John J. Curley, the man Allen Neuharth named last week to succeed him as chief executive officer of Gannett Co. Inc., has some experience taking over from media luminaries.

A dozen years ago, for example, Curley became Washington bureau chief, replacing Jack Germond, the political journalist who had symbolized Gannett in the power circles of Washington.

As some of those summoned to the Washington Hotel one evening in February 1974 remember it, Neuharth first chided those Germond left behind for concentrating too much on matters that drew yawns in small towns where Gannett owned newspapers -- i.e., politics, bureaucratic infighting, the insider scoops that so mesmerize Washingtonians.

Then he introduced Curley as their new boss, the one in charge of bringing them back to earth, back to their readers. It was the managerial equivalent of letting Curley sink or swim in a sea of fear and disillusionment.

By all accounts, Curley barely got wet.

"There was a great deal of regret about Jack leaving; that shook the hell out of everybody," said Don Campbell, national editor of Gannett News Service. "But Curley is a very likeable guy, and it came through that night when obviously people were raising their concerns about a whole lot of things. He has this way about him. He tends to allay your concerns very quickly."

John Curley, who operates from one of the USA Today executive offices in Rosslyn that stun a visitor with the high-rise, vistavision view of Washington and the Potomac, speaks in a low, reassuring voice. His accent at 47 still bears the traces of his youth in Easton, Pa., a town 72 miles west of New York City.

But, like others he considers his peers at other communications empires -- Tom Johnson, vice chairman of Times-Mirror Co., or Peter R. Kann, executive vice president and associate publisher of The Wall Street Journal -- Curley makes everything he says sound patently reasonable. He spoke last week, for example, about how he is more like Neuharth than most people realize.

"My style is direct like his," Curley said from his maroon leather couch, as four television channels flickered silently overhead. "I'm not shy about what I think . . . . I'm decisive and don't need a lot of time to make up my mind."

Pushed on differences, as he was by reporters during a press conference last Tuesday after Neuharth told stockholders he was passing him the mantle as CEO, Curley seemed almost embarrassed, making jokes about how he doesn't wear gray and black, Neuharth's favorite shades of dress. Instead, on Wednesday, he was wearing a banker's navy blue.

"He's a personality," he said of Neuharth, smiling at what is clearly an understatement. "But Al's style is 'get it done'; mine is, too. I may not do it in quite the same way, but the same results hopefully will accrue."

Where Neuharth tends to overwhelm people with the power of his argument, sometimes showing his charm, sometimes unsheathing his sharp edges, Curley is routinely described as "a nice guy" whose method is "nonconfrontational." In his rapid rise to the top of Gannett, where he started in 1969 as a suburban editor of the Times-Union in Rochester, N.Y., he has left behind fewer enemies than most.

"He's done some tough jobs for Neuharth," said Eugene Gribbroek, a retired editor of the Gannett News Service Washington bureau. "But he didn't ever come across as any kind of a hatchet man because he does things very smoothly, very pleasantly. He doesn't create a lot of hostility, even when he does something people don't like."

Curley describes the style as being "straight ahead. Here's what I think. I don't go around looking for trouble, but I don't avoid it either.

"I think most people will tell you that I step up to the hard ones quickly. It's dumb not to; they only get worse," he continued.

Industry analysts and former Gannett employes suggest that the hard job for Curley will be bringing the colorful USA Today into the black. The national daily that is Neuharth's innovative and controversial experiment was started in 1982 and was supposed to make a profit by the end of 1987.

Gannett officials say that readership and advertising are growing and losses are shrinking -- with 1.4 million readers this year (including 248,855 in bulk sales to hotels, airlines, etc.) and losses of $85 million in 1985 (down from losses estimated by analysts at $110 million the year before).

One news executive familiar with the workings of Gannett said Curley "will be the CEO in charge of getting USA Today over the hump. I don't think the coast is yet clear for John to be chairman of the board." That title is retained by Neuharth as the final plum to be passed on when his "evolutionary" retirement, as Curley calls it, is completed.

Asked about his toughest job ahead, Curley acknowledged his task is USA Today. "To keep it moving forward, to get it into profitability" will be his most difficult task, he said.

As for the looming question of whether Neuharth will let go, even slowly, media analyst John Morton said: "As a practical matter, as long as Neuharth is still chairman, he is going to be active in the decisions."

Unlike Neuharth, who paces when he talks, Curley sits quietly, occasionally crossing his arms when the questions get tougher or when he doesn't agree with the questioner's premise.

He doesn't agree with those, for example, who suggest that, as a man with years of experience on the news side of the business, one of his other tasks will be to earn Gannett respect in the journalistic community. As the nation's largest newspaper chain, with 93 newspapers, including those being purchased in Louisville, the company is often accused of being more interested in good profit margins than good journalism.

"I think, in fairness, we've improved a lot of our newspapers, and most people aren't interested enough, nor should they be, I guess, to take a closer look. It's always easy to be superficial," he said last week. "In any given list of the top 10 newspapers, I've always noticed they are usually two or three years out of date with reality."

The son of two schoolteachers, Curley has come a long way since he first knew he wanted to be in journalism at age 13. Compared with Gannett's latest proxy statement listing his salary last year at $685,000, Curley's first earnings were 12 cents an inch for sports items printed in the Easton (Pa.) Express.

After graduation from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., with degrees in political science and English, he went to Columbia University on a full scholarship in international studies. He graduated with a masters in journalism and worked for The Associated Press at night.

Between 1963 and 1969, Curley moved from The Associated Press to newspapers in New Jersey, seemingly trying to determine where he fit best. In 1969, he made the one career move that now seems out of character. That summer and fall, he worked as press secretary for William Cahill, Republican candidate for governor of New Jersey.

"I couldn't understand why he was in the campaign. Usually a guy is in there to get a job after the election, but John didn't want that. He was the class of the campaign," remembers Alan Marcus, who also worked for Cahill and who now runs a public relations firm in New Jersey. "He was always more in line with the reporters than he was with the candidate."

A month later, at the age of 30, Curley joined Gannett as suburban editor of The Times Union. In four months, he was editor of Gannett's small paper in Somerset County, N.J., the Bridgewater Courier-News; a little more than a year later, when the publisher of the paper died, he became both publisher and editor.

From there, Curley moved up the corporate ladder at a break-neck pace, and in January 1982, in what he says now was his toughest job so far, he was the first editor of USA employes suggest that the hard job for Curley will be bringing the colorful USA Today into the black. The national daily that is Neuharth's innovative and controversial experiment was started in 1982 and was supposed to make a profit by the end of 1987.

Gannett officials say that readership and advertising are growing and losses are shrinking -- with 1.4 million readers this year (including 248,855 in bulk sales to hotels, airlines, etc.) and losses of $85 million in 1985 (down from losses estimated by analysts at $110 million the year before).

One news executive familiar with the workings of Gannett said Curley "will be the CEO in charge of getting USA Today over the hump. I don't think the coast is yet clear for John to be chairman of the board." That title is retained by Neuharth as the final plum to be passed on when his "evolutionary" retirement, as Curley calls it, is completed.

Asked about his toughest job ahead, Curley acknowledged his task is USA Today. "To keep it moving forward, to get it into profitability" will be his most difficult task, he said.

As for the looming question of whether Neuharth will let go, even slowly, media analyst John Morton said: "As a practical matter, as long as Neuharth is still chairman, he is going to be active in the decisions."

Unlike Neuharth, who paces when he talks, Curley sits quietly, occasionally crossing his arms when the questions get tougher or when he doesn't agree with the questioner's premise.

He doesn't agree with those, for example, who suggest that, as a man with years of experience on the news side of the business, one of his other tasks will be to earn Gannett respect in the journalistic community. As the nation's largest newspaper chain, with 93 newspapers, including those being purchased in Louisville, the company is often accused of being more interested in good profit margins than good journalism.

"I think, in fairness, we've improved a lot of our newspapers, and most people aren't interested enough, nor should they be, I guess, to take a closer look. It's always easy to be superficial," he said last week. "In any given list of the top 10 newspapers, I've always noticed they are usually two or three years out of date with reality."

The son of two schoolteachers, Curley has come a long way since he first knew he wanted to be in journalism at age 13. Compared with Gannett's latest proxy statement listing his salary last year at $685,000, Curley's first earnings were 12 cents an inch for sports items printed in the Easton (Pa.) Express.

After graduation from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., with degrees in political science and English, he went to Columbia University on a full scholarship in international studies. He graduated with a masters in journalism and worked for The Associated Press at night.

Between 1963 and 1969, Curley moved from The Associated Press to newspapers in New Jersey, seemingly trying to determine where he fit best. In 1969, he made the one career move that now seems out of character. That summer and fall, he worked as press secretary for William Cahill, Republican candidate for governor of New Jersey.

"I couldn't understand why he was in the campaign. Usually a guy is in there to get a job after the election, but John didn't want that. He was the class of the campaign," remembers Alan Marcus, who also worked for Cahill and who now runs a public relations firm in New Jersey. "He was always more in line with the reporters than he was with the candidate."

A month later, at the age of 30, Curley joined Gannett as suburban editor of The Times Union. In four months, he was editor of Gannett's small paper in Somerset County, N.J., the Bridgewater Courier-News; a little more than a year later, when the publisher of the paper died, he became both publisher and editor.

From there, Curley moved up the corporate ladder at a break-neck pace, and in January 1982, in what he says now was his toughest job so far, he was the first editor of USA Today.

Finally, in March 1984, he was appointed president and chief operating officer of Gannett -- the first indication that Curley had won the succession fight with the other key candidate, Douglas H. McCorkindale, vice chairman and chief financial and administrative officer for Gannett.

When Curley was named, the news side of Gannett rejoiced. He was one of their own compared with McCorkindale, who is believed to be the mastermind behind Gannett's vigorous acquisition policy but whose experience is in business and finance, not news.

Curley, who has hired some of its better reporters and managers over the years, has found members of his own family following in his footsteps. Younger brother Tom, 37, who was also publisher at the Bridgewater paper in July 1983, is now president of USA Today.

"John Quinn [now editor of USA Today] heard about him . . . and recruited him," said John Curley. "I don't think there's any favoritism. Most people say I'm probably tougher on him than others . . . but he's competent, so I don't worry."

Both sons of John Curley seem to be moving into the news business. John, 21, is a photographer at the Cincinnati Inquirer, a Gannett paper, and Tom, 17, who has been the editor of the school newspaper at Walt Whitman High School, will intern this summer at Gannett's Florida Today newspaper in Cocoa Beach.

Asked about nepotism at Gannett, Curley said: "Our philosophy and approach is that we'll hire people if we think they're competent. We're not going to worry about excluding people because of their last name."

Curley's wife Ann, a former reporter and editor and the one member of the family not working for Gannett, is editing a newsletter for the American Association of Retired Persons.

Perhaps it tells the most about Curley that his hobbies are running and bicycling -- avocations that he has carefully charted each day in a calendar especially for that purpose. A week behind in the tally, the calendar says that Curley has run 409.5 miles and bicycled 407.5 miles so far this year.

Said one longtime friend, John Omicinski, northeast correspondent for Gannett News Service, "It's just like John to keep track of how many miles he's run, and he's gone a long way."