Al Neuharth, the gutsy founder of USA Today who did on Friday, was a genuine 20th-century pioneer — and a maverick.
The term maverick is greatly overused in our society, but Neuharth had the credentials. The leader of Gannett, the large U.S. newspaper chain, had the extraordinary idea of launching a national newspaper. On Sept. 15, 1982, the U.S. welcomed USA Today, Neuharth’s vision and dream.
Neuharth was a total optimist. He didn’t worry about getting a negative reception. He didn’t care whether the snooty media establishment in New York greeted him with open arms, either. He believed in his vision of presenting something new and unique — and that was enough to sustain him.
I remember Neuharth fondly. I started working for USA Today within a year of the big-rollout as a reporter in the Money Section, in the New York bureau. I wrote primarily about the Wall Street scene and the stock market. It was a fun, crazy time. Neuharth encouraged his editors to push the staff and we got ample opportunities to spread the gospel of the color weather map (!), the bite-size news stories (“McNuggets,” the establishment called them dismissively, an emphasis on sports — especially of the high school genre, and the relentless use of the term “USA.”
Once, I did a piece about U.S. Steel and an editor in the Rosslyn, Va., headquarters implored me to change that to say “USA Steel” (I refused). The idea was to bring America together. The headlines could be, well, ridiculous. I remember one saying “We eat our vegetables,” careful to use the word “we.” (Another one proclaimed: “Men and women: We’re still different.”)
Neuharth did something that would seem out of place in today’s newspaper industry: He spent money! Once, an editor asked me where I wanted to go to cover the nation’s news. I had never been to New Orleans so I cautiously asked to go there on assignment. Voila! The next thing I knew I was in New Orleans, writing about the burgeoning cajun tech industry in nearby Lafayette, La. All I knew for sure about that city was that New York Yankee great pitcher Ron Guidry had hailed from it.
Neuharth was our cheerleader. When people weren’t smashing those cute white-and-blue USA Today boxes, they were suggesting that the paper was about to go out of business. He had none of it.
Everyone knew Neuharth. I went to Yankee Stadium to interview George Steinrenner on the final day of the 1984 baseball season. Steinbrenner was wary of my intentions and he introduced himself by barking, “Seinfeld-style, “You know, Al Neuharth is a good friend of mine.”
As it turned out, everyone in the journalism business could say the same. Before long, Neuharth’s daily was one of the most popular papers in the country, and everyone was copying its most successful features.
That is the mark of a true maverick.