journalism. Underscoring what critics perceived as its fast-food version of journalism, it was derided as “McPaper.”

But its informative charts and graphs, splashy weather section and exhaustive coverage of sports had more than their share of imitators, and the paper’s circulation went over the 1 million mark.

His first marriage, to Loretta Fay Helgeland, ended in divorce in 1972. They had two children, Daniel J. and Janet Ann. He married Lori Wilson on Dec. 31 1973, and they divorced in 1982.

In 1993, at the age of 68, he married Rachel Fornes, a Cocoa Beach chiropractor and founder of an adoption agency. She was 26 years his junior. They adopted six children of varying races and ethnicities — Alexis, Karina, twins Andre and Ariana, and twins Ali and Rafi.