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Al Neuharth, my former boss (sort of), dead at age 89

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In my years at the Rockford Register Star (and the Morning Star, earlier), I never answered directly to Al Neuharth, but he was the top man at Gannett, the company that owned our papers during most of my tenure.

I met Neuharth several times and was struck, as were so many people, by his flamboyance. But our conversations were brief and perfunctory.

Richard Benedetto eulogizes Neuharth HERE:

Neuharth died Friday at age 89 after a fall in his home in Florida. He left behind a powerful legacy as a Gannett newspaper tycoon, creator and spirit of USA Today and founder of the Freedom Forum and its Newseum, a museum of news.

Like [Margaret] Thatcher, he too, was always looking ahead until the day he died, never glancing back at his critics and detractors who charged that he was brash, flamboyant, abrasive and vain. He liked picking fights and sticking thumbs in the eyes of big guys such as Donald Trump and former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.

He once had a bronze bust of himself installed on a pedestal in the USA Today lobby. The newspaper’s employees irreverently referred to it as “The Al Head” and would stick quarters in its eyes, much to Al’s irritation. But he reveled in his notoriety and titled his autobiography “Confessions of an S.O.B,” allowing his two ex-wives to write uncensored chapters of their own — giving new meaning to the phrase “Fair and Balanced.”

Many have described Neuharth as a visionary and an innovator. He certainly was both. When he completed one project, he was always ready to tackle another. He never let the prospect of failure discourage him. As a young World War II veteran — an Army infantryman who won the Bronze Star — just out of college, he founded in 1952 a weekly tabloid newspaper, SoDak Sports. Printed on peach-colored paper, it covered high school sports across his home state of South Dakota. It flopped for lack of ads, but he didn’t give up.

“Failure shouldn’t stop your drive to succeed,” he once said. “How you respond to failure makes all the difference.”

He responded by sticking with journalism. He took various reporting jobs, rose through the ranks to become a top editor of Knight Ridder newspapers in Detroit and Miami, and topped out as chairman of the Gannett Co. Through the relentless acquisition of newspapers and TV stations, he built Gannett into one of the nation’s largest media conglomerates.

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2 Comments

  1. What made him flamboyant? Usually that’s a term stereotypically assigned to gay men.

  2. Robert: No, Neuharth wasn’t gay (at least as far as I know). But he was the kind of guy who dominated a room upon entering it. He was always dressed to the nines and commanded attention. His roots, however, were those of a working-class kid from rural South Dakota.

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