Allen H. Neuharth

updated 09/28/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/28/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It was his idea. A BusCapade across America to rediscover the secret of his success and reaffirm his roots among the little people, who have made him one of the nation's wealthiest and most powerful men. He is paid in excess of $1 million a year. He adorns himself with gold jewelry and in his Washington offices has a bronze bust of himself looking like a conquering Caesar. He has five spacious homes, including a 115-acre horse farm in Middleburg, Va., and an estate with 500 feet of ocean frontage in Cocoa Beach, Fla. He is equally at ease hobnobbing with the rich and famous, including George Steinbrenner, Tom Brokaw and Mary Hart of Entertainment Tonight (whom he has dated) or drinking beer in a Macon, Ga., poolroom surrounded by seedy-looking men eating french fries with gravy. Yet he claims he has no best friend, just friends, and his employees call him "a loner who will run over anybody or anything in search of profits for his company and glory for himself." They also call him "a generous man" who "never forgets what you do for him." He has been given the Horatio Alger Award for his great success despite humble beginnings, and has been praised by black and women's groups for the fairness of his hiring practices. Of this, he says, "I've proved I'm no f------ sexist." He has also boosted his company's income from $28.8 million a year to $276 million, and its stock from $17.55 a share to more than $50.

Most important, especially to him, he has founded a big-time newspaper and made it work. After losing a reported $400 million with USA Today, he has now pushed it into the black in time for its fifth anniversary this month. Today his paper is read by more people—5.5 million of them—than any other in the country, and in many ways it has lived up to its boast of being "The Nation's Newspaper." Yet stubbornly, triumphantly, Allen H. Neuharth has kept it what he always meant it to be: a small-town national newspaper. And now he is bored. At 63.

Neuharth is chairman of the Gannett Company, a conglomerate of 90 daily papers, 16 radio stations and eight TV stations. But 16 months ago Neuharth relinquished control of Gannett's prize and his own. He turned USA Today over to John Curley, 48, a former reporter and editor, and he is determined to stay out of his successor's hair. He has vowed to stop pounding his fists on his employees' desks, to stop ridiculing them with caustic memos, raging after them as they flee down the hall and driving them to tears, incipient ulcers and emotional fits. In two years he might retire completely, he says. Maybe write a book. Maybe become a goodwill ambassador for Gannett. Or maybe keep up his column for USA Today, the paper that finally made his company famous.

USA Today Is a newspaper Neuharth conceived, designed, packaged and sold, and he did it all despite a lot of brickbats from within and without. His own advisers told him it would be a financial fiasco. His fellow journalists ridiculed its layout (cluttered), its style (graceless), its content (trivial), its philosophy (bland), and its editors (cynical). Even editor John Quinn, the friend he handpicked for the job, described his paper as having "brought new depth to the meaning of the word shallow." Once, Neuharth, who loves elaborate pranks, felt so put upon he threw a "last supper" wearing a crown of thorns and posed in front of a cross.

That was meant ironically. Neuharth is really a street fighter, a sturdy little man with wavy gray hair that looks like it has been given a blue rinse. He may seem shy but he has a fighter's walk—pigeon-toed, head down, shoulders hunched and shifting. He dresses like a movie version of a fighter, in slick-looking clothes, although he has quit wearing only shades of black and white, once his trademark. And now, after five years of fighting, it appears he has won. Cluttered, trivial and bland, USA Today's the nation's newspaper.

So now it is time for a BusCapade.

To get even closer in touch with Little America, Neuharth bought himself a $350,000 Blue Bird Wanderlodge bus outfitted with every amenity, including leather swivel chairs and cellular phones. Then he hired a staff of young journalists of inoffensive good looks, and a bus driver named Joel Driver, who owned an auto repair shop in Byron, Ga., and seemed enterprising, like Neuharth. Then he had his bus painted with the USA logo and outfitted with a horn that blared out renditions of On The Road Again and songs for every state, like Georgia on my Mind. Then they all hit the road for six months, bound for all 50 states. At each state capital, a TV camera crew would tape Neuharth as he stepped off the bus. Sometimes he had to get back on and get off again, like an astronaut stepping onto the moon, for a second and third taping of this historic moment. Interviews with each governor followed, always with the same format. Neuharth would tell the governor, "We're not here to investigate you. We're just here to see the folks of your state." His staff would scribble notes. Someone would ask the Governor of Georgia about the peach crop. The Governor would expound on peaches. Neuharth would usually make a point of having driver Driver pose with the governor, because he thought the picture would make good copy and wanted to give Driver a thrill. Once, Neuharth had to pry one of his staffers, a dark-haired ex-model, from a governor's side, where she had attached herself limpetlike. "Get Paula the hell outta there!" Neuharth snapped. An arm reached out and yanked Paula away.

On the road, Neuharth often paced the aisle while his young staffers pounded out copy on their word processors. He seemed at ease with his staff, in contrast to the CEO who drove his executives to distraction while making USA Today a winner. He likes young journalists, he says, because they are not cynical like the veterans. Cynics claim he likes them because he can underpay them. Neuharth has a reputation for pinching pennies on most salaries while rewarding his executives handsomely, which probably explains why he feels free to drive them so hard. During the early, painful and chaotic stages of USA Today, Neuharth pushed himself and everybody else mercilessly. He pirated staffers from a host of other Gannett papers to work on USA Today and then refused to replace them. Copy pencils were rationed at those papers. When Doug McCorkindale, his top financial adviser, fought him over the outrageous expenditures the nation's newspaper was draining from the rest of the Gannett chain, Neuharth called him "the enemy within" and used him as a scapegoat to rally his USA staffers to his cause. No saving or detail was too small. When the paper had its first dry run, Neuharth even followed the delivery truck in his limo, to make sure papers were deposited at the door, not tossed into bushes. He helped design the USA vending machine, which looks like a TV on a pedestal, and made sure the papers inside looked their best. In Peter Prichard's new book, The Making of McPaper: The Inside Story of USA Today, Neuharth is quoted as instructing his staff, "When you run a picture of a nice clean-cut all-American girl, get her tits above the fold."

"People say Al's ruthless," says Curley, Gannett's new CEO. "I don't think he's ruthless, I just think he's tough. He's a no-bullshit guy. Straight ahead. He likes to deal with the little people. He thinks they're normal, not like the phonies he has to deal with in business."

Neuharth's columns, which he began on the BusCapade, have been lambasted by the media for pandering to small-town readers, whose exploits—like growing the largest tomato—seem to dominate his paper. Neuharth loves incomplete sentences and the columns often seem sanitized of verbs and conjunctions. As in this from Florida: "The universe. 132 men and women have rocketed from here to the moon or stars and back. One day soon, to Mars." Yet his feeling for the little people is unfeigned. In Macon, Neuharth stopped to chat with an old black man sitting on a park bench. He learned that the man, just retired from his job in a brick factory, had managed to scrimp and save and put his children through college. Another upbeat story.

Neuharth is self-made, too. His father died when Allen was 2, and his mother, whom he calls "a survivalist," taught him to be independent while he was growing up in Eureka, S.Dak. He got his first job, as a newsboy, at 11, then worked in the composing room of the Alpena Journal. He was editor of the school paper at both Alpena High and the University of South Dakota.

"I was never a teenager, really," he says. "Early on I gave up any thought of sports or extracurricular activities. I was determined to make money. By the time I reached college I realized I didn't give a damn about anything but journalism. Oh, I had thought about being a lawyer, but I didn't have the money to go to law school. I majored in journalism instead. It was the quickest way for me to make money, I thought. Besides, I learned I could have a lot of power and control as an editor. I controlled what the other kids knew. Whose names went into the paper. It made me the envy of the other kids."

Neuharth worked for the Associated Press in Sioux Falls, S.Dak., for two years after college. Then, in 1952, he and a friend started their own paper, a weekly tabloid called SoDak Sports. SoDak was well-written, informative, filled with statistics (a Neuharth trademark), innovative (it carried results of women's sports when no one else did), and designed to grab readers with photos of cheerleaders and local beauty queens. It folded after two years, taking with it the $50,000 Neuharth had raised from friends and relatives, and any romantic fantasies he had about publishing.

"That paper was great for my ego," he says today. "I got to publish my own writing. But I learned one very important lesson: If you don't sell it, nobody's gonna read it."

That failure sealed Neuharth's future. He began to think of himself less as a writer than as an editor and publisher involved in commerce, and he learned to hedge his bets. "From that moment on I chose to be a hired hand. I remembered that when I was an entrepreneur it didn't work. As a hired hand I didn't have as much to lose. It made me more willing to take risks. The big papers in this country are run by people who have inherited them, and it makes them more conservative."

In 1954, broke and with a young wife in tow, Neuharth hired himself out to the Miami Herald of the Knight chain, now Knight-Ridder. There he began to earn a reputation for ruthlessness and maneuvering, starting with an incident in 1958 when Neuharth was told he was to be the new city editor. He asked that no one be told so that he could "get the feel of the newsroom"—from an editor's perspective—before he took over. When his promotion was announced, most staffers felt he had betrayed their confidences.

"That's a valid criticism," he says. "But I'll tell you one thing. I was a better city editor because of that delay."

Clearly on his way by 1963, Neuharth abandoned Knight for Gannett. "There were three daughters and one son my age in the Knight family," he explains. "There was no chance for me ever to run that company. But there were no Gannetts left. I knew I could go to the top there. I wanted control." Yet when he finally got control, in 1979, it was of a chain most journalists didn't take seriously. Gannett papers were generally small-town and bland, devoting more space to church suppers than to in-depth reporting and enterprise. And although Neuharth took Gannett from a midget to a giant, he chafed under its reputation for mediocrity. Gannett had no papers in any major markets and Neuharth was called gutless, afraid to mix it up with the big boys.

"I could have bought a lot of second-line papers in big cities over the years," he says, "but I knew I wouldn't be able to make them go. It would have been a real ego trip for me to buy a turkey in New York City just to have a voice there, but don't forget, I was a hired hand. I was responsible to the company. We could have bought the Baltimore Orioles at one time, but at what expense to the company? Just so I could entertain guys at the stadium?"

Finally, in 1979, Neuharth hit upon a way to snag some prestige, with the risk-taking freedom he still felt as "a hired hand." He would take all the lessons he had learned working on small town papers and apply them to a national paper. "It was purely a business decision on Al's part," says Curley. "He thought the time was right for a small-town paper covering the nation. Gannett had enough presses all over the country to make the paper work."

Over the years, Neuharth had concluded that there were millions of potential readers with neither the time nor the inclination to read the kind of newspapers that already existed. What these readers wanted, Neuharth decided, was a paper with a jazzy display of color and graphics; lots of charts filled with easily assimilated facts, ratios, percentages; tidbits about smalltown America; upbeat stories about people like that black man in Macon; articles about TV, film, and rock personalities; lots of sports, preferably in the form of statistics; and a comprehensive weather map to aid those on the run. All of this should be conveyed in stories of less than 500 words, in a writing style much like his own. The day before USA Today's first issue, Princess Grace died and the President-elect of Lebanon was assassinated. Princess Grace was featured on the front page, and the President-elect went inside. The tone was set.

Critics were unimpressed. Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post called the new paper junk food for the TV generation, and five years later he hasn't changed his mind. "USA Today runs contrary to what I believe good journalism should be," he said recently. "It gives just the essence of a story, without style or grace. And the information it imparts is generally what people want to know, rather than what they ought to know. I guess a case can be made for this. It is quite obvious that USA Today's precisely what Al Neuharth wanted it to be."

John Curley agrees: "It's done its job as we defined it. You can't judge it under the terms of traditional journalism. Still, I'd like to think it's the paper of record for sports and weather."

Taylor Buckley, one of the paper's senior editors, also agrees: "Our purpose is to reflect our readers' views. As far as criticism from the rest of the media is concerned, our attitude is, screw 'em. No one ever said USA Today would be a real newspaper."

And Neuharth agrees too: "I feel comfortable with it," he said recently, sitting in his wood-paneled office in Cocoa Beach. "If people remember me as the founder of USA Today, that doesn't bother me. But that's not how I see myself. I was just a reporter who knew I had to pay the rent."

The BusCapade's last stop, before a trip to the White House, is at the Cape Canaveral space center, a few miles down the road from Neuharth's Cocoa Beach home. He lives alone now, divorced from his first wife, Loretta, the mother of his two acknowledged children (Dan, 32, a former USA Today reporter and now a grad student, and Jan, 31, who owns a horse farm) and the woman who worked as a schoolteacher to support him during his fling with SoDak. They were married 26 years and he admits that one of the causes of the divorce was that he was married to his job first. His second marriage, to Lori Wilson, then a Florida state senator, lasted seven years. Last year it was disclosed that Neuharth had been paying $100 a month for 21 years to support a daughter alleged to be his out of wedlock. Neuharth denied parenthood but said he had paid the money to avoid publicity. The woman, 23-year-old Rosamunda Neuharth-Moore, recently published a book she wrote with her mother, How To Market Yourself To Get A Rich Man. Currently, Neuharth is dating a Florida neighbor, Barbara Whitney, 45, an art gallery owner who designed his corporate offices in blacks and whites.

When the BusCapade arrives at Cape Canaveral, Neuharth's young staff once again fans out to interview the tourists. Neuharth, once again, wanders off until he finds a suitable, ordinary-looking couple. Then he asks them a few questions. They answer hesitantly, looking confused. The husband stares at Neuharth. Finally he asks, "And who are you?"

Neuharth smiles his shy-seeming smile and looks down. "Me," he says, "I'm just the paper boy."

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