COCOA BEACH, Fla. – Critics dubbed USA Today “McPaper” when it debuted in 1982, and they accused its founder, Al Neuharth, of dumbing down American journalism with its easy-to-read articles and bright graphics.
Neuharth had the last laugh when USA Today became the nation’s most-circulated newspaper in the late 1990s.
The hard-charging founder of USA Today died Friday in Cocoa Beach, Fla. He was 89. The news was announced by USA Today and by the Newseum, which he also founded.
Jack Marsh, president of the Al Neuharth Media Center and a close friend, confirmed that he passed away Friday afternoon at his home. Marsh said Neuharth fell earlier this week and never quite recovered.
Neuharth changed the look of American newspapers by filling USA Today with breezy, easy-to-comprehend articles, attention-grabbing graphics and stories that often didn’t require readers to jump to a different page. Sections were denoted by different colors. The entire back page of the news section had a colored-weather map of the entire United States. The news section contained a state-by-state roundup of headlines from across the nation. Its eye-catching logo of white lettering on a blue background made it recognizable from a distance.
“Our target was college-age people who were nonreaders. We thought they were getting enough serious stuff in classes,” Neuharth said in 1995. “We hooked them primarily because it was a colorful newspaper that played up the things they were interested in: sports, entertainment and TV.”
USA Today was unlike any newspaper before it when it debuted in 1982. Its style was widely derided but later widely imitated. Many news veterans gave it few chances for survival. Advertisers were at first reluctant to place their money in a newspaper that might compete with local dailies. But circulation grew. In 1999, USA Today edged past the Wall Street Journal in circulation with 1.75 million daily copies, to take the title of the nation’s biggest newspaper.
“Everybody was skeptical and so was I, but I said you never bet against Neuharth,” the late Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham said in a 2000 Associated Press interview.
The launch of USA Today was Neuharth’s most visible undertaking during more than 15 years as chairman and CEO of the Gannett Co. During his helm, Gannett became the nation’s largest newspaper company and the company’s annual revenues increased from $200 million to more than $3 billion. Neuharth became CEO of the company in 1973 and chairman in 1979. He retired in 1989.