Al Neuharth, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Gannett newspapers, dresses only in black and white, but his chains papers are read all over: The Rochester-based empire includes 88 daily newspapers that last year earned $1.4 billion in revenues. This week, Neuharth -- who in 1966 was a minor Gannett executive beginning a Florida newspaper called Cocoa Beach Today -- begins USA Today. It is Gannett's first bid to be a power in national journalism and it's 58-year-old Neuharth's most ambitious effort.
"It's not a crap shoot or a poker game," says Neuharth to those who would describe the project as a gamble. "I think we considered the risk-reward ratio pretty well, and we felt it came down on the side of the reward being worth the risk."
Neuharth, twice-divorced, jogs each morning at 5:30 -- through Lafayette Park when he's staying at the Capital Hilton overseeing the start-up of USA Today in Rosslyn. He wears only black and white clothes, often by Givenchy and Gucci, designers who happen to have the correct first initials to their last names (the "G's" complement the Gannett-monogrammed towels aboard Neuharth's private jets).
"I'd like to say (I dress this way) because newspapers are black and white," says Neuharth. "But it's because I'm lazy. I don't like to change clothes, and I always travel with one bag wherever I go. "
Neuharth travels a lot, since many of Gannett's newspapers are in small towns. And while those properties have filled Gannett's coffers, the chain is something of journalism's Rodney Dangerfield: It can't get no respect like some big-city papers or The Wall Street Journal do.
So these days, Neuharth is spurring his Washington troops -- many borrowed from other Gannett papers -- to produce a newspaper aimed at mobile American, people who used to live somewhere else or who travel and want a second daily newspaper that offers broader national coverage than their local papers provide.
If it succeeds, if Americans can be convinced to buy a second newspaper, Neuharth will have given Gannett both a national voice and identity.
Footnote: National advertisers who sign up for 15 months of advertising, and agree to run 40 percent of their ads the first six months, get those six months free. Neuharth says that, among others, two cigarette and two liquor companies, as well as General Motors, Honda, Xerox and Marriott, have bought the deal.