Al Neuharth’s obituary in the New York Times was notable as much for what it did say as what it didn’t. What it did say: The founder of USA Today and driving force behind Gannett’s dubious rise to “a communications Leviathan” profoundly changed the newspaper industry. What it didn’t say: Anything much nice.
But we here at Deadspin and in other new media outlets should be thanking Neuharth. If not for him, the veritable implosion of American newspapers might’ve taken years longer. There might not be such a platform as Gawker Media, nor the blogosphere in its current form, with its profusion of different authors and tastes and sounds and views, if Neuharth and Gannett hadn’t charged into city after city, gutted the local fishwraps, wrung the sound of the human voice out of the pages, replaced ambitious writing with confetti-sized charticles, made profiteering corporate raiding the industry standard, talked down to the American public at every turn and founded a newspaper in USA Today that contained many pretty colors and even an informative shape or two but which ultimately dissolved on your tongue and was exhaled into calorie-free nothingness, like a breath strip. News for pure profit became news as tranquilizer. Clever readers migrated online, where not everything sounded like 11th-graders wrote it for 8th-graders. On balance just about everyone who expected to make a living in journalism was the worse off, but at least we can say the word "fuck" here instead of unfurling our pinkies to type out "[expletive]."
From the Times:
At Gannett, he expanded on the company’s proven business strategy, buying newspapers mainly in small to medium-size towns that had no significant competition, building essentially a chain of small monopolies. Then he raised ad prices and cut costs.
During his tenure, the company’s revenue grew to $3.3 billion, from $390 million, frequently by leaps of 15 to 20 percent a year.
He made his boldest move in 1982, when he gambled Gannett’s fiscal success on the dream of a national newspaper. His goal was nothing less than to reinvent the American newspaper, and to a great extent he succeeded. USA Today featured brief articles, bright colors, bold graphics and light news. Modeled on television, it sought a market of business travelers, transplants and anyone for whom six paragraphs about the Middle East was sufficient and anything less than every last sports score was not.
That last bit is crucial here. Thanks to Neuharth, the news of sport was often catapulted to the front page, even when it had no business being there. The MLB All-Star Game, Miami Heat haters, an Olympic gymnast retiring — all made for big front-page teases or cover stories in USA Today. Think about what you’d cover if you had a gazillion dollars and every story in the United States of America at your disposal. And then imagine the cosmic convergence of non-events that would make a Week 11 Kansas City Chiefs field goal the biggest story on the front of your paper. Yet that happened in 2009, and it was hardly a fluke.
Partially as a result of Neuharth’s brave reach toward what used to be called the lowest common denominator (the Times quotes Neuharth from 1979: “We give the readers what they want because we are in the business of selling news”) we have fewer papers, dimmer papers, thinner papers. We also have some pretty decent enterprise work and national coverage coming out of USA Today’s sports sections now, and have for years — that was a niche the other national papers at the time of its inception, the Times and the Wall Street Journal, mostly relegated to the toybox.
Taking nothing away from the reporters and editors who built that coverage, the fact is that if you pay enough journalists for long enough, eventually you’re bound to turn up some decent stuff. The proles in this business have always done their best to surpass whatever resources management gives them; that’s in part why media companies make so much money while reporters historically make so little. They always try to do more with less, so they’re often given even less than that, and told to keep up the good work.
Neuharth proved that a man with a vision of earning way too much money could do so, largely on fluff. This is why old colleagues of mine from my tenure at the other paper Neuharth founded, Florida Today, were taking to Facebook today with phrases such as “charlatan,” “snake oil salesman,” “raging narcissist,” and maybe my favorite, “an oily turd who hastened the demise of print journalism.” This much we can say for Neuharth, without equivocation: He did his very best to ensure a lot of busy travelers got box scores delivered to their hotel hallways five times a week.
Photo credit: AP