American journalism lost a pioneer last week.
It would not be exaggerating to call him a legend.
And many who knew him would accept his own term for himself: an S.O.B.
Maybe that stands for Sweet Ol’ Boy, but I doubt it.
Al Neuharth died on Friday of last week at the age of 89.
He was chairman of Gannett, one of the most successful newspaper chains in American history.
He was an author; the title of his autobiography was “Confessions of an S.O.B.”
He invited each of his ex-wives to write a chapter. Their comments supported the premise of the book.
Neuharth will go down in journalism history as the father of USA Today.
Al lived (and died) in Cocoa Beach, in a home he called Pumpkin Place.
I was president of the Florida Press Association in 1976, and our convention was in Cocoa Beach, with Florida Today as our host newspaper. But the real host was Neuharth.
In a speech to the convention, he praised the wisdom of editorials published in community papers, singling out something I had written that week: that the major qualification for a vice presidential candidate should be the one factor seldom considered, his fitness to assume the presidency.
He was a national powerhouse, but to fellow journalists — at least to those of us who didn’t work for him — he was Al.
It was six years later — 1982 — when Al founded USA Today, which he called The Nation’s Newspaper.
Many journalists called it McPaper, making fun of its predictability, and its effort to appeal to a mass audience that would choose hamburger over sushi.
In the early years, USA Today lost more money every few days than most of us earn in a lifetime.
Al was a popular speaker at FPA conventions, especially after launching USA Today.
Everything about the paper was bigger than he had anticipated, he said on one occasion, including the amount of money it was losing.
By 1984, losses were $340,000 a day, according to Gannett’s obituary on Neuharth.
He told the FPA he did not think the paper would show a profit until the single copy price was raised to a dollar. It was then selling for 50 cents, a sum that not many papers dared to charge in that era.
He was fond of complaining that even as many in the industry called his brainchild McPaper, “they stole our McNuggets.” It was a valid complaint.
A simple graphic device called a shadow box, used to showcase short but particularly interesting stories, began appearing in many newspapers (including this one).
USA Today-style charts and other graphics became commonplace in our industry.
A full page — in color — was devoted to a national weather map and forecasts, another widely-imitated feature.
In fact, full color was used far more extensively in USA Today than in most papers.
And the quality of color printing was maintained at a standard that is still the envy of the industry. The last numbers I saw showed that USA Today is printed in 33 American newspaper plants and three foreign plants.
To be selected as a USA Today print site is like earning an Academy Award for print quality.
It prints short, readable stories. It limits run-overs to one story per section: the Page 1 lead.
In its fifth year, USA Today began showing a profit, and it is now No. 2 in newspaper circulation nationally.
One of Al’s personal trademarks was that he always dressed in black and white, occasionally with gray as an accent color.
And he preferred a polka dot ascot over traditional neckware.
He lived the good life — the very good life — and he kept in shape by jogging.
My favorite Al Neuharth story — doubtfully true, but highly illustrative — goes like this:
A drunk was returning to a New York hotel shortly before dawn after a night on the town.
As he struggled up the steps, a dapper man wearing a white jogging suit, black running shoes with white laces, and a black ascot with white polka dots came bounding out the door and down the sidewalk.
“Jesus Christ!” the drunk exclaimed.
“No, but you’re close,” the doorman replied.
“That’s Al Neuharth.”
(S. L. Frisbie is retired. Instead of lighting a candle for Neuharth, he drank a silent toast. He selected top shelf scotch, the good stuff. Neuharth would have expected nothing less.)