When Al Neuharth first decided to create USA Today, it was quickly dismissed by the journalism industry as a gimmick. Media professionals dubbed it “McPaper” for it’s “junk-food” style of journalism. The Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee said that, if anyone thought USA Today was a top newspaper, “then I’m in the wrong business.” But within a decade of its creation, this “journalistic joke” turned into something that the nation would take seriously. (American Journalism Review)
Allen Harold Neuharth was raised “on the wrong side of the tracks” in Eureka, South Dakota. Growing up in poverty, Neuharth began trying to climb the ladder at an early age. He worked jobs cleaning up cow chips, herding cattle, working in a drug store and, finally, became the editor of the Echo—a quarter-page in the Alpena Journal used as the Alpena High School newspaper. According to Neuharth, this responsibility made him feel “like the most powerful kid in Alpena High.” And it was that feeling that turned him into a “media minimogul in the making.” (Confessions of an S.O.B.)
After serving four years in the Army, Neuharth enrolled in the University of South Dakota to get a degree in journalism. He also wrote for the university newspaper, the Volante, serving as a sports writer his freshman and sophomore years and was named editor his junior year. It was as editor that Neuharth used the paper to endorse his friend, Bill Porter, for student body president. He managed to have his friend elected, but “vowed never again to practice or tolerate the kind of unfair and irresponsible journalism [he] was guilty of in high school and college.” It is because of this stand that “USA Today refuses to run anything attributed to anonymous sources and does not endorse any candidate in presidential elections.” An to his death, Neuharth “[raised] hell” with newspapers that used their power to “crown or dethrone political friends or foes.” (Confessions of an S.O.B.)
In their senior year at the University of South Dakota, Neuharth and Porter dreamed up a weekly sports publication for the state of South Dakota, named SoDak Sports, which, according to Neuharth, was “patterned a little after the national Sporting News, only more interesting.” In the two years between graduation and the unveiling of SoDak Sports, Neuharth took to trying to build a reputation across the state. He began working for the Associated Press under the state bureau chief Harl Anderson, which paid less than his other offers but allowed him to write across all of South Dakota (he later turned down two promotions from AP just to stay in South Dakota). After the two year period, the two men began work on the SoDak experiment. The publication was marketed as a “’second read’ approach” as to keep from scaring away publishers. Neuharth wrote every story in the twelve- to sixteen-page tabloid and met every deadline. NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw, then a quarterback for a six-man football team in Pickstown, said, “SoDak Sports became our bible.” The circulation and popularity of the tabloid surpassed anything the two men had ever dreamed, but their losses and lack of advertisers caught up with them. Neuharth and his associate were out $50,000 and the original stock of SoDak Sports was worthless. But Neuharth considered the failure to be one of his greatest accomplishments and “later papered one wall of [his] study with the stock certificates” to serve as a reminder of the experiment. From this venture came two principles of Neuharth’s life: the first being that “Little League failures lead to Big League successes;” the second, “have at least one martini a day for the rest of our lives.” (Confessions of an S.O.B.)
The next chapter of Neuharth’s life was spent bouncing from paper to paper and planning for promotions. He began at the Miami Herald where he impressed his superiors by keeping his pace consistent with his SoDak Sports days. He quickly worked his way up to becoming the assistant managing editor before being called to work for the “hardball” Detriot Free Press. It was there Neuharth learned from one of journalism’s biggest personalities, Jack Knight (who won a Pulitzer for his “Editor’s Notebook” column). After leaving the Free Press (he left after a personality conflict with the new CEO, Alvah Chapman), Neuharth got a call from Gannett Executive Editor Vin Jones and Paul Miller, the president and CEO. At the time, Gannett was a small, regional collection of 16 newspapers with a circulation of less than 50,000. He was offered the job of general manager for the company’s two Rochester-based papers. And in his first two years at the position, Neuharth made innovations that revamped the newspapers and the company, and caught the eye of those above him. (Confessions of an S.O.B.)
After climbing the ladder and working for various publications under the Gannett name, Neuharth made his way to claim the CEO job. It was in this job that Neuharth would create a publication that would nationalize journalism—USA Today. At the time it was difficult for many to understand why he, the CEO of the nation’s largest newspaper company, would undertake such a high-cost, high-risk venture, but Neuharth admitted that he “was getting bored again, on easy street.” The idea of America’s first nationwide, general-interest newspaper was “simply too big and too bold for the newspaper establishment club and the journalism critics to accept.” In reality, Neuharth understood that the “common man” did not necessarily have time to sit down and read full length articles constantly (and now it’s truer to say that people do not want to). His plan was to deliver people news and stories that people wanted to hear in a short and colorful way (the color helped generate the “McPaper” nickname). It went against the grain of the journalism world, and it looked like the idea would fail early. Neuharth had been optimistic about its revenue potential and the paper did not begin to break even until well after his predicted mark. The lack of revenue was largely a result in advertisers being “afraid” of the idea and being stuck on the status-quo of journalism. The paper, founded in 1982, would not begin to turn a profit until 1993. (Confessions of an S.O.B.)
Even when it was slow to turn a profit, it was evident that USA Today, and, thereby, its founder, were going to change journalism. It proved that it was not impossible to break into a market that was so set in its ways. It turned the industry’s focus from making money back towards giving the consumer what they want to read and how they want to read it. Its short stories, polls and charts were, in reality, the precursor to blogging and mobile media (the revolution before the revolution, so to speak). Today, the USA Today brand continues to set a standard for journalistic excellence and excels in adapting to new technology and consumer demands, even while some other giants lag behind.
The ideas and leadership of Al Neuharth, not to mention his boisterous and somewhat overbearing personality, shaped USA Today into one of the largest and most successful newspapers in world and thereby helped reshape an industry into something more centered around the consumer.
Confessions of an S.O.B. by Al Neuharth
American Journalism Review: http://ajrarchive.org/article.asp?id=878