Al Neuharth, who headed the Gannett Co. while it became the biggest newspaper-holding company in the country by number of titles, died last Friday at age 89. His legacy includes the national newspaper USA Today, which is available in Madera. If you bought a copy of Monday’s edition, you would have found a lot in it to read about Al Neuharth.
I read it because I worked for Gannett for awhile, and while I never met Neuharth, I heard a lot of first-person stories from people who had met him.
When he joined Gannett in 1963, he found himself working for a company that had grown from one newspaper, the Star-Gazette in Elmira, N.Y. The founder, Frank Gannett, had a simple and effective business plan: Buy up small dailies in economically healthy towns and run them tightly.
The formula worked. Neuharth took the chain over in 1970, and by 1979 he had built it to 79 newspapers.
On Sept. 15, 1982, he launched USA Today as a national newspaper, printed at Gannett sites throughout the U.S. and distributed heavily on newsstands. Over the years it steadily lost money, but finally made it into the black, barely.
Now, here is a Neuharth story, told by a friend at The Bellingham Herald, where I worked as an editor at large — holding down several positions.
It seems that one day a private jet set down at Bellingham Airport, and Neuharth and a couple of Gannett executives deplaned and went to a hotel. The next day, Neuharth went jogging, and managed to get to the Herald building in downtown Bellingham just as the front doors were unlocked. He went into the newsroom, and without introducing himself borrowed a dollar from a reporter, who didn’t know who he was.
“I’ll pay you back later today,” Neuharth said. Then Neuharth went out and got his cup of coffee while the reporter scratched his head. Apparently Neuharth never carried change when he jogged.
Later that day, dressed in his trademark gray suit, Neuharth was shown around the Herald by the publisher. When they got to the newsroom, Neuharth spotted the reporter from whom he’d borrowed the dollar earlier in the day. Neuharth turned to the publisher. "Gimme a dollar,” he said. “I’ve gotta pay this guy back.”
According to those who knew him, that was how Neuharth was: Always able to surprise and get away with it.