Neuharth Takes Center Stage At ‘USA Today’ Luncheon

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By: Joe Strupp

There was nearly as much talk about The New York Times as there was of USA Today at the Monday luncheon celebrating USA Today’s 25th anniversary.

Founder Al Neuharth and Editor Ken Paulson both basked in the glow of knowing the national daily that launched in 1982 had outlived most negative predictions that surrounded its beginning back then — including those of the Times.

Paulson, an unknown assistant national editor in 1982, complimented the Times for its story Monday on the front of the business section that noted the paper’s accomplishments despite naysayers. “?USA Today, once derided as McPaper, has made a lasting mark on American newspapers in general, prodding many drab dailies to print shorter articles, switch to color, devote more space to sports and use more pictures and graphics,” The Times story said.

But, not content with such accolades, Paulson dug up the Times story from 1982 about the paper’s launch, which was not even a Times story, but an Associated Press report, headlined, “Gannett Paper Makes Debut In Move to Be National Daily.”

Paulson pointed out that the lead made clear the paper had “rolled off rented presses,” a clear indication of its potentially shaky chances. The story then quoted Times corporate relations director Leonard Harris as saying, “We think of ourselves as a newspaper that will reach the top 1 percent of the population in terms of education and management or professional position and salary.”

To that, Paulson quipped, “99 to one sounds pretty right to us.”

Then Neuharth took over the podium to speak to the crowd of about 50, who had gathered on the 32nd floor offices of Gannett’s mid-town Manhattan location. As guests sampled steak and pear salad, he also went to work on the Times as though he was still a full-time competitor.

With a copy of Monday’s Times in hand, he noted, “I was a little disappointed in the way the photo editor handled it,” pointing out the section front photo of Paulson and Publisher Craig Moon. “You have a four-column photo on the cover of these young kids and inside a one-column photo of the founder.”

Neuharth then took the Wall Street Journal to task for printing nothing in today’s paper about his 25-year success story. Still, he was glad to praise soon-to-be-Journal owner Rupert Murdoch, saying later at his table that “Rupert’s the smartest media guy on earth.”

During most of the casual lunch, held amid blown-up reproductions of USA Today front pages and with offerings to guests that included commemorative 25th anniversary cookies and gift bags containing items such as a USA Today postcard book, Neuharth was the center of attention.

Surrounded by a handful of reporters grilling him on all issues media, and not, Neuharth held court and offered up opinions that showed he was very much interested in ongoing events, even at 83, and not shy about sharing them.

On Murdoch and the Journal, he declared the Saturday Journal, “a disaster,” but believed Murdoch would keep it going to help push his new monthly lifestyles (of the rich) magazine, announced earlier Monday. He also believed the Journal might go free on the Web.

“I think there are some indications that that is the way it may go,” he said, in between bites of steak and rolls, and sips of white wine. “He has a lot of guts.”

Neuharth also weighed in on various current issues, saying CBS had missed its chance with Katie Couric and will not be able to recoup, and saying the next president will be the one who best plans an exit from Iraq: “It will be the person who most convinces voters that he or she will get us out of the mess in Iraq.” Neuharth was one of the first columnists to call for an Iraq withdrawal — several years ago.

But, of course, it was his news views that most interested guests and reporters, including why USA Today succeeded: “Bear in mind what the reader is interested in is more important than what the editor is interested in. One of the mistakes we make is that we think the editor and publisher know better than the reader what the reader ought to know.”

He also recalled hiring pollster Louis Harris in the early 1980s to check market research. “He said the television generation is not going to fight its way through dull, gray newspapers,” Neuharth remembered. “He said, ‘if you try a national newspaper, make sure it is not dull and gray.'”

Prior to the lunch, sporting a black jacket, gray pants and a lively red, white and black tie, Neuharth welcomed visitors personally and clearly enjoyed the attention this anniversary was giving his favorite creation.

“As a single part of my career, USA Today was the most satisfying and the most fun,” Neuharth declared. “The thing that is most satisfying is the staffs we built and the diversity we put in.”

In the midst of something of a victory lap during the past two weeks, which brought him to USA Today newsrooms in Dallas, Washington, New York, and later this week, Chicago, Neuharth, who retired as Gannett CEO some 20 years ago, says seeing the paper thrive is the most fun.

And he believes the newspaper industry as a whole is far from dead, despite troubled times. “I think the pessimists are as wrong about the death of newspapers as they were when television came in and when radio came in,” he said. “I think the difference between newspapers now and when television came in is they are now embracing the Internet. When television came in, they resisted it.”

He recalled some editors in the 50s and 60s he knew who refused to publish TV listings.

Although retired, Neuharth still travels 50 to 60 day each year, he says, attending Gannett functions as well as newspaper industry conferences such as the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Newspaper Association of America. “I’m a gypsy,” he said.

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