I didn't make it to the USA Today opinion section until fairly late Friday night. After a full day at work I spent several hours following the changing developments from Boston on TV. There was just a small notice on the bottom of the first page of the two-page opinion section. It said that Friday's "Plain Talk" column by Al Neuharth, the visionary newsman who founded USA Today back in 1982, would not appear this week.
Literally seconds later, a tweet from Politico announced that Neuharth had died in Cocoa Beach, Fla. from complications after a fall. Simultaneously, news outlets reported that the second Boston Marathon bombing suspect had been taken into custody after he was found hiding in a boat at the end of a Watertown, Mass. residential driveway. Responding to the Politico announcement, some ignorant Wisenheimer tweeted, "Hey Politico, there has been an attack on American soil by Islamic Terrorist...just thought you should know..."
It was a fitting tweet. Neuharth's importance was underestimated in death, as it was in life. The Gannett Company chairman was ridiculed when he founded USA Today, a national, daily newspaper that featured bright colors, eye-catching graphics, shorter news stories, an extensive sports and life section and news capsules from every state, every day. The shorter stories seemed to agitate the old timers in the newspaper business the most. USA Today was called "McPaper," a moniker that stuck around long after the paper had transitioned to more traditional story lengths. USA Today is second only to the Wall Street Journal in daily circulation.
An online piece published Saturday on the newspaper's web site chronicles Neuharth's life growing up in South Dakota and entering the newspaper business as a reporter for the Associated Press. The article recounts his struggle to transform USA Today into a money maker after absorbing several years of revenue losses.
Neuharth's creation upset the newspaper apple cart. His flamboyancy and outspokenness further irritated the critics.
I loved the reporting about Neuharth's legendary feud with Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.
According to the story, Bradlee was once asked if USA Today was a good newspaper.
"If it is, then I'm in the wrong business," Bradlee said.
Neuharth answered back: "Bradlee and I finally agree on something. He is in the wrong business."
Neuharth led Gannett from 1973-89. During his tenure, according to the New York Times, the company's revenue increased from $390 million to $3.3 billion, with jumps of 15 to 20 percent a year at times. His style was as flashy and showy as the daily newspaper he founded. His record of hiring and promoting minorities and women are almost unmatched in the industry.
I would place Neuharth in the same elite league as Ted Turner, the media visionary who invented 24-hour cable news in 1980 with the launch of CNN. The visual style of USA Today had a tremendous impact on the industry, with many publications incorporating the features popularized by that newspaper.
Page 2 of 2 - USA Today announced that Neuharth penned a final column to be published after his death. In it, the newspaper said, Neuharth writes he tried to "tell stories accurately and fairly, without opinion." That's a fine example to follow for any journalist.
Neal Simon is a staff writer with The Evening Tribune.