A headline yesterday should have made clear that funds from the Gannett Foundation, and not funds from Gannett Co., were used to purchase books written by Allen H. Neuharth, the head of the Gannett Foundation and former chairman of Gannett Co. (Published 9/7/90)

Allen H. Neuharth, the former chairman of the Gannett Co., realized the dream of many an author last year when his autobiography, "Confessions of an S.O.B," spent seven weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

Neuharth, it turns out, got a little help from his friends.

The Gannett Foundation, the nonprofit journalism education organization Neuharth has headed since his retirement from Gannett Co. 17 months ago, used $40,000 of its own money to buy 2,000 copies of the book upon its publication last fall, foundation executives acknowledged yesterday.

Neuharth said the expenditure was justified because the books were donated to college libraries and journalism schools. But the manner in which the books were bought has raised questions about whether the foundation was involved in promoting Neuharth's interests over its own charitable goals.

The foundation, which was entitled to buy books at a steep discount from Neuharth's publisher, Doubleday Inc., instead paid the full retail price in stores located around the country, according to people familiar with the purchases.

Several of these people also said the purchases seemed to be designed to influence the book's standing on national bestseller lists. In a number of cases, Gannett Foundation chief executive Charles Overby approached editors of some of Gannett Co.'s 81 daily newspapers to buy books at stores in the editors' cities, several of the editors confirmed. The editors said they were instructed to buy the books -- in one case as many as 100 copies -- and send them back to the foundation, which would reimburse them for the cost of the purchase, they said.

"I don't know if this is illegal, but I don't think it's right," said a former trustee of the foundation. "It's a questionable use of the foundation's funds. It's certainly perfectly legitimate to buy outright 2,000 books and send it out {as a donation}. But to find some devious way of doing it to enhance the bestseller list is certainly unethical."

Overby defended the book purchases, saying, "Our education committee felt {the book} offered good practical advice on how to succeed in journalism and in life. The committee felt that {donating copies} was consistent with the foundation's mission."

Several Gannett editors, however, found the requests from Overby odd and declined to participate in the purchases.

Zack Binkley, the executive editor of the Huntington (W.Va.) Herald-Dispatch, was one of them. Binkley said Overby asked him to buy a small number of the books shortly after its publication last fall. Binkley said it was understood that Overby, a longtime friend and colleague when both worked for Gannett Co., would reimburse him for his purchase. "It seemed kind of strange for {Overby} to be asking," said Binkley, "but I'm not in the book business, and I thought maybe this kind of thing is done all the time."

Others who were asked to buy books said the curious request raised the prospect of manipulation.

"The idea {was} to go out to selected bookstores and buy the book and be reimbursed," said one editor who was contacted by Overby. "What was told to me was that the books would then be given to journalism schools. I thought that was an odd way to give books to journalism schools. It seemed to me to be a way to stack the bestseller list."

Only retail purchases -- and not the discounted bulk purchases often made by large organizations -- count on the bestseller lists compiled by the New York Times and Publishers Weekly. Book publishers, including "S.O.B." publisher Doubleday Inc., offer discounts up to 50 percent off the retail price to companies or organizations that buy large quantities of a title.

Neuharth's stewardship of the foundation has not been without controversy. A former foundation trustee, Carrie Rozelle, resigned recently, expressing discontent over the organization's use of its tax-free assets to pay for limousines and other luxury automobiles used by Neuharth and top foundation executives as well as a $15 million redecoration of the foundation's offices in Rosslyn across the street from Gannett Co. headquarters. The refurbishing was directed by a company owned by Barbara Whitney, a frequent companion of Neuharth's.

The former foundation trustee said he was aware of how the books were being bought at the time the purchases occurred, but he did not object. The retail purchases were carried out without the knowledge of other trustees, including Gannett Co. chief executive John Curley, the former trustee said. A spokeswoman for Curley confirmed that Curley was not told of the book buy at all.

The chairman of the committee that authorized the purchase, retired Maj. Gen. Harry W. Brooks Jr., said yesterday he approved of buying and donating the books but was not told of the fashion in which the books would be bought. Syndicated newspaper columnist Carl Rowan, another former trustee, gave a similar account yesterday. Rowan and Brooks could not explain why the foundation did not seek a discounted rate for the books and declined further comment.

In an interview yesterday, Neuharth said he had no knowledge of how the foundation went about buying copies of his autobiography. "Damned if I know," he said.

The former Gannett chairman charged that the story of the purchases was floated by senior executives within Gannett Co. in an attempt to embarrass him. Neuharth and his former company have been at odds ever since the surprise announcement by the foundation last April that it planned to sell nearly 16 million shares of Gannett Co. stock. Other indications of a feud between Neuharth and Gannett Co. have also surfaced since he retired last year. A Gannett Co. spokeswoman denied that the company was behind the story.

Although the foundation is legally separate from Gannett Co., both Neuharth and Overby, a former Gannett Co. executive, maintain strong personal ties to individuals scattered throughout the media company.

Asked why the foundation decided to go to stores around the country and pay the full price, Overby responded: "It was a national buy for national distribution." If so, why were the buyers asked to send the books back to Gannett Foundation headquarters? "It was a national buy for national distribution," Overby repeated.

Neuharth said the foundation regularly buys and donates books in order to promote adult literacy and the study of journalism and communications. Among the books it has bought are 400 copies of Bette Bao Lord's "Legacies: A Chinese Mosaic," about Communism in Chinese society. Lord is a Gannett Foundation trustee. The foundation also intends to buy and distribute copies of Carl Rowan's new book, Neuharth said.

In both those cases, as with Neuharth's book, the trustees are required to reimburse the foundation in advance for any royalties they receive from the foundation's purchase, Overby said. Overby, who helped Neuharth write "S.O.B", said he returned his portion of the royalties from the book covered by the foundation's purchase.

Both Neuharth and Overby strongly disputed the suggestion that the retail purchases of "S.O.B" might have been made to influence the book's position on the bestseller list. The two men said the book sold 164,000 copies in hardback between September 1989 and the end of 1989, and 2,000 copies was "next to nothing," according to Overby.

"People are always assuming that {Neuharth} is scheming and conniving," said Overby. "Al was not involved in this, except in that he agreed with the trustees that this {book} is a good vehicle" to advance the foundation's educational goals.

However, publishing industry executives said even a small amount of purchases could boost a book's chances of making the New York Times or Publishers Weekly lists if the books were bought during a concentrated period and in stores monitored by the two publications for their lists.

Said one publishing industry source close to Neuharth and Doubleday: "A lot of authors buy their own books in the belief that they can drive it onto bestseller lists. If you have an organization that has people everywhere, like Gannett, you can buy books through your network around the country." This source added, however, that it is difficult to know which stores are being monitored. "A lot could be fruitless buying. It could help you, but you would have to do sustained levels of buying."

John Baker, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly, said, "I suppose if you wanted to make an impact on the list and you sent people to the big branches of the major chains it might work. It depends on the strength of the competition {in a given week}. Two thousand copies would make a dent if it was strategically deployed, but it wouldn't be enough to achieve bestsellerdom in and of itself."