The death of Al Neuharth, founder of the USA Today newspaper and former chairman of the Gannett Company, which owns and operates more than 80 daily newspapers and 23 television stations around the country, marks the end of a highly successful, courageous and innovative career.
He started in South Dakota as an aspiring sports writer and publisher of a sports newspaper, and became the head of one of the nation’s most successful newspaper chains and the visionary who started USA Today, a newspaper that had a significant effect on almost every newspaper in this country.
Along the way, he chaired a foundation that provided millions of dollars to help encourage a free and open press throughout the world. He funded a broad range of educational programs and scholarships and he practiced what he preached relative to the importance of hiring and promoting women and minorities.
Neuharth was tough, very competitive, colorful, cunning and extremely smart. He was an excellent showman and marketeer who sometimes carried a chip on his shoulder to prove he could top, beat or outwit those who might consider themselves better, smarter or in the so-called “inner circle” of the journalism elite. In some ways, he enjoyed being an outsider.
Neuharth visited Lawrence and Kansas University several times, the first in 1963 as a photographer for the late Paul Miller, who at that time was chairman of the Gannett Company. Miller was in town to receive the prestigious William Allen White Citation from the KU School of Journalism. Neuharth also visited with KU journalism students and faculty and was in Lawrence again in 1984, when the Journal-World started printing USA Today for a six-state area.
His love of journalism and respect for the importance of a free and independent press prompted Neuharth to change the name of the Gannett Foundation to The Freedom Forum. He encouraged the Freedom Forum to spend millions of dollars to build a unique “Newseum,” originally in Arlington, Va., to honor the history and role of a free press. This was so successful, he called for a larger, even more impressive “Newseum” to be built in the center of downtown Washington with the words of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution carved into the stone facade of the impressive building. It is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions.
The feisty Neuharth was controversial, a hard worker and hard driver with a lasting love of his native South Dakota. He contributed large sums to the Crazy Horse Monument being carved into one of South Dakota’s Black Hills and provided help to many members of Indian tribes in South Dakota.
Some of his habits didn’t sit well with some of his competitors, even some of his friends and business associates, but he was what he was and he wasn’t going to change.
This country needs more Al Neuharths, whether in the newspaper business or any other business where enthusiasm, vision, courage, accuracy, free enterprise, determination and fiscal acumen are required.
He also was a good friend.