According to Webster’s, the word “founder” means one who founds or originates: a builder; one who casts metal.
Al Neuharth fits all those descriptions and more. One of many super-achievers from the Greatest Generation, Neuharth passed away last week at 89. It’s hard to overstate the impact he had on the news industry, and on me personally.
He was the retired CEO of Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper company, and a man of big ideas. He grew up in rural South Dakota, a humble beginning he never forgot. Al created a program for Native American journalists at his alma mater, the University of South Dakota, and established the Al Neuharth Free Spirit annual awards for high school journalists.
I worked for Neuharth at Gannett and with him as a trustee of the Freedom Forum, a foundation in Washington, D.C., that is responsible for building the Newseum. It was Neuharth’s vision that helped create a museum dedicated to the First Amendment and the history of journalism.
There are lots of stories about Al Neuharth, and many of them are true. He did have a larger- than-life quality – and an oversized sculpture of his head in the lobby of Gannett’s headquarters. I guess when you have done what Al did – start a daily newspaper called TODAY in Cocoa Beach, Fla., in the ’60s; launch USA TODAY in 1982; and create a museum on the last available property on Pennsylvania Avenue — stories and myths are bound to follow.
Attention to detail
Al taught me three very important principles that I practice each day and share as often as possible with young people.
Lesson one: Pay attention to detail. Here’s how I learned it. In July 1985, I received a call from Frank Vega, publisher of the paper in Cocoa Beach. Frank asked me to come to Florida on Sunday night for a special project. Details to come. My wife, daughters and I were living in California. You can imagine the conversation I had with my wife, Linda, when I told her I had to go to Florida in two days but didn’t have any details.
Arriving that Sunday night and going to the restaurant as instructed, I found two other Gannett publishers I knew. We all waited until Vega showed up. Vega told us Al wanted the top Gannett folks to know how important the success of USA TODAY was to the company. For the next three days, we crisscrossed Central Florida, checking on USA TODAY racks. We made sure they were clean and worked with dimes, nickels, quarters, all coin combinations. We talked to store managers to make sure papers were arriving on time and being placed in ideal locations. Lesson learned. Pay attention to detail.
Lesson two: Arrive early. Showing up at the given start time for one of Al’s meetings meant you were 15 minutes late.
Lesson three: Learn to listen. Al often did not say a lot in meetings, but when he did, he always made excellent points. That’s because he was listening first and sorting out the real from the fake. It takes a real effort to learn how to listen.
One of the greats
History will sort out where Al stands amid the great names of our industry, such as Hearst, Pulitzer, Chandler and Scripps. I imagine Neuharth will be added to that list.
I’m grateful to Al for many things, most of all for his daring. Daring to push for women and minorities to lead news organizations. Daring others to think big and be bold. Daring the news industry to change along with the demographics of the country.
He was a founder. He built things. And he was always Al. For that, I’m very grateful.
Orage Quarles III is publisher of The News & Observer.
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