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'Al Neuharth's Greatest Lessons'

Remarks at University of South Dakota, Vermillion


By Tom Curley
USA TODAY president and publisher


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Editor's note: Following is an edited text of a speech Tom Curley delivered Oct. 8 upon receiving the Allen H. Neuharth Award for Excellence in Journalism at the University of South Dakota.

Twenty years and three weeks ago the Associated Press filed a story on the debut of Gannettís colorful national daily newspaper. The story noted the newspaper rolled off rented presses.

The AP writerís focus on "rented" made the lede, providing the single descriptive word that simultaneously illuminated and delivered a tone of skepticism. Yes. Everything at USA TODAY was rented. Even the staff.

Skepticism was fair context for something never before attempted and for an industry losing revenues and readers to proliferating television and lifestyle options. The industryís response was more certain than skeptical. USA TODAY was greeted with derision and denial.

That AP lede turned out to be insightful. The word "rented" revealed — perhaps unknowingly — the strategy that ultimately would prove to make USA TODAY possible. By avoiding massive capital investments on analog machines such as presses, personkindís oldest medium — written communications — could be reborn initially across a land mass as expansive as the United States and eventually around the world. Resources were freed. First, money could be spent to conquer the challenges of national distribution and eventually to acquire the journalistic talent necessary for success in a hyper-competitive media world.

On the 20th anniversary of USA TODAY, I travel to South Dakota not to critique ancient wire service ledes or poke a finger in the eye of all who said it couldnít be done. Nor do I come for the purpose of receiving recognition, although I am truly honored to be a part of this lecture series named for Al Neuharth at a university as important as this one and in a place that means as much to him.

The time and place seem right to reflect on why Al Neuharth is the only person on earth who could have made a national, general-interest newspaper possible.

Nearly everyone here has read about Al. Many of you know him, and, quite likely, some of you know him better than I do. So no collection of never-before-told Al stories tonight. A few may be unavoidable. Even as he approaches his 80th year, he provides fresh material.

In the last month, USA TODAYís journalists have produced some of the most profound, poignant and prescient prose — alliteration is something he champions. By far the most commented-on piece we carried was a column two weeks ago by Al on sales of adult diapers.

While reviewing material about the epic changes taking place in media, I stumbled across articles on Al and noticed a certain tone. There was admiration for the Horatio Alger story, the epic struggle of his family after his father died when Al was 2. There was respect for the skilled, handsome, ambitious war veteran turned media exec who carefully transformed a tiny upstate New York media company into the nationís largest. There was recognition of his steadfast role as champion of First Amendment causes. There was acclaim for his willingness to part the glass ceilings for women and minorities.

Even these stories seemed covered by a layer of Al the protagonist or Al the outrageous and, often, Al the man of the people who got to the people via limos and luxuries.

Tonight I ask you to consider the last century in media. American society has been transformed, and our global situation is profoundly dependent on media from information to entertainment. As an innovator of global media, Al ranks at the top. As a defender of the First Amendment, Al ranks at the top. As a force for democratizing society through inclusiveness, Al ranks at the top. And as a journalist willing to adapt form and content to reach a new generation of readers, Al ranks at the top.

Fay Vincent, the ousted commissioner of baseball, has a new book, The Last Commissioner. The subtitle is, A Valentine to Baseball. Mr. Vincent was asked to do a tell-all, get-back-at-them autobiography. He opted for a beautiful story about his association with baseball and baseball people. I am a great admirer of Mr. Vincent. He is one of the most articulate, intelligent Yankee fans Iíve met.

Our relationship has had some rocky moments. While commissioner, he actually tracked me down in Japan to read me the riot act. A certain USA TODAY columnist had just unloaded and called for his ouster. Youíll note that Al wears a World Championship ring from the New York Yankees. You donít have to be an investigative reporter to figure how George Steinbrenner voted.

With apologies to Mr. Vincent, not for the columnistís right to his opinion, but for borrowing a valentine tone, and because thereís a vital part of the USA TODAY story that needs telling — tonight is about Al the journalist.

It all begins with the concept of rented presses. Terror first struck the four original planners of USA TODAY in spring 1980 soon after they were assembled to plot strategy. After considering how many presses would be necessary to cover the country with a newspaper carrying late news and scores, we did what any inexperienced team would do: We whined.

We demanded a meeting with Al. Only young fools would expose their ignorance all the way to the top. We had lots of questions, but we had figured Gannett couldnít afford to buy the presses it needed for a national newspaper that would have to take advertising dollars from magazines printed in full color. We were trapped in a box, wanting total control of our printing processes.

I remember his reaction as if it were yesterday. It was my first insight into the depth of his commitment and understanding of what would be necessary to make USA TODAY possible. It was not at all about ego or public relations. It was a you-bet-your-career and we-would-never-fail passion.

At first, there seemed to be a bit of pique in his response, probably frustration that we were so stupid we couldnít immediately see the answers that he did. But it soon turned to amusement. The dozen or so hurdles we identified quickly were dismissed. If this were the biggest problem we could turn up, maybe this thing could fly.

He carefully positioned the newspaper as a second read, never a competitor. He could help the industry fill in down time on presses, and he was sure we could figure out how to make any type of press in the world capable of printing USA TODAY and all its color. He already had been courting people who might have press windows. He had names and alternatives.

In passing, he mentioned we couldnít afford to waste money on presses. Money had to be conserved to get readers used to something theyíd never seen before, a national newspaper. That would take time, and we would have to stay the course. Twenty years later, the largest newspaper in the USA owns no presses.

HR people call this job knowledge. It was much more. It was the birth of a spirit within USA TODAY that would guide it through its rockiest days, and, I fervently hope, all its days. Itís a spirit that says anything is possible.

Editor Karen Jurgensen says USA TODAY was known as a place to have ideas because someone would listen and might say OK. And the ideas werenít about self-indulgence, as his critics saw it. We were inventing USA TODAY. Many of the ideas helped readers, built the newspaper and left us with the impression that it was OK to create a different kind of newspaper.

Yes, he sometimes conveyed it in maybe even extravagant ways. He flew a group of female executives to his home near Cape Canaveral to watch Sally Ride blast off. Roy Peter Clark, the senior scholar at the Poynter Institute of Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., saw things as follows, and I quote from a story in last monthís Toronto Globe and Mail:

"Basically to spit in the eye of Gannettís critics, he wanted to start a new newspaper; he wanted to try some dramatic innovations, and he wanted a national reach for Gannett. So, I always thought USA TODAY was an answer to a challenge for him. He took direct interest in what the newspaper would look like, was keeping track every day in its formative stages and — because it was Al and because it was Gannett and because the paperís innovations focused on style and presentation rather than substance — it was inevitable that it would be criticized by the high priests of journalism."

Inside USA TODAY it was much simpler, and it always was about journalism. Al was very direct. Every other G-7 nation had a national daily. The USA was changing. Technology opened up possibilities for how the public would get its news. You could see it everywhere. Also making a debut at about the same time as USA TODAY were the Mac, CNN, ESPN and MTV. And most telling, more than half the United States lived in a place different from their place of birth. Gannett had to reach that market or eventually it would fall from its leadership position.

Everything Al did was to get us out of the box. If you understand that, you understand why USA TODAY attempts to remain different, perhaps even as former journalist and now University of North Carolina professor Phil Meyer says, defiant. That proud defiance came from Al and has guided our thinking about developing the newspaper ever since.

Certainly Alís hardscrabble rise from Depression-era poverty in South Dakota shaped him as did combat experience in World War II. But USA TODAY with all its uniqueness would have gone the way of SoDak Sports, his first entrepreneurial endeavor, if this had been about anything but reality.

At USA TODAYís first planning meeting in February 1980, Al at one point compared the scores in a bunch of newspapers that day. He then took a couple of the so-called best, pointed out how stale they were and then threw them on the ground, jumping up and down on them. Literally, you knew where he stood.

An outsider might have seen a little edge behavior there. We got it. We had a chance to demonstrate quality and competitiveness. It saved all of us a lot of time philosophizing on when presses could be started. It was one of a thousand encounters about getting the details right.

More important, he had determined where USA TODAY had its greatest opportunity to win a market. Jon Friedman, formerly of USA TODAY and now at CBS.Marketwatch, wrote that when he interviewed for a job at Long Islandís Newsday in 1985 as a business reporter, an editor dismissed him by saying: USA TODAY? Sorry. I only read the Sports section. "Join the crowd," Friedman muttered.

USA TODAYís early editorial efforts were widely criticized. Al personally has shouldered quite a bit of abuse over this. Ben Bradlee, former Washington Post editor, recently was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, "I think the paper is much better than when it started, mostly because Neuharth retired."

I have never once seen Al defensive about this stuff or move to correct the record. Quite the opposite, I saw him stand up and take the shots to provide cover for the rest of us. Al grew up at two important newspapers, the Miami Herald and the Detroit Free Press.

The USA TODAY sports section was no accident. It had the most staff of any section and twice the space as most metro newspapers at the time. Its every-score comprehensiveness provided a reason to read along with the fun parts, which included a different front page, the weather and states pages. Frankly, you canít be a genius in one section and an idiot about the others.

John Hanchette, Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter for Gannett News Service and original USA TODAY staffer, wrote, "Neuharth started using up editors in the other three sections (Life, Money and News) like cordwood in a bad winter." Never mistake, Al knew good from bad.

Over the years Al has been asked frequently by people inside and outside the company whether he supported the changes made since he left. He has stood with us even at times when we failed to execute or improve as much as we might have expected immediately. He, of course, is the one who knew why we must reach. Most telling were the number of changes made while he was there.

His journalism-of-hope moniker played pretty well on the speech circuit for a while. It also exploited an opportunity. TV news was in an if-it-bleeds-it-leads siege, and more than a few metro newspapers and their columnists seemed to be mired in a post-Vietnam war institutional cynicism.

His core beliefs in balance and fairness anchored the newspaper then as today. However, any newspaper built on newsstand sales depends on dramatic news and news art. Neither Al nor anyone associated with him ever ducked First Amendment responsibilities. And Al the columnist has called for more peopleís resignations than the next 100 columnists combined.

Al always has been quick to go to the bullpen when he thought it could help. I became president in 1986, the sixth person to have that title at a 4-year-old newspaper. If Al shuffled talent to the task, he also cheered every last success. Many of us wear USA TODAY rings. Some of my friends in or outside the business poke fun at this.

I wear it because it reminds me of one of his smartest moves. During a time when USA TODAY was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars a day, when our peers were laughing the loudest and when he had to be facing tremendous pressure from Wall Street, he bought us rings. Again the message was clear. Screw the naysayers. Letís figure it out.

My job enables me to go inside many organizations. Over the years Iíve seen how challenging times have split people and shattered cultures. Hereís a management secret if there ever were one. Rally the troops in the tough times and watch them produce for all time.

Al was a master of building and changing teams. One of the biggest challenges inside a company such as Gannett was to make sure everyone committed to the USA TODAY launch. He handled that deftly, making everyone part of USA TODAY.

Mostly, he knew what he had to do to keep USA TODAY alive. Roy Peter Clark says, "When USA TODAY started I thought it was a grand expression of Al Neuharthís ego, and thatís quite an ego to express." Occasionally, Al has brought attention to himself. In these years, he made the tough calls. The easiest decision would have been to dump another $10 million on content and $10 million on space. If that had happened, USA TODAY quite likely wouldnít be here.

USA TODAY has been through four obsessions in its 20 years. First was creating a market where none had been. Production-distribution would drain about 90 percent of the money. It was terribly expensive. Gannett invested more in creating a newspaper than anyone in history. It stayed the course, and the commitment has paid off.

Phase two was a drive for profitability, to square the expenses with the revenues of the market. The work was hard. We had to grow circulation while reducing expenses. Phase three was technology. We had to invent a new generation of publishing infrastructure or fall wildly behind the all-news-all-the-time competition. Phase four, very recently, has been about content.

The battle for content today is as critical as the efforts were to secure a market at first. It remains every bit about a marketplace reality and explains where weíve been and whatís ahead.

USA TODAYís first generation content was characterized by inventiveness, creativity and a commitment to be distinctive. Critics called it McPaper. Yet, it carved a unique new place in American newspapering. It was a readersí newspaper. Colorful while others were gray. Graphically oriented while others relied on words. Concise while others were verbose. Packaged for convenience while others were chaotic. Focused on news you wanted to know, not just news you needed to know out of civic obligation.

It stood out on newsstands. It screamed "read me" — and once read it felt like a different experience. Even in this era when it was widely criticized by peers, USA TODAY was bringing information to readers they couldnít get elsewhere in an appealing package.

In the second generation, USA TODAY began to add substance and sophistication to its sprightly beginnings.

It acquired a voice of authority. Enterprise began to flourish. Respect for the newspaper grew. But distinctiveness began to erode. The competition learned from USA TODAYís successes. Color proliferated. So did graphics. More reader-friendly stories found their way onto Page Ones around the country. Organization improved.

And as our competitors became more like us, we became more like them. In fact, we thought less about being distinctive — a dangerous habit for a paper dependent on newsstand sales.

Our challenge today is to rebuild that distinctive freshness. Twenty years ago we could provide content that no one else could. Cable news, the Internet and other information sources evolved to provide alternatives for some of this content. Now we want the tight, bright and breadth with depth and sophistication. Early in our newspaperís history, these were competing goals. Today, they are complementary.

We want distinctive graphics to be a hallmark once again, but with a precision and sophistication not evident in 1982.

We want as in 1982 tight, precise, reader-oriented editing, but rooted in savvy, authoritative reporting. We do want, as in 1982, to be a guide to reader-relevant news of the last 24 hours and next 24 hours, but built around enterprise that sets us apart from the competition.

And, unlike 1982, we must find a way to do all this not just on paper, but across the entire news and information stream of the 21st century. USA TODAY must be a distinctive brand on television, on the Internet and on portable communication devices. All work together to build successful news brands.

Ultimately, all of this depends on what it has for hundreds of years in media: distinctive content developed by the magic that comes with great reporters and storytellers combining with those skilled in visual presentation.

For USA TODAY, this comes down to one concept that unites and drives our culture: We call it a conceptual scoop. It is an insight, a trend, a revelation more substantive than the quick, exclusive newsbreak.

It is the product of a strong reporter working a beat and mentally connecting the dots in a way that tells readers of something developing that affects their lives. It is the product of a reporterís digging and a reporterís depth of knowledge. It is something a weak or inexperienced reporter would not see while the savvy veteran working side-by-side would.

By the time it reaches a reader or viewer, it is presented to emphasize the timeliness and impact on their lives. Why are we writing it now? And why should you care? It is well-rounded, even-handed and authoritative. It is never everyday fare. Reporters must also cover the routine of the beat and occasional long-term enterprise as well. But neither is it a rare jewel. It is something that good reporters seem to produce regularly.

It gives us a thought process that puts us ahead of competitors. We can be distinctive both through the substance and the form of our content. Our front page still shouts.

On television we can take that material and make it come alive in another way. Not only does this multiply the audience and the impact, it drives readers to the paper for more. On the Internet, it gives us depth and relevance to stand apart. We call ourselves a network, not just a newspaper.

NYU media critic Jon Katz writes: "The challenge for media and for the academic study of media has been the same for a generation now, and both media and academe have failed to meet it. Journalism has become irrelevant to younger Americans and marginalized by those vibrant and ascending new information cultures — computer gaming, movies, music, graphic design, software, popular culture, the Net and the Web. A generation without a common information structure is by definition alienated. This has profound consequences for any democratic society, almost all of them bad. Itís had ugly implications for the future of journalism, too."

Success for any organization depends on confronting the crucial issues. USA TODAY reaches to do so now as it did 20 years ago. It does so because of the abundant opportunities presented by a revolution in communications. It does so because one person broke out of many boxes and showed a few others why and how it must be done.

You can be a network as soon as you understand why presses should be rented, or, now, how television news audiences can be reached by print reporters.

With enough time and thought, industry mainstays such as weather data can be improved. This was fun and part of a wonderful legacy of innovation. Even on a bet-your-career crusade, it pays never to take yourself too seriously. Other attempts at breakthroughs, including a two-sided editorial page, were all about substance. Ultimately, it was the writing that most resonated with readers and most grated on the high priests.

Ben Bradlee said that USA TODAY has "proved something about story lengths that I can only envy. A lot of newspapers, mine and the Los Angeles Times included, run these interminable stories that Iím absolutely convinced nobody reads. I think stories can be shorter and that you distort your paper when you donít discipline them to be shorter. Theyíve handled that well."

Yes, only a great journalist could defy convention to make that connection to readers and and enduring contribution to his profession and his country.


USA TODAY's Tom Curley to receive USD Neuharth Award
News release Newspaper's president and publisher to be honored Oct. 8 on the University of South Dakota campus.  09.11.02