Al Neuharth: A life of discovery, vision, courage, know-how and tenacity

Newspaper publisher Al Neuharth died at 89.
Newspaper publisher Al Neuharth died at 89.

On hearing Al Neuharth had died last week at 89, a friend who knew him said, “If anyone could live forever, I thought it would be Al. He did so many things people said could not be done, why not that?”

He led one of the most successful media companies of the 20th century and founded the country’s first national newspaper, USAToday. He founded the Newseum in Washington, D.C., where I had the privilege of knowing him and of being one of his successors as board chair.

Al started out poor in South Dakota and ended up donating his papers to the National Archives in Washington, which received them gladly as chronicles of an era. Early on, after a sports paper he started went bust, Al told me he decided not just to get out of town but to go to the furthest place on the map: Miami, Florida.

Once there, he got a job at The Miami Herald, became an editor, rose through the ranks and was promoted by Knight Newspapers to an even bigger job in Detroit. Not long after, he jumped to Gannett and soon took over as CEO. Along his climb to power, he displayed the sharp elbows of a ruthless and ambitious competitor, married three women, had many children (some his, some adopted, all of whom I know he cared for), paid back the debts he left in South Dakota and went on to power and wealth.

That scratches the surface of Al Neuharth’s life. He revolutionized the end of an era in newspapers, displaying the qualities of a transformational change-maker: discovery, vision, courage, know-how and tenacity. There are lessons in his life for anyone who aspires to lead.

• Discovery: Al was intuitive. One time, at a conference in Moscow, we heard Vladimir Putin speak. Al made sure he got to shake his hand, looked him in the eye and came away with the judgment that this guy had the soul of a KGB operative. But Al didn’t just rely on intuition. He did his homework, got the facts and stayed grounded, whether acquiring companies, reviewing budgets or paying close attention to what readers really wanted in their newspaper.

As I recall the story Al told me, Jack Knight, the boss, took him to lunch once, in Detroit. They had a martini at the Detroit Athletic Club, then went to the 5&10-cent store to get a hot dog.

At the lunch counter, Jack pointed out an old man reading the paper and told Al he’d better know what that man wanted because that was his customer. Al didn’t need to be told twice. He went over to the man, found out how and why he read the paper and, for the rest of his life, never stopped gathering facts about his customers or about his business and delivering the goods.

• Vision: He saw the same things others saw, but he knew how to make those facts add up to more. His vision caused a modest-sized publishing house in Rochester, N.Y. to become the Washington D.C.-based, biggest newspaper company in the United States. In hindsight, somebody else might have done it, but no one else did.

• Courage: He was laughed at and he was ridiculed with terms like McPaper for USAToday and claims that it wasn’t journalism, would only lose money and was the plaything of an egomaniac. Newspapers were the center of news, then, and very profitable. Al was changing a system that had made people powerful and rich, and they didn’t like it. He won.

• Know-how: He hired first-rate — and diverse — talent in the newsroom, and the best technical people in the world. He let them build the best printing and delivery operation in the country.

They set new standards for quality printing, introduced color, focused and shortened stories, made graphics a regular part of the daily paper, reimagined sports coverage by emphasizing point of view and generally decided to write a paper unabashedly proud to be called USA and to display what readers thought.

• Tenacity: It took forever. USAToday lost money for its first decade and didn’t make money regularly until after his retirement. But he stuck with it and eventually it worked.

After retirement, he showed the same qualities when he founded the Newseum in Washington D.C., a museum dedicated to free speech. The Newseum building is emblematic of the man. Located at the center of power on Pennsylvania Avenue, half-way between the Congress and the White House, two thirds of the façade is open, glass-walled, letting you see a complex and ever changing display of the news and information we need to manage ourselves in a democracy.

One third of the building’s front is a huge slab of Tennessee marble on which is carved the First Amendment, reminding passersby and every president who will walk or ride past it on Pennsylvania Avenue on his or her Inauguration Day that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Quintessential Al Neuharth.

Inside there are digital ethics games and games where visitors can make the choices reporters make daily. There’s a wall to journalists killed for telling their stories and there’s the biggest piece of Berlin Wall outside of Berlin. The tower from the World Trade Center is there, as is the cell phone used to record the shootings at West Virginia Tech a couple of years ago. Al understood symbols. On one visit to his house in Cocoa Beach, I noticed a metal plaque with a number that looked like an old, European street number. It was. As a soldier in World War II, Al was in Berlin shortly after the Allied victory. He and others went past Hitler’s house but it was Al who saw that plaque’s value and kept it.

Of all the many ways this man “walked the walk” of transparency, my favorite was his weekly column in USAToday. If you were the subject on any given week, you’d get a call on Tuesday or so, telling you that Al was writing about you and that you’d get a copy of his column so you could comment back. When the column appeared every Friday, the subject would have had a chance to reply. Open and fair.

Jack Knight once told an inteviewer that he wanted to be known as a man who printed good newspapers, was fair, open-minded and opinionated. He could have been writing Al Neuharth’s obit.

Alberto Ibargüen is the former chairman of the board of the Newseum, founded by Al Neuharth. He is also the former publisher of The Miami Herald and currently is the CEO of the Knight Foundation.

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