This is a guest post by Ryan Reft, a historian in the Manuscript Division. His most recent piece for the blog was about the legendary evangelist Billy Sunday.
Over the past 20 years, one would be hard pressed to identify an industry that has undergone as many wrenching changes as newspaper publishing. Allen Neuharth, chairman of the Gannett Co. from 1973 to 1989 and founder of USA Today, played a critical role in these developments.
The Allen Neuharth Papers, housed in the Manuscript Division, serve as a window into the media transformation that unfolded in the last quarter of the 20th century as well as a key vantage point from which to witness the rise of USA Today. They also reveal much about Neuharth, his relationship with more august publications, notably the Washington Post, and the kinds of practices he deployed in his rise to media mogul.
Neuharth grew up poor in Depression-era Eureka, South Dakota. His father died when he was 2 and Neuharth took work as a paperboy at age 10 to help support the family. After serving in World War II, Neuharth began his ascent in journalism at the Associated Press in 1950, working for $50 a week as a reporter. He eventually moved on to the Miami Herald and the Detroit Free Press before arriving at Gannett as general manager in 1963.
By 1970, Neuharth was running the newspaper chain. He transformed it from a regional organization, consisting mostly of smaller newspapers in the Northeast, into a national multimedia empire that included the country’s largest newspaper chain along with 10 television and 16 radio stations. Though USA Today didn’t break even until the 1990s, it has persisted and remains one of the nation’s most circulated newspapers.
Rarely do shrinking violets ascend to the heights of the American media landscape and, in this regard, Neuharth was not an exception. In its 2013 obituary for Neuharth, the New York Times described him as a “flamboyant, egotistic and proudly Machiavellian” character, dressed in “designer finery,” more “Rat Pack that rumpled newspaperman.” One finds evidence of Neuharth’s charisma, brashness and confidence in his correspondence.
Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham frequently competed with Neuharth for new acquisitions and talent; she once stormed out of a meeting in Honolulu when she discovered Neuharth and Gannett had outmaneuvered the Post in a particular deal. Yet, her correspondence to him reveals a broader, more nuanced relationship. “I loved my night on the town with Neuharth — or my course on ‘breaking and entering 105’ — whichever you prefer,” she noted in a 1981 letter to him. “No one looked at us, or singled us out in any adverse way. A startling contrast I fear, to a similar house here in D.C.,” she cryptically confided.
Even as USA Today prepared to launch in September 1982, Graham managed to acknowledge the competition while expressing her admiration. “Now that we have both let down our guard for five minutes, we can safely go back to the tough shiv, and I have got my eye on you about your intentions with USA Today in our fair city, to say nothing about hires you are making from our midst.”
Then again, for all his Rat Pack bravado, Neuharth was, for the time and for an executive, surprisingly “woke.” Under his leadership, Gannett led the way in terms of women and minority hires. By 1988, minority employment in Gannett newsrooms exceeded the national average by 47 percent. Women made up almost 40 percent of the company’s management, professionals, technicians and sales agents and a quarter of its newspapers’ publishers.
Neuharth made his beliefs clear on the matter in a note to his daughter, Jan: “Here are two of the T-shirts I mentioned to you — a large one for a very big chauvinist and a small one for a little bitty chauvinist (actually, all chauvinists are small).”
Of course, newspaper publishing is a tough business and Neuharth could throw elbows with the best of them, case in point the Post’s legendary editor Ben Bradlee. The two men frequently traded barbs. “If USA Today is a good newspaper,” Bradlee once said, “then I’m in the wrong business.” Neuharth shot back, “Bradlee and I finally agree on something: He is in the wrong business.”
Bradlee was hardly Neuharth’s only critic. Though Wall Street loved Gannett for its amazing profitability — annual revenue increases of 15 to 20 percent were not uncommon — others took Neuharth’s management to task for favoring profits over public service, for championing steep cost-cutting endeavors and dumbing down news.
His defenders pointed out that Neuharth recognized a changing media landscape and streamlined the industry such that print media could compete in the internet age. Newspapers across the country adopted USA Today’s practice of using bright colors and short articles, what Bradlee might describe as “mediocrity,” but the public and competitors clearly embraced the model. Well before it won its first Pulitzer Prizes in 2018, the paper had helped to broaden what was and is considered news to include cultural trends as well as health and consumer matters. “[USA TODAY] has had a tremendous impact on newspapers for better or for worse, and in some cases it has been for the worse,” Neuharth acknowledged. “There are some things some papers have been foolish to adopt.”
In the end, the Allen Neuharth Papers provide historians with an inside look at a changing industry, the rise of the only national newspaper established after World War II and the thoughts, practices and endeavors of a media mogul who defined the age.
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