Al Neuharth died Friday at his home in Cocoa Beach, Fla.
He was 89.
Al’s name may not be familiar to you, but this blogger hopes that you are acquainted with the newspaper he willed to life in 1982: USA Today.
From 1984 to 2009, I was either a reporter or editor — and sometimes both — at McPaper (a nickname that critics bestowed upon USA Today, but which those of us who were there in its best days adopted with the pride of underdogs).
As my old colleagues write of Al, “he was an innovator who used satellite technology to create a national newspaper that has become the second largest in the United States.”
For quite a while, it was the largest circulation paper.
Al was the Gannett CEO who pushed the dream of a national newspaper, over the doubts of some in the company. For the first few years after its launch, he was both the face of the place and a hands-on presence in the newsroom. It took quite a while for the paper to make money. Without Al’s vision, stubbornness and forceful personality, Gannett might have folded it.
There are certainly reasons to criticize his work. Especially at the start, USA Today‘s stories could be so short that they lacked crucial information. Headlines could be cringe-inducing: “Men, Women, We’re Still Different” is one any USA Today veteran well remembers. His weekly columns were an acquired taste, for sure. As USA Today recalls, “the CEO who promoted women executives once wrote a column calling for younger, slimmer airline stewardesses.”
But the newspaper brought color to newsstands. Its graphics broke ground for the way they would tell stories and add information. As circulation spread across the nation, it brought better journalism and competition to cities and towns served by newspapers that weren’t always doing a very good job.
What I will always be most grateful to Al for are the rules he insisted that the staff follow. They may sound like basics of good journalism, but they can’t be stressed enough:
– Be fair.
– Be impartial.
– Follow the facts.
– Identify your sources.
– Write for readers.
In today’s world or tweets and blogs, those are still rules to be followed.