Al Neuharth, USA Today founder, dies at 89

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COCOA BEACH, Fla. -- Al Neuharth, whose desire for a bright, breezy and fun newspaper led to the creation of USA Today, died yesterday in Cocoa Beach, Fla. He was 89.

The news was announced by the newspaper and the Newseum, which he also founded.

Neuharth launched USA Today, the nation's most widely read newspaper, in 1982 as chairman and chief executive of the Gannett Co. newspaper group. He wanted to create a newspaper that would catch people's attention and not take itself too seriously.

During Neuharth's more than 15 years at the helm of Gannett, the company became the nation's largest newspaper company. He became president and chief executive of the company in 1973 and chairman in 1979. He retired in 1989.

"I wanted to get rich and famous no matter where it was," Neuharth said in 1999. "I got lucky. Luck is very much a part of it. You have to be at the right place at the right time and pick the right place at the right time."

With its blue masthead, shorter-than-usual stories and use of color graphics, USA Today was unlike any other newspaper before it. Its style was widely criticized and later widely imitated.

"USA Today drew more criticism -- and more chaff -- in volume and intensity than any media venture in the history of the USA," Neuharth said in his 1989 autobiography, "Confessions of an S.O.B."

Critics dubbed it the "McPaper" and accused it of dumbing down American journalism. Many news veterans gave it few chances for survival. "Everybody was very skeptical and so was I, but I said, 'You never bet against Neuharth,' " the late Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham said in 2000.

Advertisers at first were reluctant to place their money in a new newspaper that might compete with local dailies. But Neuharth made constant promotional appearances and met with company executives around the country.

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, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

"Our target was college-age people who were non-readers," 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."

He also founded the Freedom Forum, which is dedicated to free press and free speech. It was begun in 1991 as a successor to the Gannett Foundation, the company's philanthropic arm.

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