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Neuharth Brought Fresh News Vision with USA Today | Bill Cotterell

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Neuharth Brought Fresh News Vision with USA Today | Bill Cotterell

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Neuharth Brought Fresh News Vision with USA Today
Tuesday, April 23, 2013 — Bill Cotterell

When USA Today did its city-by-city rollout in 1982, Atlanta was second on the list, and Al Neuharth jetted in for a big news conference.

I'm sure the CEO of Gannett Co., who died last week at his Cocoa Beach home at age 89, had several different modes -- big business executive, manager, columnist, flamboyant public figure -- and on that morning, he seemed to revert to his 1960 Miami beat reporter role. Never mind the business side of it, he talked about newspapering the way reporters talk shop.

His paper was going to give the customers what they wanted, in ways they wanted it, Neuharth said. If that meant 10 inches of bullet items instead of ponderous 40-inch think pieces, if it meant color weather maps and big-grid TV listings or more stories about the Grammys and fewer about the nuclear-freeze movement or running editorials side-by-side with rebuttal pieces -- so be it.

Indulgent chuckles echoed from the ivory towers of journalism academia to the executive suites of major papers to the reporters in the back of the campaign bus. We joked about "McPaper" and how USA Today was aiming at Pulitzer's "Best Investigative Paragraph" category. "TV on newsprint," we sneered, a bunch of "charticles," movie star fluff and trend pieces.

And, of course, the cardinal sin in the view of all reporters living paycheck to paycheck: This guy was known for making papers make money.

Give it two years, everybody figured, maybe three. It'll be 31 next September.

As I was leaving the Atlanta Merchandise Mart that day, vans from the Atlanta Journal were all over downtown. It seemed a little early to be swapping out the morning Atlanta Constitution for the afternoon Journal, but then I noticed they were changing the "rack cards," those promotional posters on the front of the vending machines -- weather-beaten old boxes right next to Neuharth's shiny new sidewalk racks.

The rack cards featured big pictures of the Atlanta papers' star columnists under a headline, "Your Old Friends Are Right Here!" (Translation: You don't want that new paper.)

Well, I thought, we can laugh at this rambunctious upstart; obviously, somebody in management must have been worried.


As several obituaries have noted, Neuharth changed American journalism. He wasn't a press baron like William Randolph Hearst, who 100 years ago shamelessly used his papers to promote some causes or film stars while ordering blackouts on others; he was a businessman who saw an opportunity.

Pretty soon, a whole lot of newspapers started doing color weather maps, increasingly localizing stories and expanding their TV grids. Not that they quit ridiculing USA Today but, in three decades that saw newspapers closing, there was more than grudging respect for the new one.

Neuharth obits last week noted that the paper lost money for years. But they also pointed out that Neuharth was one of the earliest news executives to realize something else about the changing news landscape -- that you can't cover a large, diverse community with a staff that looks like the cast of "The Front Page."

He held managers accountable, in their paychecks, for hiring women and minority staff. By 1988, the segment of non-white-male reporters and editors in Gannett newsrooms was 47 percent higher than the industry average. Pretty soon, women made up 40 percent of the company's management, technical and sales staff.

It trickled down to the beats, and spread to other papers. When the Tallahassee Democrat was still a Knight-Ridder paper, we were told to upgrade our Rolodexes with some new sources. Don't quote the same four or five guys on different topics, we were told, go develop a range of sources that reflects the community we cover.

Of course we grumbled. We knew how to do our jobs, had been doing it for years. Editors replied, "Oh yeah? You should see how Gannett does it."

A former Nashville reporter who came to Tallahassee told me editors there would go through stories, asking reporters the race and gender of each person in it. Where there was a choice of sources, they'd ask if the reporter had sought a diverse range of people in the story. It wasn't so much doing it that counted, it was making the reporter aware -- making it important.

Capitol reporters don't spend a lot of time with their CEOs, but Neuharth visited Tallahassee when his second wife, Lori Wilson, was a state senator from Brevard County. Sanders Lamont, then the Gannett bureau chief in the Capitol, said Neuharth ordered his employees to treat Wilson just like every other politician in town -- and they did. Lamont said last week he never got any heat from his editors in Cocoa, Fort Myers or Pensacola about covering Wilson.

That was probably during that 1973 session, when the Senate paused in debate one day to recognize a distinguished visitor seated in the public gallery. Neuharth, already well known in Florida, stood up and waved.

Then, a few minutes later, some senator noticed that guy sitting near him, and they paused again to welcome him.

It was Don Shula, coach of the world champion Miami Dolphins.

Bill Cotterell is a retired reporter who covered government and politics 44 years for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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