Saturday April 20, 2013

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.

But it was Neuharth who had the last laugh when USA Today became the nation’s most-circulated newspaper in the late 1990s.

Neuharth, 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. The newspaper reported that Neuharth died after sustaining injuries in a fall at his home.

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 non-readers. 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 grew 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.

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 its 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.

Before joining Gannett, Neuharth rose up through the ranks of Knight Newspapers. He went from reporter to assistant managing editor at The Miami Herald in the 1950s and then became assistant executive editor at the Detroit Free Press.