Al Neuharth is just an old news hound off an a.m. paper, but you wouldn't know it now. Not from the private jets and chauffeured limos, the membership in the Jockey Club and the renovated "log cabin" in Cocoa Beach where he and his wife Lori spend weekends. That's the one with the closed-circuit TV system, the bank of newswires in his study, the reported 21 telephones. Al Neuharth calls it "Pumpkin Center," after a crossroads in South Dakota where he and his buddies used to meet on Saturday mornings and swill six-packs. But that was a long time ago.

Allen H. Neuthart, president and chief executive officer and, as of Jan. 1, 1979, chairman of the board of Gannett newspapers, is a short, sure, 54-year-old man with swept-back silvered hair and a ring as big as the Ritz. In Washington last week for a meeting of 135 of his publishers and company heads, Neuharth lodged himself in the Barron Hilton Suite on the ninth floor of the Capital Hilton. The room goes for $425 per night for one. (John UINN, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT FOR NEWS, WAS LODGED IN THE WILLIAMSBURG SUITE, WHICH GOES FOR $275. AND SO ON DOWN THE LIST.)

TO HEAR AL NEUHARTH TELL IT, NONE OF THIS-THE PRIVATE PLANES (THERE ARE FOUR AT HIS DISPOSAL), THE OFFICES IN A GRID OF CITIES, THE SPECIALLY BUILT BOUDOIR ADJOINING HIS HEADQUARTERS IN A ROCHESTER BANK BUILDING, THE SALARY THAT APPROACHES $400,000-IS EXCEPTIONAL.

"ALL THIS," AL NEUHARTH SAYS WITH AN AIMLESS WAVE PAST THE LINEN COFFEE SERVICE AND HIS THREE BRIEFCASES, "JUST GOES WITH THE TERRITORY."

NOT GENERAL MOTORS TERRITORY. NEWSPAPER TERRITORY. "NO, NO, NO," AL NEUHARTH SAYS, "I WOULDN'T BE DOING ANY OF THIS IF IT WERE G.M. Not only would I not do it-I wouldn't know how to do it. I'm just an old newsman, a former city editor. What I know is newspapers. That's all I want. Oh, that's not to say I don't share similar lifestyles and . . . work habits of other chief executives." Al Neuharth says this with a fetching bad-boy grin.

Maybe you've never heard of the Richmond Palladium-Item, or the Chambersburg Public Opinion, or the Little Falls Daily Transcript, or any of the other 75 "small to medium-sized" dailies across America that constitute the bulk of Al Neuharthhs phantom empire. But don't snicker: What all those St. Clouds and Elmiras and Port Chesters-plus a Nashville and Camden and Honolulu-add up to is the largest newspaper chain, at least numerically, in the country.

Al Neuharth was once asked by a financial analyst how to pronounce the name "Gannett", It is GANett or GanNETT? the fellow wanted to know. 'It's MONey," Neuharth supposedly shot back. This year, Gannett corporate sales are expected to reach $650 million, up 17 percent form 1977. The company has tripled its dollar revenue in the past decade and has increased its profits for 44 consecutive quarters.

Perspective: The total circulation of Al Neuharthhs 78 dailies, spread over 29 states and territories, from Vermont to Guam, is greateer than that of The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and The Chicago Tribune combined. And there are more papers on the way, not to mention broadcast and billboard deals. Last year, Gannett bought up the 13 papers of the Speidel chain; this year the company closed a deal with Combined Communications, which among other things controls the Oakland Tribune and the Cincinnati Enquirer.

so who cares if the light doesn't shine in Bridgewater?

Al Neuharth cares, actually. A good deal. Not that the man sitting here on the couch with his smile tucked, leg crossed, vest unbuttoned, flair pen cocked like a pistol in his right hand, is going to come right out and say so.

No, no no, Al Neuharth is going to say that buying a newspaper in a major "thought center," just for the prestige of having one there, would be bad business. Gross mismanagement, in fact.

"Oh, I might get some personal ego satisfaction out of owning a paper in one of the big metro areas. But the rewards of that to owners, and ultimately to readers, would never justify the risk."

Al Neuharth isn't one for wallowing in the abstract. It's part of his charm. He will be as specific as you like. "Now when The Washington Star was on the market-both times-we politely expressed no interest."

Pause here, for the room to swell; the grin is back. "On the other hand, if The Washington Post were on the market, we would use all the resources and charm at our disposal to convince Kay Graham that Gannett should be the logical successor owner.

Likewise The Boston Globe. The Boston Globe owns that town. We would not be interested in situations in Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, or Philadelphia."

During this short course on market survey, the professor has gotten up off the coach and begun to walk the room. Halted now, turned, jangling the change in both pockets (causing his trousers to stand up comically above his shoetops), he says: "Look, we are not scared of the big metro markets. But we also believe in practicing journalism where we can pay the rent."

No, he doesn't think the lack of recognition by the big leagues is something that irritates-"either as individuals or as a corporation. Besides, I think we have enough recognition." Which is probably true: For one thing, Neuharth was elected president of the American Newspapers Publishers Association this year. He talks of "Kay" and "Punch" a lot.

"What irritates is the way some of our big-city colleagues tend to criticize us. I don't think they understand. It's a different kind of journalism we're doing. Iths basically local community journalism. It's not fair to judge us by their standards."

Among some people in the business, there has long been a feeling that Gannett is bent on profits, damn everything else, and that Rochester doesn't really care what the locals out there do with their papers, as long as they keep sending up the money in bushel baskets. Journalism grads smack out of college get jobs at Gannett-and get worked like hell. New Meat theory.

And yet there are enough people-like Ron Martin, editor of the baltimore News-American, a former Gannett employe and Neuharth admirer-who says: "I defy anyone to point to a single Gannett newspaper that's not better since the chain bought it." Martin concedes, though, that no Gannett paper is close to making anyone's Top Dozen list.

Gannett papes have won several Pulitzers through the years. In the first half of 1978, the company collected over 400 various awards (compared to over 200 a year ago). The chain intends to boost spending for its news operation by 13 percent in 1979. Also, the Gannett News Service in Washington has been recently beefed up.

In all, say some Gannett and Neuharth watchers, the chief executive is now as lean for professional approval as he always was for Wall Street approval. Profits are not enough anymore. Lots of Gs

Al Neuharth's trademark is black and white. He wears these colors. or variations of gray, almost exclusively. Even while running-something he does religiously, at home or on the road, at about 5:30 every morning. (In Washington last week, he did a mile and a quarter in Lafayette Park).

His haberdashery in exotic. He is known to wear dark glasses indoors, and black and white checked Jackets, and white shirts and black stitching, and vice versa. He also takes to elaborately-tied cravats. Once, when a head-waiter wouldn't let him into a restaurant because he had a cravat and not a tie on, he blithely lied through his teeth and said he had throat cancer. He got in.

There are several exceptions to this severe color scheme, and one is Al Neuharth's stationary. It is bright peach. "The first newspaper I ever had, in South Dakota, went broke. It was printed on peach newsprint. It's a good daily reminder," says Al Neuharth.

Neuharth's favorite plan in the Gannett fleet is a Falcon 20, done up in black and white. There is a monogrammed Gannett "G" everywhere you look - in the white rug, on the playing cards, on the soap. Even the boss's black and white slippers, which he likes to slip into once he gets airborne, sport the ubiquitous "G".

This is no big deal, Al Neuharth says. "Yes, we have decorating devices that feature our corporate identity and our various newspapers. But it also happens that certain people in our company, myself included, like to wear clothes by Gucci and Givenchy. It's easy to have a lot of Gs round in that case." A dismissing shrug.

As for the planes themselves, well, "it's simply the most convenient access to our papers. Many of the cities we're in don't have commercial service, or very little." Which is true. Most of the time, Neuharth says, the editor knows he's coming. It's not unique for him to just pop down.

Al Neuharth is married Lori Wilson, a Florida state senator going out of office in January. Mrs. Neuharths's trademark has been a white pants suit, though lately people says she's reversing the pattern. People who know her say she's strong independent woman. Neuharth and wilson were married on the beach, facing into the sunrise, on New Year's Eve, 1973. (His first marriage of 26 years ended in divorce.) He and Lori have a rule he says they've never violated in five years of marriage: They get together every weekend, regardless of where they've been all week. Sometimes Lori jets out to Reno, or Rockford, two of the regional offices, to meet Al; mostly they unite in Cocoa. Neuharth figures he spends about a week a month in Rochester. The blade's Always Out

Derek Daniels, president of Playboy, probably knows Neuharth as well as anybody. The two worked together in the '50s on the Miami Herald. Neuharth was on the street, Daniels was on the desk. Daniels says he and Neuharth havenht spoken a civil word to each other in 25 years.

Neuharth: "He was a damn rim rat when I met him. I rescued him from the rim. He used to mess up all my stories with his damn headlines."

Daniels: "I made him what he is today. I used to save his imprecise copy with my careful editing."

Daniels, who says neuharth had more impact on his career than any other man, actually admires the hell out of his old crony. "Most everything A1 ever does is motivated by enlightened self-interest. Essentially, A1's and economic animal. He's brilliant and quirky character. His head is 10 yards out in front of everybody else. One of A1's views is that life is just a big board game, which in a way it is."

Al's a great pracitcal joker, says Daniels. Also a great needler. "He can slice your gizzard out and sew it back up before you even know its gone. There's a blade out for you, always." Neuharth likes to party as well as anyone. Once he and Lori showed up at a Daniels bash in Miami-at which there were reportedly bare-bummed bunnies-in twin jumpsuits pasted with the names of Gannett newspapers.

A month or so ago, the blade came up dull, according to one tale now attached to the Neuharth legend: Neuharth was picked up in Cocoa by his chauffeur for delivery to the company plane in Melbourne, Fla. Only thing, the company limo was on the louse and the chauffeur had to collect Neuharth in his own car. He was late. On the way to Melbourne, Al began to work the chauffeur over. The chauffeud pulled off to the side of the road, got out, lifted Neuharth's bag from the trunk, opened the rear door, jerked his thumb over his shoulder and said, approximately, "You, out." He then turned around and went back to the office and resigned on the spot. To this day nobody is quite sure how Neuharth made it in from the tollway.

"Not true," responds Neuharth. "I have heard the story from California to New York, and it's not true."

Daniels, in response to this story, guffawing:

"I guess some people forget that he's basically kidding."

Neuharth and Daniels took off at the Herald like comets in a Florida night; Neuharth was always just a streak ahead. In three years, says Daniels, the place basically belonged to Neuharth. In 1960, the Knight organization made him assistant executive editor of the Detroit Free Press (where Daniels landed too).

But he tired of being No. 2. In 1963 Gannett called with an offer to general-manage the Rochester flagship papers. He jumped. In 1966, he directed the opening of a new Gannett paper, Coca TODAY. Ron Martin, now in Baltimore, was there. "I remember him the night of the first edition. He was sitting there at the desk rewriting the strip story on one, doing the lead heads. It must have been one of this proudest moments."

In '66, Gannett made him executive vice president; in '70, president and chief operating officer; in '73, chief executive. Now, with the retirement of chairman Paul Miller, an older, widely respected newspaperman, Allen Neuharth has it all. He has no interest in jumping again, he says. "This is my kind of company."

Derek Daniels doesn't think Neuharth suffers from recognition needs, no matter his hard-scrabbling Dakota background. (His father had died when Neuharth was 2; at 13, he was working in the composing room of a weekly.)

"Look, first you want money out of life. Then power. Then glory. Al's had some of it all." Just a Small-Town Boy

The phone is ringing. He bounds up, catching it on the second ring. As he talks, he scissors two fingers through his tie (black and white), cracks his knuckles, drums with a pen. "Yes, hello. Can I show it to you on the airplane? It's basically some revisions. I'll give you the essence of it when we get it in the air. On the other thing, I expect to work on it when we come back tonight, have it ready for a typist at the crack of dawn. Okay, let's meet at the airport for a 1:30 takeoff.Bye."

Back on the sofa. Cradling a pillow. "I'm going to New York this afternoon to talk to a group of financial analysts. I'll be preaching newspapers all over again."

Does he ever miss the old days, ever pine for his typewriter?

He hesitates. "I pine for the typewriter, yes. I still do write a little. The only editorials I can write-and this is an important distinction-are for TODAY. That's the only paper I'm local on."

But does he never wish, well, that he were just a shoeleather newsman again? Ooze of smile, a shard of introspective melancholy. "If we're talking about a strict definition of fun, then. . . yes."

Don't call him an ex-newspaperman, though. One of his employes, a female reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin tried that. "I never said that. She quoted me as saying that's what i was."

And is she digging trenches in the Philippines now? "No, no, no," he laughes. "But I did feel compelled to point out she misquoted me."

He has felt compelled to point out other things. On a recent weekend, he got up a 5 to read his paper. The Orlando Sentinel was on the step, TODAY wasn't. He read the Sentinel cover to cover. He went back out to the step. The Miami Herald was there, not TODAY. He read the Herald cover to cover. At 7:10, his paper arrived.

"I didn't call the publisher right then. But I did point out later that day there was something wrong with his delivery system. And I noticed the next morning, the paper was waiting when I got up."

This brings a great, villainous haw. Al Neuharth says, at base, he's just a small-town boy. "I'm never quite so at ease as when I'm in the newsroom of one of my small dailies." He says this softly, almost as if they'd never believe him.

Once, a long time ago, Al Neuharth and a friend started a statewide weekly tabloid called SoDak Sports. He has borrowed $50,000-and lost it all. He left the state. Now Gannett owns the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader, largest paper in the Dakotas.

Al is proud. That early failure hasn't left him. It has a lot to do with where he is. "Oh, I'm sure of it. I don't think you can really roll with success until you've been bloodied by defeat. The earlier the better."

No intention of slowing down-don't make that mistake. "Hey," he says, genuinely surprised, "I'm only 54. Hey, I hope no one out there would say I'm guilty of slowing down. That would be criminal."

The vice president of news has come to confer. Allen H. Neuharth is up on the short hop. When he shakes goodbye, he isn't looking at you. His head is 10 yards ahead, running for glory.