Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Most of Us in USA Still Alive, Excluding Al Neuharth

I had a couple of encounters with the legendary Gannett corporate pirate and USA Today founder Al Neuharth over the years, but my favorite occurred sometime in the late 1980s, when I was a Wall Street Journal reporter covering the then gala annual meeting (those were the days) of the American newspaper publishers association.

At the closing reception, I was talking with the late Katherine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, when Al Neuharth sailed up, dressed in his signature black, white and gray ensemble (he always styled himself with that color pattern) -- with open shirt-collar and lots and lots of fancy jewelry. Al loved bling.

Kay Graham shook Al's hand and gave him her best patrician look.

"My, Mr. Neuharth," she said appraisingly, "you're so shiny."

It was hard to knock Al Neuharth off balance, but Kay did it. After some perfunctory pleasantries, he skulked off with his handlers fussing alongside him.

On the Poynter Institute site, Roy Peter Clark has a piece that takes a refreshingly dim postmortem view of the legacy of Al (whom Ben Bradlee despised as a "mountbank') and his invincible "pursuit of mediocrity."  Clark alludes to an old insiders' joke about Al and his style. It went this way, "When Al shows up in his sharkskin suit, it's hard to tell where the shark ends and Al begins."

Coming as it did at the height of the Boston bombings coverage, Al Neuharth's death at age 89 last week received respectful but restrained coverage. Yes, yes, yes, the serious obits all agreed. The man did certainly have an effect on ... uh, newspaper design. Why, he introduced spashy color and ... uh. well, he was pretty good at hiring women and minorities, that's for sure. And well, he invented USA Today, one of the greatest acts of sheer newspapering audacity since Pulitzer and Hearst arrived on Park Row. You must grant him that.

Well, one other thing that Al introduced and invented was sham circulation-reporting standards, after he pressured the main industry circulation-verification agency to accept the idea that "bulk circulation" -- that is, copies of newspapers that are essentially given away free through barter deals with advertisers, or at huge discounts off the cover price -- could be claimed as actual paid circulation. Since the yellow journalism heyday of Hearst and Pulitzer, many newspapers have always hyped their circulation figures, but Al Neuharth refined the hype into art. The obituaries dutifully stated that USA Today was the largest-selling newspaper in America, even though everybody in the industry has known for decades that about half of the stated circulation of USA Today was give-aways at hotels and in other places where travelers have long been accustomed to getting the paper for free.

Under Neuharth, the Gannett media empire grew tremendously, as Gannett rapaciously snapped up prosperous newspapers in monopoly markets (or engineered deals where the markets would soon become monopolies). In over 40 years in the business, incidentally, I have never once heard anyone say that Gannett improved any newspaper after buying it. Just the opposite.

USA Today, alas, has been on a steady decline that's accelerated in the last year, especially as hotels and other places where the paper traditionally has been handed out for free are turning it down because more often than not, USA Today sits untouched in the morning outside hotel-room doors. Still in at least in some areas of coverage, it used to be a contender, and in a few areas like sports, it still is.  My own guess now is that within a year, USA Today will no longer have a print newspaper and will be concentrated, as so much of the Gannett news product now is, in a centralized online operation. My guess is that it will become the great mothership in the cloud from which will rain most editorial functions for the national network of 85 local Gannett papers (which the Gannett company is already referring to not as newspapers but as "community digital information centers.")

That'll be Al's legacy. And all the "Newseums" in the world won't matter. (The Newseum, that preposterous gillion dollar monument in Washington to Al's stupendous ego, his ability to channel huge sums of money, and his disdain for the English language, has devolved mostly into what it was essentially created as: a venue for swanky media parties and corporate events).

And oh, there's also this part of the Al Neuharth legacy, which was curiously unmentioned in the respectful obituaries.


Correction: An earlier version of this had a typo and stated that the incident with Kay Graham and Al Neuharth occurred in the late 1990s. It was the late 1980s.  Oh and, um, of course, it was Ben Bradlee, not (uh) Ben Brantley! Who says we don't need copy editors?

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