Allen H. Neuharth, founder of USA Today, dead at 89

Gannett papers CEO and founder of USA Today and News Museum left an indelible mark on journalism. Photo: Al Neuharth at his typewriter at work at 35,000 feet

VIENNA, Va., April 22, 2012 — It has only been a day or so, yet it is extremely difficult to accept the fact that Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today, who changed newspapers and journalism, bringing new and fresh ideas to the business, died on April 21 at the age of 89. 

Derided when he began USA Today and still with detractors, he made the paper into the second largest in the U.S. and won for himself many accolades for a job well done. He also is the founder of The Freedom Forum and the Newseum in Washington, D.C. 

The South Dakota native grew up in a middle class family where college was hardly an option. He had become the breadwinner in the family by the age of 11 as a newspaper boy for the Minneapolis Tribune. However, he was able to attend college on a scholarship, but he left school to enlist in World War II in the Army infantry, where he won the Bronze Star Medal for valor during his overseas service.

Al Neuharth AP photo

When Neuharth came home, he used the GI Bill to return to college and graduated from University of South Dakota, where he was editor of the college paper and elected to Phi Beta Kappa. During the summers, he worked for local newspapers. 

Neuharth later worked for the Miami Herald as a reporter, and was quickly known for investigative work and expose articles.  He rose through the ranks to copy editor, working in the Washington Bureau before moving in the executive offices. 

Being transferred to an executive position at the Detroit Free Press, when Gannett newspapers called on him to head its two papers in Rochester, N.Y., he did, and the rest is history.

Neuharth made his name with Cocoa Today, a local daily published in Melbourne, Fla. to serve the Cocoa – Cape Canaveral area, a sleepy little town near the beach and it became one of the largest employers in that area. Cocoa Today now is Florida Today, a success.

Eventually Neuharth decided if it worked there, he could try the same thing on a national basis, and so USA Today was born. 

Critics could call it the “McPaper” and deride it, but the national paper caught on. Neuharth aimed it for college-age people who got enough seriousness in class and deserved to enjoy their news. He was now chairman and CEO of the Gannett Company newspaper group, with USA Today as its keystone publication.

The readers loved it, praising the back page weather column, which was in color. His colorful charts and graphs also resonated with readers, tired of black and white, and the full sports section was also a great favorite. Soon the paper went over the one million-readership mark, despite the relentless critics, who soon began copying his ideas.

He tried fresh, innovative ideas, chief of which was the use of color in a daily paper, every day.  He reveled in the idea of “not only a free press but a fair one,” he told Jim Duff, president and CEO of the Freedom Forum arm of Today. Neuharth liked short stories, covering the most information possible in a short, concise way, pleasing to busy, and professional readers. 

USA Today is ubiquitous

He never used a computer, would not have thought of something as seemingly inane as a “tweet” and probably shunned Facebook.  Yet his sprawling beachfront home in Cocoa Beach was named Pumpkin Center, after a crossroads area in his beloved South Dakota, usually with a yard full of guests’ cars. 

He wrote on an old manual typewriter, perched on a chair in a large tree house he had had erected on the property. The tree house had a large sign on the front saying “No girls or grown-ups.”

Neuharth was married three times, including once to former State Senator Lori Wilson and had seven children, five of them adopted, of various races and ethnicities, Alexis, Karina, twins Andre and Ariana, and twins Ali and Rafi. He loved being a father and grandfather when the little children were visiting the big house.

He had recently sustained injuries in a fall at his home, ultimately causing his death.

When Neuharth retired from Gannett, he continued to write a weekly column for Today which he called “Plain Talk.” Like many journalists, he had prepared well in advance a final column to be printed at his demise. It appeared today in his paper, USA Today.  He occasioned it, he said, on the fact that playwright, George Kaufman, had said long ago “Ah…forgotten but not gone.”

Neuharth wrote, “Some of you thought I should have written this farewell column much earlier. More than two decades ago, a ‘fan’ sent me the  Kaufman one-liner above, suggesting I shove off.  But for 24 years – 1,282 uninterrupted weeks, — I talked plainly with you in this space…

USA Today building and Gannett offices

“As a journalist, I had a wonderful window on the world.  Sharing with you what I saw, and liked or didn’t like, has been an awesome opportunity and responsibility.  Now the time has come to say goodbye. So this is my eulogy to you.

“You  helped make most of my life a lark.  Kudos for the whole shebang.

“Thanks to you on the prairies of my native South Dakota, where I spent the first 18 years of my life.  To those on the beaches of Florida where I spent most of the last 24 years….

“Many of you were very, very helpful as we traveled those highways and byways. You have my warmest thanks…Professionally I was very lucky. In my personal life, even more fortunate. 

“To my dear, dear family members, young and old, I leave a legacy of limitless love. You gave me happiness far beyond the hope of any husband or father or grandfather.

“Good luck and Godspeed to you all. See most of you again one of these years.  But don’t hurry and don’t worry.”

Neuharth will long be remembered as a dapper dresser with his penchant for black, white and gray, and for his beautiful shock of white and gray hair. He had a ready smile and was a health nut before it became popular. He exercised regularly and more importantly, he gave of himself to make the world as a whole and the world of newspapers in general a better place and to make us better informed readers. 

And we thank you.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Neuharth, there are no deadlines in Heaven, but we are betting you find one and make it.

Read more of Martha’s columns at  The Civil War at the Communities at the Washington Times. Follow her on Face Book or LinkedIn at Martha Boltz, and by email at   

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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