Some life lessons
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, Mr. 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 exposé. 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.
Knack for organization
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 Mr. 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 called “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.