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USA Today founder Neuharth dies in Florida at 89

Al Neuharth
USA Today founder Al Neuharth died Friday. He was 89.Dave Eggen / Freedom Forum via AP file

COCOA BEACH, Fla. - USA Today founder Al Neuharth died Friday in Cocoa Beach, Fla. He was 89.

The news was announced by USA Today and by the Newseum, which he also founded.

Neuharth launched USA Today, the nation's most widely read newspaper, in 1982 as chairman and CEO of the Gannett Co. newspaper group. He wanted to create a bright, breezy, fun newspaper that would catch people's attention and not take itself too seriously.

Jim Duff, president and chief executive officer of the Freedom Forum, said, "Al will be remembered for many trailblazing achievements in the newspaper business, but one of his most enduring legacies will be his devotion to educating and training new journalists," according to the post on the Newseum website. He added, "He taught them the importance of not only a free press but a fair one."

During Neuharth's more than 15 years at the helm of Gannett, the company became the nation's largest newspaper company and the company's annual revenues increased from $200 million to more than $3 billion. He became president and CEO of the company in 1973 and chairman in 1979. He retired in 1989.

"I wanted to get rich and famous no matter where it was," Neuharth said in a 1999 Associated Press interview. "I got lucky. Luck is very much a part of it. You have to be at the right place at the right time and pick the right place at the right time."

With its blue masthead, shorter-than-usual stories and use of color graphics, USA Today was unlike any other newspaper before it. Its style was widely criticized and later widely imitated.

"USA Today drew more criticism — and more chaff — in volume and intensity than any media venture in the history of the USA," Neuharth said in his 1989 autobiography, "Confessions of an S.O.B."

Critics dubbed it the "McPaper" and accused it of dumbing-down American journalism. Many news veterans gave it few chances for survival. Neuharth's only previous experience with a startup newspaper was the founding of Florida Today in Melbourne, Fla., in 1966.

"Everybody was very skeptical and so was I, but I said, you never bet against Neuharth," the late Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham said in a 2000 Associated Press interview.

Advertisers at first were reluctant to place their money in a new newspaper that might compete with local dailies. But Neuharth made constant promotional appearances and met with company executives around the country to pitch the newspaper, and it developed into a profitable enterprise.

In 1999, USA Today edged past the Wall Street Journal in circulation, with 1.75 million daily copies, to take the title of the nation's biggest newspaper, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

"When we started USA Today 13 years ago this month," Neuharth said in 1995, "our target was college-age people who were non-readers. We thought they were getting enough serious stuff in classes."

"We hooked them primarily because it was a colorful newspaper that played up the things they were interested in — sports, entertainment and TV."

After he retired from Gannett, Neuharth continued to write "Plain Talk," a weekly column for USA Today.

He also founded The Freedom Forum, a foundation dedicated to free press and free speech that holds journalism conferences, offers fellowships and provides training. It was begun in 1991 as a successor to the Gannett Foundation, the company's philanthropic arm.