Al Neuharth, the founder of USA Today who is equally blamed for shortening Americans' attention spans and revolutionizing newspapers, died today at the age of 89.
Neuharth was visionary and a rarity, a longtime journalist who mastered corporate politics as chairman of Gannett Co., parent of USA Today. He embodied a risk-taking and colorful spirit rarely seen in U.S. newspapering and in the boardroom, even at a time when the industry enjoyed better days. When he launched USA Today in 1982, critics derided it as "McPaper" for its short helpings of stories and colorful graphics. But with Neuharth as its staunch champion, it grew into the country's second-biggest daily, with a circulation of 1.7 million, influencing newspaper design and cost-models nationwide and, eventually, gaining respect in journalistic circles.
Neuharth was full of eccentricities (USA Today lists a bunch of them, from his flamboyant black-and-white attire to the manual typewriter he wrote on to his diva-like demands when visiting Gannett papers). But he also pushed for the advancement of women and minorities, while the bare-bones business model he championed at Gannett helped make it a favorite of Wall Street analysts. His pioneering USA Today helped redefine newspapers, which adopted its colorful weather map, shorter stories, lifestyle news and infographics.
Today, that legacy is under threat, as the paper that once stood for innovation has lagged its peers digitally and circulation and ad revenue have declined along with the rest of the industry.
Under its current president and publisher Larry Kramer, the paper has tried to revive its brand by adding even more color and graphics, and going deeper into verticals like travel and technology. Though in a media landscape that's become far more fragmented since USA Today's founding 30 years ago, the role of a mass-market paper is far less clear.